April 13, 2012
Charles Blackstone is the still-fairly-new Managing Editor of the now-iconic Bookslut, a pioneer of online literary culture. I was interviewed by Bookslut in 2004, after its founder and curator, Jessa Crispin, had recently moved from Austin to Chicago. Jessa, who has always struck me as a sexier version of a young Virginia Woolf, soon became a well-known figure in the Chicago literary scene—but Bookslut’s flavor has always been an international one. When your book is mentioned on the Bookslut blog, you get emails from everyone from Richard Nash to random non-writer friends teaching English in Japan. In a culture simply glutted with information, it still seems true that when Bookslut talks, people listen.
A couple of years ago, when Jessa took off to live in Berlin (simply because she wanted to!), she went through a couple of Managing Editors to hold down Bookslut’s Stateside front, before Blackstone—who was busy with his own fiction writing (he is currently shopping a second novel) and jet-setting in his own right (his wife is the celebrity sommelier, Alpana Singh, and the two seem to constantly be rushing off to Buenos Aires, Israel, London or Amsterdam)—stepped up to the plate. But I have long associated Crispin and Blackstone together—in fact, I met Charles at one of Jessa’s infamous parties back in her Chicago days, at her tiny, cluttered-with-books walk-up apartment, when I was eight or nine months pregnant and probably the only one there not utterly toasted, although for the record, I also believe I went European myself that night and had a couple glasses of wine. These six years later, even though they no longer get to clink glasses together very often, Blackstone and Crispin remain a savvy team keeping Bookslut thriving on two continents.
So Bookslut really was one of the pioneers of the whole online literary culture. Jessa was in her early 20s in Austin, I’m pretty sure just blogging in her basement or something, when all this started—now the site is pretty much an international arbiter of literary tastes, and Jessa is perpetually being brought out to places like Australia for various literary functions . . . Bookslut has gone glam, in other words, and this has been the case for a while, actually. Can you talk about the difference between the reality of running a highly popular and successful literary site versus the perceptions the sites readers might have about it? How grassroots and un-glam, really, is the process of running Bookslut on a day-to-day basis, both for Jessa out of her apartment in Germany, and you, here in Chicago?
When Jessa lived in Chicago and we were just friends-slash-professional colleagues, she always seemed to be off to some literary gala or cocktail or other. Regrettably, I have not received any of those invitations so far. I’ve often (half) joked that she took the scene with her when she went to Berlin. I think the glitziest thing that takes place since Jessa’s leaving is when she comes to Chicago and we go have four- or five-martini lunches. Now that I’m Managing Editor, we can discuss Bookslut business over the course of these lunches, which pleases my accountant. I think website “headquarters” are always a little more glamorous in the imagination of those imagining them then they really are. I don’t know how many of the Bookslut readers know we’re running things out of our apartments. Maybe people picture an office, a Mary Tyler Moore-esque newsroom, of sorts. I think much of the business in any industry, particularly in publishing, takes place over computers, most of which are, these days, portable, and so every Starbucks table is (secretly) a bureau of something or other. And our contributors are based in a vast array of cities, in the States and abroad.
What do you think distinguished—and continues to distinguish—Bookslut as a literary forum from the onslaught of other online literary communities and blogs? What accounts for the site’s staying power? (This is particularly pertinent to ask since its turnover in Managing Editors has been somewhat rapid in the past few years, so any insights into how the site retains its vision and continuity in the face of such transitions is interesting too!)
Jessa really is a preeminent critic and revered tastemaker nationally and internationally, and I think it’s her voice and aesthetic that draws the readers, on some levels, but also for the spectrum of voices among the contributors. The pieces we run range from, I don’t know, book-group colloquial to MLA conference paper-academic (well, maybe not quite that academic), and I think that resonates as well. The fact that there are 250,000 unique monthly site visits helps Bookslut from getting lost in the crowd. I think (hope) I’m a good fit because Jessa and I share a similar vision for the publication, and I have no problem deferring to her judgment, rightly, in editorial matters in which I might have a differing opinion (though that happens rarely). She typically agrees with me, though, and I agree with her, so I think we’re a good team. It wasn’t a clash of principles that sent the previous managing editors away. I think it was just a matter of this kind of work can take a lot of time, the kind of time that usually one can only expend if compensated accordingly. The previous managing editors also had full-time jobs and a desire to do other things with their free time, and you can hardly blame them.
Jessa’s tastes have veered, I’ve heard her say recently, away from American fiction and more towards European nonfiction. What are your own tastes? How much do various Bookslut freelancers have the freedom to shape the site based on their own penchants?
I guess that makes me a good editorial counterpoint, since I pretty much only read contemporary American fiction. (I received a copy of Jonathan Galassi’s new poetry collection Left-handed a couple of weeks ago and surprised myself by taking it up, but it reads like contemporary prose, so I still feel loyal to my beloved genre.) Occasionally I’ll point a contributor to a book, but really only if I know the contributor’s interests and background and feel comfortable enough with the person to make a suggestion. Recently a press publicist sent a copy of the new collection of Burroughs’s letters, and it occurred to me to ask your and my mutual friend and Burroughs scholar Davis Schneiderman if he wanted to cover it. He did, and the piece turned out one of our best ones that issue. Jessa also assigns books sometimes, more often than I do, since she knows the contributors better—and also knows what she wants us to feature in the issues—but largely the freelancers are the ones choosing books themselves and writing about the books they want to write about, so they’re the ones steering the aesthetic.
How does a stalwart like Bookslut earn its revenue? Is it entirely through advertisements? Walk us through what it takes for an enterprise like Bookslut to survive economically.
It is entirely through ad sales. I think Bookslut survives economically because there’s really no overhead beyond the domain fees and the contributors and staff (me) don’t get paid. The operating system is freeware, there’s no programmer (Jessa maintains the site herself), no office space to rent, and our collateral sites (Facebook and Twitter) are free. Viva la Internet!
One of the things that initially got me involved here at The Nervous Breakdown was my affinity for other members of the community, through relationships formed in the comments sections. I’ve always loved TNB’s comment culture, and I’m now the Sunday Editor at The Rumpus, where there’s an equally vibrant and supportive community. That said, I’m about to contradict myself a little when I say that perhaps one of the things that impresses me the most about Bookslut is its complete resistance to comment culture. Bookslut does not permit comments. There is no “community”—there are just writers and readers. This is so rare these days as to be almost an anomaly, and I kind of . . . love it. I won’t even read Salon anymore because it’s like the freaking Jerry Springer show of comment culture—so while I love a supportive community like the ones found at TNB and The Rumpus, the flip side of that potential can be such a trashy nightmare that it can very literally annihilate the class and quality of a publication. This isn’t so much a question, but can you just talk a little bit about the decision—which I assume was Jessa’s—to never move into the contemporary comment culture?
You know, I’ve never asked Jessa why she hasn’t made the site “interactive,” but if I had to guess, I’d say it’s now less a conscious editorial opposition to comment culture and more a mode that’s endured from the beginning with no pressing need to change it. In 2002 when she started blogging, nobody really read blogs, certainly not every day and numerous times a day like people do with Salon and the others, and so there was no need for it. I think the personality of blogs and websites has changed a lot over the last decade. Now everything online is supposed to be, or inspire, conversations, and I can only imagine that has an unconscious effect on the content being generated and posted. Maybe I’m remembering selectively, but that’s not how I encountered content ten or fifteen years ago. Back then you just kind of had people posting their ideas and a few people read them and that was that. So that became the character of Bookslut and sort of stuck.
What’s your stance on this, though, Charles? You’re known for being an extremely nice and helpful and positive guy, but you can also be a bit of a shock jock. You loved getting in fights on Facebook during election season in 2008! Are you in favor of Bookslut’s “distance” from its readers, or would you rather be mixing it up in the ring a bit?
I certainly was guilty of generating “content” on Facebook four years ago that I’d hoped would inspire conversation, but that was kind of a failed undertaking. As far as Bookslut goes, I kind of like how the reviews can just exist without being glorified or denigrated by the comments that might follow. It’s sort of like reading a print review that way. You pick up the NYTBR or the NYRB and you just read the review. If the review resonates, you go buy the book or read more reviews about it. If you think it was way off, you go buy the book (I always did, anyway) and find out for yourself (and maybe write your own review for Bookslut?). At your most vehement, maybe you write a letter to the editor. Now that you mention it, I kind of wish we had a letters-to-the-editor section, just to see what people think about the reviews. I’ve never received any emails from readers. I wonder if Jessa has. We are actually trying to make things more conversational and interactive by way of the new(ish) Bookslut Facebook page. We post links to select reviews from each issue, mainly to direct people who haven’t read them already, but it would certainly be nice if people used those posts as an opportunity to comment on the comment, if they saw fit. Jessa also is pretty active on Twitter (@thebookslut), and I imagine gets a lot of responses there from reader-followers.
How many freelancers, staff writers and editors work for Bookslut in total? And if I understand what you said previously—as is usually the case with online publications, even the giants like HuffPo, all the writers work for free, correct?
The April issue has about twenty-three or twenty-four pieces, done by about twenty-two contributors. I’d say roughly half of these are regular columns, a fourth regular reviewers who don’t do a regular column but submit reviews often, and a fourth new reviewers whom we hope will contribute again but may be just in it for one or two reviews. Nobody’s financially remunerated. We pay in review copies! (And for book junkies, that’s nothing trivial.) I think people do it for the love of the work and having a Bookslut credential on a bio or CV doesn’t hurt, either.
Bookslut has a lot of interesting features and tentacles, focusing on everything from cookbooks to YA literature to running a longstanding reading series . . . are there any new plans to branch out, currently, about which you could give us a preview?
It would be fun (or insanity) to do a book imprint, and something Jessa and I inevitably end up discussing over those long and boozy lunches, but there are no serious plans for anything like that currently. My long-term goal is to get more people liking and following the Facebook page. As far as the reviews and columns, the contributors’ interests dictate the trends, so who knows! We’re starting to bring back columns that have lapsed, like Daisy Rockwell’s White Girl with a Hindi PhD, and Charlotte Freeman and I have been in talks about how to take Cookbookslut in new directions. I miss the reading series—that was such an important thing for Chicago’s literary culture, when we had it here—but the only thoughts I’ve had for resurrecting it are for one-off events and nothing quite like the monthly juggernaut it once was.
You’re a published fiction writer who has also edited anthologies and is currently shopping a second novel. Running a huge, international site like Bookslut isn’t for sissies—what possesses you to take the time away from your own work and life to focus on managing the site and keeping its mission alive?
I feel like since I have the time to do it, at least at this point in my life, I should do it. When I don’t have the time, I’ll probably still do it. It’s work that makes sense to me to do and so it’s not really a burden. That’s not to say this work isn’t quite time consuming, but the consuming is more pronounced at certain times than it is at other times. There’s work for me to do every day, and things I end up neglecting every day, but that mostly consists of emails to and from publicists and publishers, posting things on the Facebook page, managing the giveaways we do there, and trying to keep reviews coming in for future issues organized in my computer folders. There was almost an problem when I was out of the country without good Internet and the deadline approaching—and Jessa was also traveling at this time, with unreliable Internet issues of her own—but it worked out in the end. Toward the deadline at the end of the month, I have to spend pretty much full days copyediting (and doing all of the aforementioned daily things), but I’ve gotten used to it. (If I didn’t put everything off until the last few days before the deadline, maybe I wouldn’t have to spend as many full days editing away, but, alas, I’m a shameless procrastinator.) When I have my novel revisions to do—or, gasp, when I begin something new—I’ll just have to make sure to do them before the days leading up to the close of an issue—or figure out how to go without sleep during those days until everything’s in.
Finally, tell me a few upcoming things readers should be excited about—interviews or reviews or features to get everyone to check Bookslut’s new issue out in May.
It’s still a few weeks away before I’ll get to see what’s going to come in May, but our April issue was one of the biggest and most interesting so far. Reviews of a new collection of Joe Brainard’s prose, Stacy Bierlein’s short story collection, the Pam Houston novel-memoir, a reissue of a Soviet-era Hungarian novel, interviews with Lauren Elkin, Genevieve Valentine, Joseph Harrington, and Kathleen Ossip, a round-up of a couple of books on high-stakes art theft. Cookbookslut goes to the farmers’ market (in Charlotte’s backyard), White Girl with a Hindi PhD returns with a discussion about orientalism, we celebrate Shakespeare’s and Nabokov’s birthdays in Star-Crossed, and a lot more.