‘I Just Don’t Find American Literature Interesting’: Lit-Blog Pioneer Jessa Crispin Closes Bookslut, Does Not Bite Tongue

Photo: Chuck Kuan

In 2002, Jessa Crispin was a 23-year-old college dropout from Kansas working for Planned Parenthood in Austin. That’s when she started a webzine called Bookslut. It very quickly became a surprisingly big deal, at least in the small world some now called the Bookternet — which was really more an era than a place, a time when the web looked like the answered prayers of readers and critics in a shrinking print marketplace. Anchored by a blog, strongly skewed toward small presses, and branded with a nude sketch of a woman reading in bed, Bookslut made Crispin a pioneer in the online universe; like many of her peers, she gradually elbowed her way into the Establishment, writing reviews in major papers and two books, The Dead Ladies Project and The Creative Tarot. But the web has changed since 2002, for bookish writing as much as everything else, and last month, she announced in a laconic blog post that Bookslut’s May issue, which goes live on the site’s 14th anniversary, would be its last.

There will be a wake “for our dear little slut” at Brooklyn’s Melville House Books on May 6, and the archives will remain online “until the Apocalypse comes.” A few weeks ago, Crispin met us for a brunch-time exit interview in Fort Greene.

What are you doing in Brooklyn?

I’m writing a book that’s due at the end of May, and so there are a lot of meetings where my publisher [Melville House] has to take me to lunch and tell me I’m not a bad writer.

What’s the gist of the book?

That contemporary feminism is not only embarrassing but incredibly misguided to the point where I can’t associate myself with it. There’s outrage culture, safe spaces, the lean-in culture — but also the Gen-X-Baby-Boomer rah-rah capitalism, yay! And also a lot of misguided notions about gender. As if women are somehow more naturally empathetic than men, and all we need is full participation in public life and somehow the world gets better. Which is not the case.

Tell me why you’re shutting down Bookslut.

It’s just a really slow process. Running it takes a lot of time, and it makes no money so I’ve been pouring money into it for 14 years. We always were trying to figure out ways to keep it going. I had a meeting with my managing editor and we went through all these ideas and nothing seemed viable and we said, “Oh, we should just close it, shouldn’t we?”

What changes could you have made to sustain it?

Well, the only reason why Bookslut was interesting was because it didn’t make money, and when I realized the sacrifices I was going to have to make in order for it to make money, it wasn’t worth it. It used to be you could get an advertiser for a month; now it’s all directly linked to how many pageviews you get. So you can’t write about obscure literature that only ten people care about and make eight cents. You have to write about the books that all the people already know about. And then it just orients you toward clickbait, and you have to come up with stunts and your design has to be beautiful. The only program that actually gives you money is Amazon. We used them back when we were profitable — we paid some writers back when we were profitable — and then, at some point, I realized they were fucking trashing the industry. Then we switched to Powell's, which gave us absolutely no money.

Still, it was trucking along. Why end it now?

It was getting a little embarrassing. We had the same design for 14 years and the backend kept breaking down, and other people were doing these things not necessarily better — we were still covering writers no one else was — but just getting more attention. We weren’t taken seriously anymore. I guess we could have hired eight more editors that we didn’t pay. Which, it’s disgusting to do that. At the beginning it felt fine because everybody on the internet was there just to be there, but now that’s how people build careers.

Wasn’t it always a place to build careers?

No, I had no intention of doing that. I think there’s a difference between what I was doing and what (beatrice.com’s) Ron Hogan was doing — covering the industry in a very positive light, and he’s now an editor at a major publisher and that seems like what he was aiming for. Same with Mark Sarvas (of the Elegant Variation). He was just obviously trying to get a book deal.

Well you’ve gotten three book deals now.

I’m the man now.

That wasn’t your goal?

I never thought that it was going to be possible. I didn’t work in publishing, I lived in fucking Texas, and I had no connection to the literary scene at all. It was a thing you could do where nothing mattered. There was no big idea, no big scheme. I just wanted to talk about books with my friends.

And then it became your brand.

When I started to get attention, it was weird. Also very exciting, but I didn’t trust it, because I had no intention of getting attention. It got so much that I was unable to get employment. I moved to Chicago and tried to find work and they would Google my name and find that I had this whole thing going on the side. They would say, "I think it’s clear your attentions lie elsewhere." I had to make Bookslut work financially just so I could eat food.

What exactly made you start the site?

I was dating this guy and he had a blog and his blog was boring and I thought I could do better than that.

Blog envy! How quaint.

When I was a teenager, I would just pull out all the subscription cards of all the different magazines that looked interesting and that’s what I did with my allowance. And through them I discovered zines. Bookslut was originally going to be a paper zine — we even had a mock-up of the first issue. But I had crippling social anxiety and I couldn’t bear the thought of standing at a Kinko’s for an hour and making copies. So I just decided to put it online.

How important was the timing?

People who started blogging even a year after us didn’t have the same response because the audience got divided.

You think it happened that quickly?

Once everybody started blogging about books, you couldn’t get enough of a following to get anybody’s attention.

What about now? With places like the Millions, LitHub, and the L.A. Review of Books, a lot of people see a kind of boom …

It’s just taking the print template and moving it online. I see the Millions used on book blurbs now. They’re so professional, and I mean that as an insult. I didn’t want to become a professional. It’s like using the critical culture as a support to the industry rather than as an actual method of taking it apart.

You’re not a fan of the industry.

Part of the reason why I disengaged from it is I just don’t find American literature interesting. I find MFA culture terrible. Everyone is super-cheerful because they’re trying to sell you something, and I find it really repulsive. There seems to be less and less underground. And what it’s replaced by is this very professional, shiny, happy plastic version of literature.

When you were getting started there was a backlash against snark in criticism, both in print and online. Now there’s a backlash against boosterish “smarm.”

Well, everyone overcorrects, because we’re stupid and we don’t learn anything. At the beginning of internet culture, an easy way to get attention was to be mean. I was probably guilty of that at several points. But publishing at the time was kind of healthy, before the bankruptcy of PGW and before Amazon took over everything. There were still bookstores. Now there’s anxiety and the tendency is to close ranks. So you can say you’re only gonna publish positive reviews. You’re only reviewing friends, friends of friends, people in your network, people whom you want to make happy. That’s not criticism. I don’t find either extreme all that interesting.

What are you proudest of having accomplished at Bookslut?

I don’t know, just that we existed at all seems like a nice thing. I’m proud of the fact that we covered women, work in translation, and writers of color, and we did it without being fussy about it. In traditional ways, we were not a success. We didn’t make money, we weren’t a major influence, and we didn’t launch great writers into the system. And yet it gave me my entire life. It introduced me to everyone who’s important to me at this point. But it also created a sense of community that’s not just about having a career or my bylines. I see young writers all the time who are overwhelmed by the need to brand themselves, to get their career going, to build up to respectability. I don’t think that’s healthy.

What do you advise to do instead?

There’s always space to do whatever you want. You won’t get as much attention, but fuck attention. Fight for integrity. Now everyone has a TinyLetter instead of a blog. As soon as the first writer got a book deal for a TinyLetter, everyone’s TinyLetter just became book-deal bait, written the same way. This weird conformity just takes over as soon as the possibility of money or access or respectability comes up. That’s disappointing.

But there has been progress on certain things Bookslut fought for — diversity of not only gender and race but also genre — don’t you think?

Yeah, I do. It was really rigid when we started — there was a sense of covering your own niche. You wrote exclusively about comic books or science fiction, and there was that closed-off community and you didn’t interact with anything. And then some interesting writers did some interesting things with crossing boundaries. Lots of not very interesting writers also did that. But yeah, it’s more interesting now.

The lit blogger Ed Champion was one of your peers. Do you think his crackup in 2014 felt like some kind of turning point?

I think that’s true. The weirdest thing about Ed was that he had insight, but it was just clouded with hatred against anybody who had something more than he did. I think it was revealing of the kind of overwhelming envy that the internet crew had for print culture. The hostility was based in an envy that most people did not want to admit to. Emily Gould in some ways wasn’t all that different from Ed. She became famous and had The New York Times Magazine piece and the six-figure book deal that he didn’t have. It just ate at him, but it eats at all of us. I think dark thoughts all the time, but I just keep them to myself.

You did once say reading Dale Peck made you want to slit your wrist. But then he called you “ditch-dirty stupid.” It actually got you a lot of attention.

Yeah, that felt terrible. I mean, whatever, I started it. I don’t mind controversy as long as there’s a conversation happening. But then it became two people hurling insults at each other through the press, which is not interesting.

A couple of newspapers refused to use the word Bookslut, and so did your parents. Did you ever regret the name?

No, fuck them! I was working at Planned Parenthood — at the time, it was like a babe space. One time my co-worker gave me a pap smear during a meeting. It was just a weird commune mentality, so it didn’t occur to me, honestly, that it might be a problem. Why wouldn’t you be totally comfortable with your co-worker swabbing your cervix?

You still edit a literary journal, Spolia. What will become of that?

I haven’t decided yet. I mean I have to pay translators and I have to pay the designer and all that kind of stuff. I’m not a very good businessperson.

You’re pretty well-known for your tarot sessions; your book The Creative Tarot was widely written about. That must pay pretty well.

It does! It’s doing okay.

Does it get in the way of writing time?

No, it helps the writing. Most of my clients are writers coming with creative problems. To talk through somebody else’s creative problems makes you more perceptive about your own. Plus it’s a nice break. It helps you get out of your head.

Speaking of that, Spolia’s mission statement deplores “personal essays” where writing is reduced to “self-expression.” But so many Bookslut essays were first-person — which I thought was meant as an antidote to professional criticism.

Right, The New York Times Book Review was “I am God.” There wasn’t a sense of the personal. At the time, I wanted more about what a book means to us without dragging authority into it. Now it’s overcorrected, but for example, there was an essay in the Walrus recently that was like, “Stop talking about yourself in reviews!” I don’t think that’s thoughtful either. There’s a way to do it and be smart about it.

What do you think would have become of you if not for Bookslut?

I’d probably still work for a nonprofit.

You don’t think you were destined to be a writer?

Not if I grew up in Kansas. I would think if the gods had decided that about me they would have put me in New York.

Right at the heart of publishing.

I went to a publisher’s offices and it was a sea of 23-year-old girls in H&M sweaters — just being run by every stereotype I had in my head.

You didn’t wear H&M at 23?

We didn’t have an H&M when I was in Texas. Now they do.

You’ve been pretty down on publishing here. What do you like?

I don’t feel like publishing is going to be terrible forever. Now I think fiction is more interesting internationally, but there are so many great nonfiction writers here.

I really like Tumblr, because I can see art juxtaposed next to words. I really enjoy that more than Twitter, which is just linking to fucking things. I really like magazines. Frieze is one of the best magazines in the world. I applied for a job there just because I liked it so much, but then I realized that I can’t leave the country if I have a job.

Any closing thoughts on your blog of 14 years?

I don’t know. I had a good time.