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Episode LVII: [Insert inflammatory remark]

Published 5/15/16
In this installment, I speak with Jessa Crispin (again). Topics include her feminist manifesto, The Paris Review’s BORINGASFUCK coupon code, American fiction, FSG’s new experimental imprint, producing profit vs. good work, defining personal success & more.

Today I’m with Jessa Crispin, who’s on a sort of farewell tour, having just put an end to Bookslut, a literary website she founded in 2002. She’s making stops at The Guardian, New York Magazine, and more, dropping enough word-bytes to make click-minded headline writers salivate (i.e. “We’re not allowed to say the Paris Review is boring”, “contemporary feminist is not only embarrassing but incredibly misguided”). I interviewed Jessa last winter, and she was phenomenal, and I wanted to have her back to discuss closing Bookslut, what it feels like to capture the attention of the book world, what’s next and, of course, whatever else comes up. So: how are you feeling right now?

Well, I've opened a bottle of wine and apparently the Northern Lights are supposed to show up tonight, so I am feeling pretty good.

Okay, maybe I'll join you with these beers clogging up my fridge. The last few weeks have been an exciting time for you, and I'm sure there's some bittersweetness. What are the prevailing emotions around the closing of Bookslut, 162 issues since you launched it?

There was a lot of time spent crying. But then there were a lot of moments that just felt like, thank god that's over. There are definitely things I already miss about it, and then there are things I am relieved to be able to discard. So it's obviously a little bipolar. I felt sad editing the last issue right up until the grunt work, the actual formatting and database updating that always has to happen, and then it was just, let's get this over with. Right now, two weeks after its actual ending, I do feel a bit lost. The routine that really organized my daily life for 14 years is now over, and so I mean, what is it that people do with their spare time?

It's so easy to want, and so hard to spend. Well: what will you do with your spare time? You recently published The Creative Tarot, which was terrific—is more writing in the cards? You've been vocal about the contrived positivism and 'branding' today's writers go through to be publishable. Do you find irony in the fact you now have the sort of 'name' that would make it easier to go through the traditional publishing route?

Well, except I've used my brand to write one travel-ish historical work of literary criticism, a book about the tarot, and in two weeks I have due a feminist manifesto. So any outsider might say I am actively, aggressively resisting branding. To me it just feels like following my interests. I am interested in travel and the tarot and feminism and lots of other things. I'm lucky that in the last couple years I've been invited to write about these things. But I'm sure to a lot of people my career looks chaotic. It all makes perfect sense to me, I can say that.

We dipped a bit into your views on feminism in our last interview, and you've been blunt in your recent batch. I love what you have to say (though I feel a bit cagey about saying what exactly about it I love, as I am a man) and, if I can't get my grubby hands on an ARC, I will buy it the second it hits shelves. What should we expect from it?

We should expect it to be insane, I guess. I think what keeps getting lost is that I am 100% fierce fucking feminist, right? I volunteered as an abortion counselor, I taught sex ed to kids and church congregations, I worked at Planned Parenthood in education and fundraising, for 14 years I ran a publication that absolutely was feminist in both intent and expression. But. Being so close to something lets you see the cracks. And there are cracks. And I go after them, but I'm as much implicating myself as anyone else, for my failings as well as the failings of the movement. It's not done cynically. It's done because I care so much sometimes the rage comes out my eyeballs when I see it being used for useless goals. Like someone taking the Lord's name in vain.

And yet. Bringing the movement, or any of the movements, into the shade of realistic criticism will kick you off the mountain of shiny liberalism. And you've been kicked off.

Oh hell, I haven't only been kicked off, I've been soaked in gasoline and set on fire. But I'm better off than my friend Laura Kipnis, who was demonstrated against for writing feminist essays.

Good for you, good for Laura, and good for us. Speaking of mountains and clunky metaphors dealing with arsonicide, you finally got what I suspect must be pretty gratifying to you: The Paris Review has recognized your words, albeit in a resubtweet-cum-marketing mention; in response to you saying they were "boring as fuck" (or suggesting as much), they created a coupon code: BORINGASFUCK, on Monday. How did this make you feel? Have you been in contact with anyone over there?

It made me feel like the Paris Review is maybe run by children. And no, they did not get in touch. But also, it's not really gratifying because who cares if the Paris Review knows I exist? I honestly don't care. I wasn't throwing a brick through their window in the hopes they'd finally look up and see the real me. I was trying to make a point about how writers always have to be for sale, and that state of being for sale limits what you can say or do, and what do you know, the Paris Review overlooked all of that to offer themselves up for sale. If anything, it was a beautiful bit of obliviousness.

And if they did phone you (your favorite imagined mode of contact) tonight, asking for a column?

You're missing the point, which is, they wouldn't! I am not their type, as it were. (Sorry, was going to say something else, thought better of it.)

Who is their type?

Yeah, I'm not answering that. I guess what I was going to say was just that it's okay to say no to work when the publication's mission does not align with your own. It's okay to not make as much money or not get as wide an audience. It's okay to be unlikable and alienated. Sometimes you have to.

Fair—okay, next slide. I am generally on board with (or appreciative of) your more public beliefs, but there’s one I’ve had a hard time with. And that’s the idea that American fiction isn't good (putting it perhaps simpler than you would, perhaps not). It's not that I want to hold up this book or that book and say 'this is good', because you can't so easily do that. What I have hard time doing is identifying the mechanism or syndrome you're finding in the system that would remove hope.

Oh, I have hope. I feel like things will generally right themselves, it's just going through a bad time. Like I said at the Guardian, there are dozens of interesting, beautiful American novelists right now. But they're not influential, they're not getting big contracts, they're not part of the larger conversation. And they're sure as hell not being published by the big publishers. 

Okay, that clarifies. It's more a matter of exposure. As far as the 'big contract' for a book that's fundamentally interesting, I think that's a pipe dream. But to me that's more about the public. No?

Except that there are great writers, lots of them, who are completely ignored even by snobby, clique-y, internet book culture, too. I don't know. I could rant about this all day long, but it doesn't do any good. One thing I loved about Bookslut was doing the Daphne Awards, where we looked back at what won the big awards 50 years ago and what was actually published that year, because it was almost always something very safe and bland (and probably misogynistic) that won (John Updike, Saul Bellow), and that's who we think of when we think of great American literature, that is what is influential, those are our ancestors. And if you read what else came out those years, it's all this weird, experimental, crazy shit. And a lot of it has been totally forgotten. Each year we did it, it was like uncovering this alternate history storyline, where Clarice Lispector was the reigning Queen Bitch, and everyone wanted to be her, rather than this timeline, where I feel like way too many people are like, oh yeah, Updike, that's the motherfucker to emulate.

So then beyond writing, I can't imagine a future for you where you're not doing the same, championing work. Have you considered what it would be like to be an editor?

I have, but it's hard to balance that with the space and time to do your own work. Plus, it's not like my house is crawling with job offers.

You never know what could happen. Also (and I'm not saying this is some harbinger for times to come), FSG's new imprint 'experimental' imprint MCD/FSG seems like a turn of something in some good favor, a reaction to the fact a certain type of work is now destined to land at the indies. Does it make you optimistic?

Um, no? FSG's mission is to make a profit. That puts an expectation on the kind of literature they will publish, even if they call it "experimental." It's experimental that has a track record to sell. That's very different from, say, what Soft Skull was doing when it was in its glory days. Plus, if you google MCD/FSG, the first result you get is "Minimal change disease and focal segmental glomerulosclerosis," so.

Well that doesn't bode well. If profit precludes good work, then any successful house that hopes to grow to the point of hitting some public recognition will be unable to produce good work.

(Apparently, “Glomerulosclerosis is a general term to describe scarring of the kidneys' tiny blood vessels, the glomeruli, the functional units in the kidney that filter urine from the blood.”)

Profit does not preclude good work, but those are two different value systems. And when you value profit over good work, you will be conservative. Just because you move text around on the page, that does not make your work experimental. 

I could ask about MFA programs, but I think we know where that road's going. I have the sudden urge to ask how you define personal success, and so now I'm asking it.

Ah fuck me, really? I define personal success for myself as the ability to know I've done good work. That I didn't compromise my value system, that I didn't do something because it was easy. Success to me is not about money, or Twitter followers, or any of that stuff. It really just is, did I do the best I could? Then yeah, okay, this was a success. Bookslut was an absolute failure by all outside markers. But it was a goddamn success. We did the thing we set out to do. We did it well. I loved that fucking thing, even when over and over people tried to tell me what we were doing, what I was doing, was worthless. And I think of my book The Dead Ladies Project as a success! Even though there were plenty of critics who would prefer I think of it as a failure. 

It's not about fuck the haters, by the way. It's about, shutting all outside noise out, both the praise and the fuck yous, can I stand by what I did. And I do.

Last time I had you on, we talked a bit about anger, its use, necessity, and how the absence of it can make us internal to the point of severing creative instincts and connection. Do you think if Bookslut was celebrated from day one, read widely and a part of the public discourse (in any way literature can), your conception of it or the meat of it would be any different?

I doubt it, because we did weirdly get a lot of attention right away. We got coverage in the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Reader, Publishers Weekly, all this stuff. And I could have built on that, I think. Had I stayed in America, maybe moved to New York City, it could have been a Thing. But I realized along the way that doing that was not making me happy. And so I had to leave. There would have had to be compromises, of course, but that's why I left, so I wouldn't have to make them.

What does a compromise in that regard tangibly look like?

Well, like I talked about in the Vulture review, you have to skew your coverage to the reader. You can have the wild, weird stuff off to the side, but you have to pander. You have to cover books that are already being covered elsewhere, you have to do clickbait, you have to do all that professional stuff. You have to follow the online template. This is as much for getting advertising dollars as it is getting a wide audience. We never had much trouble with audience. People read us. But we definitely had problems making money.

Can you imagine a world where the wild, weird stuff would mean clicks would mean advertising dollars would mean publications would only care about producing interesting work? I have a feeling that would just be a different sort of hell.

No, and that's okay. 

Yeah, you do seem sort of okay with it all. Not even resigned. Just actually okay. Did this take time, or were you this way fourteen years ago?

14 years ago I was totally naive and stupid. So no. I really thought that the literary scene had to be made up of the smartest people, that it had to reward greatness, that it had to be this really cool place with good people. So that was a disillusionment process. Breaking up, a bit, with Bookslut to move to Berlin, that was basically the start of this process of accepting that we were not going to turn into the hot new powerhouse, that I wanted to do something else with my life than just run this site. So it took six years after that moment to be okay with ending things. So it was a pretty slow process.

There probably isn't a more banal thing to say right now than this, but I'm listening to a song and right as I read that the singer sang "It just takes time." We're nearly out of time, actually, and so I'll wish you off and wait for your next big move. As punishment for whatever you do end up doing, you have to come back and talk about it.

Punishment accepted.