Back in August of 2009, Jessa Crispin, the founder of Bookslut.com (I wrote a comics column for them for a year) posted a short essay on The Smart Set about writing and the writing life that referenced Booklife, largely in a negative sense. This caused me quite a bit of anguish, to be honest. It’s one thing to get a negative review on a novel; it’s quite another to think, even for a second, that you might have written something actively harmful to people.
I intended Booklife as a helpful guide that combined advice on how to navigate your way through the myriad of potentially distracting and useless tools and opportunities provided by the internet with modern advice on a host of more personal issues related to writing and being a writer, based on 25 years of experience. Crispin saw it at least in part as potentially manipulative or cynical, and placed it in the context of the many new “get-rich-quick” books that detail how to do internet marketing and the like.
After a more careful examination of her essay, however, I came to the conclusion that a difference in defining terms like “contact” might be part of the problem–that, in fact, whether you were to call someone a “contact” or an “ally,” the same points applied: in all of your dealings with other people, whether about your work or generally, be a sincere human being.
Of course, there’s also the uncomfortable truth that no one is ever going to perceive your book exactly the way that you intended for it to be perceived. In coming into contact with the world the text changes, given an additional dimension by readers. Nor do I think Booklife is perfect–part of the point of the book is to continually test it, to not only use it but to also define yourself as a writer by what you disagree with in the text.
That said, I decided it would be interesting to interview Crispin about issues related to the modern writer’s life and Booklife. The results are great—rock-solid advice and insight.
At least one of her answers deserves special emphasis, since I think it’s becoming a major problem in the largely hierarchy-blind world of the internet: “I do worry a little that the modern age has taken the failure stage out of the creative process. Now if you can’t get your manuscript published, it’s because the publishers are cowards, can’t see your genius, and you can self-publish it (and then send out slightly crazed emails to critics). There is a lack of humility, a failure to recognize that getting knocked on your ass is actually good for you.”
There’s also nothing in her answers that I would disagree with; indeed, there’s nothing in Booklife that would intentionally contradict the idea of focusing on the craft and art of fiction over the need to promote your work. Does that mean I won’t be making some changes in the second edition? Not at all, and one of those changes will be to add an introduction to the Public Booklife section that references Crispin’s Smart Set essay, and makes doubly or triply clear the context in which I am providing that information.
So, without further preamble, an interview with Jessa Crispin—with sincere thanks to her for doing the interview.
How do you personally use new media? And do elements of new media help define you as a writer and editor? (I’m thinking in part of how Bookslut has shaped your image online.)
Jessa Crispin: Before Bookslut, there was no me as a writer. Other than high school newspaper stuff, I had not done any public writing. The Bookslut blog was, I think, literally the first writing of mine published since I was 17. And I didn’t have a drawer full of stuff, either, the impulse came as part of Bookslut. As a result, the idea of me as a writer is very tied into the blog, because that’s where I show up the most. My writing style was shaped online, which is maybe why almost all of my freelance writing is for websites: NPR.org and TheSmartSet.com, where I am their books columnist, the occasional other venue.
You indicated in your Smart Set essay that referenced Booklife that some of your students need reminding that the most important thing is the writing. Do you also have students who seem too unwilling to engage an audience, despite perhaps being ready to submit their work? If so, what do you tell those writers?
I should clarify that I don’t myself have students. I’m brought in occasionally to answer questions that writing students might have, to crush their hopes and dreams about making a living off of writing as soon as they leave their MFA program, but I have never really taught on my own other than a day workshop or what have you. But I have in my life met published writers who are very sketchy about engaging with an audience. They think the book should stand for itself, and that the publicity, the readings, the interviews, the blogs are all pointless.
Which is fine when you’re Cormac McCarthy, but last I checked there was only one of him. I don’t think that’s a horrible mindset, some people just aren’t interested, and are fine taking the hit in sales that causes. Maybe they have a day job that they don’t mind doing, that actually feeds their creativity. The writers, however, who don’t want to do the publicity drag but are also pissed off that the world does not instantly recognize their genius and throw money at them, they need to rethink things.
When do you think a writer crosses the line between helping a publisher sell their book and entering into a cycle destructive to their creativity?
When it starts eating into everything else that you do. When it’s always gnawing at the back of your brain, “Maybe if I talked to this person,” “Maybe if I rewrote this press release.” And when you start to turn into a dick. I have received nasty emails in my day from authors and publicists, demanding an answer as to whether their book would be reviewed or not. At the time, I was getting 30 to 40 books a day, and it would take me hours to email each one individually and let them know the book had been received, then whether or not it was selected for review, etc. At some point you have to realize that you can’t control what’s going to happen to the book, and start thinking about what project might distract you from this.
But speaking of entering a cycle destructive to their creativity:
we’ve seen writers become really unhinged last year, responding to their critics in these really embarrassing ways. Alain de Botton, Alice Hoffman, whoever else. A writer wrote one of my reviewers who had been critical of him and called her a “cunt.” That’s destructive to his creativity, because if I ever run into him, I am going to tear out his throat with my teeth.
In your Smart Set essay, you talk about a writer needing “allies” in contrast to “contacts.” I like the term ally because it gets across what I intended to convey about “contact”, but how would you personally identify manipulation as opposed to dealing with someone on a human level? (And does this mean that writers should always deal with people like reviews editors and bloggers through proxies?)
No, I don’t think that there should always be proxies. But how I would identify manipulation: There are always going to be people who come at you with an agenda. They want something, they are going to figure out a way to get it, and then they’ll either disappear or they’ll try to stomp around on you before they go. It’s the difference between treating someone like a human being—”Hey, I like what you do, maybe you’ll like what I do”—and as a tool—”Hi, my name is so-and-so and I am hoping you can assist me in advancing my career.”
I was having a conversation with a writer the other day, and he stated that the best things are always by-products. Happiness is a by-product, and I loved that he said that. You can plot your journey to success or happiness or wealth or whatever it is you’re looking for, but if you’re too focused on the end result, you’re going to miss anything good going on around you. (There’s also the fact that the end result will keep moving if you live like that. Okay, I got a four figure advance, now next time I want twice that, bigger press runs, and a New York Times review, then I will feel successful.) Not that we should all sing songs around the campfire and braid each other’s hair, but there has to be a combination of the two, forward motion and goal planning, but while taking a look at the people around you.
How much of an introvert or extrovert are you, and how does it affect your writing career?
I am an introvert with brief flashes of extreme extrovertism. There are generally one or two patches out of the year with intense travel, interviews, running around going to parties, and then after that I need the rest of the year to hole up and get work done.
Are there attributes a fiction writer either has or doesn’t have, that can’t be taught?
Yes, of course. Curiosity, wisdom, sensitivity…
In Booklife, identify curiosity, receptivity, passion, imagination, discipline, and endurance as the pillars of your personal booklife. Which of those attributes do you think are most valuable, and what would you add to them?
Everyone’s tool kit is different. But it’s mostly about proportion.
How much of this is being driven by my ego, how much am I influenced by wanting to fit in, how much work am I willing to dedicate to this.
What does the term “permission to fail” mean to you?
I had been reading this biography of W. Somerset Maugham, and for some reason in my head I had always believed that he met with instant success. It’s true he was successful quite young. He was breaking West End London theatre records, was writing bestsellers. But he also went through a period of serious rejection. He couldn’t get a play made to save his life, his autobiographical novel could not find a publisher.
And so he kept refining his craft. He finally found a mode of playwriting that suited him and was successful, and his autobiographical novel was refined into the pristine Of Human Bondage.
Without his early failure, we would not have that novel. I do worry a little that the modern age has taken the failure stage out of the creative process. Now if you can’t get your manuscript published, it’s because the publishers are cowards, can’t see your genius, and you can self-publish it (and then send out slightly crazed emails to critics). There is a lack of humility, a failure to recognize that getting knocked on your ass is actually good for you.
Are there modern tools for writers that you feel actually hinder or put blinkers on creativity?
Everyone gets their energy from different sources. What’s good for one person will be completely devastating for another. So no, I don’t think I can make a blanket statement about Facebook being evil, while Twitter is the light and good.
A lot of this has to do with the writer’s own self-awareness. And god, we all know people who don’t seem to have any whatsoever. I don’t know, do you really need a book to tell you that if you’re spending six hours a day fiddling around online to avoid doing your own work you should stop that?
In accepting the modern internet-driven paradigm of “writer,” have we lost anything?
Lost, no. Things just change, it’s not necessarily good or bad.
What is it about writing and books that you most love?
I grew up in a tiny town with no movie theater, no MTV, no distractions except for the library. I have always filtered the world through books, and I still do to a large extent. Writing is just an extension of that.
If you had to give a beginning writer five minutes of general advice, what would you focus on?
You have to do the work. Not just sitting down and writing, but educating yourself, finding venues that suit you, figuring out where you get your strength and then following that.