Jessa Crispin, world traveler and occasional Chicago resident recently shuttered her website Bookslut, a review and interview publication that’s been running hot since 2002 (full disclosure: I wrote for Bookslut over the course of several years).
She’s the author of The Dead Ladies Project, an account of her travels abroad fused with literary criticism and biography. Given Bookslut’s demise, I sat down with Crispin after digging through her first book.
I came across a recent interview you did at Vulture so I’m cribbing a bit from that but what stood out to me was the genesis of Bookslut. You were with a dude and he had a boring blog and you felt you could one up him thus birthing the website-formerly-known-as-Bookslut. What does boring mean to you? Do you fear being boring?
I’m not afraid of being boring so much as I’m afraid of being bored. It’s why I travel so much. What’s boring in one city (going to the grocery store, standing in line at the post office) is an adventure somewhere else. Nothing is boring when you are terrified.
At the time, and this is 2001 – 2002, blogs were mostly diaries. I ate this, I saw this, I listened to this, the end. And there were some really interesting diarists, but for the most part, that was not interesting. I would have been bored trying to write up my day. I went to my job, I spent five hours entering donor names into a database, I am still poor so it’s black beans and sweet potatoes for dinner again, amazing. Plus I was never someone who could put her life on display in that naked way. At least give me a silk scarf and a nice hat.
Books were interesting to me, thinking and talking about books was interesting, so that is the direction I went in. There wasn’t much there online at the time that focused on literature. Moby Lives, I think, was the only place I knew about.
I think the boring/bored distinction is important, though, because “boring” implies knowledge of an audience, or at least the expectation of one. I never expected an audience, the blog was originally just a thing where I had a (one-sided) conversation with my sisters and a few friends. Back then, a person’s intentions for doing things on the internet really were entirely different.
I remember having a near masturbatory infatuation with the internet in the very late 90s, then a cooling off point in high school, and then it became as familiar as my right arm once I got to college. At each stage things online just had a different feel. Some was technological (dial-up giving way to DSL giving way to WI-FI) but most of it was just what one could do online. How do you feel that people’s intentions have changed?
Well, no one in “power” paid attention at all to the internet, so you could do whatever you wanted. It was never going to lead to anything, professionally, so you could just fuck around, say whatever you wanted. For a very long time there was a real hostility toward internet book culture from print culture and the publishing establishment. Smart people in print said really stupid things about the internet.
If nothing mattered, then you could have fun. You — or I — didn’t think about things in the context of building a career or a brand or whatever, because it just was not really possible that it would ever pay off. There was no money, so you could just have fun.
Once the possibility of money was introduced, then it got weird. And boring. Once the possibility of a book deal, or of being hired by a newspaper to be a critic, whatever, once that was dangled in front of internet writers, a lot of people fell into line. They cleaned up their act. Like the difference between what you would wear on a night out drinking with your friends versus what you would wear to a job interview. Blogs became job interviews. “Please hire me.”
I think that’s a pretty clean slice describing the freedom of the Wild West days of the internet. But that phrase “it was never going to lead to anything,” is interesting in light of my recent read of The Dead Ladies Project. Your travels mirror what you just said. You went abroad without a clear goal beyond getting away and you insert yourself into a different place without the expectation of a reward. Sure, there’s reading and research and drinking and sex but it’s not like a travelogue where the author had a precise objective of what they’re trying to milk for publication. What was it like curating these experiences into a collective, cohesive whole?
I don’t think it’s helpful to walk into situations with expectations. Not that it’s possible not to have expectations at all, but you can at least refuse to let them be rigid. Once you start thinking, oh I’ll do x which will lead to y, it blinds you to other possibilities and outcomes. Which are maybe more fun, more rewarding. Things do not work out for me when I try to make specific things happen. They only happen in the most roundabout ways. I think I want cake and I go out to find cake but I get cheese instead and then I think, oh wow, yeah, cheese was a better choice. If you are dead-set on cake, cheese is going to look like a fucking joke to you.
But that’s different than finding the thread of the narrative or idea after. Anticipating and reflecting are two different things. And yeah, some things have to be cut out because they don’t attach to the thread, even if those things were nice or funny or whatever, but it’s all about serving the idea or story. What are the things that happened to you that help you tell that story and what do not.
But what if you want cheesecake? Regardless, the locales covered in The Dead Ladies Project are quite different and I imagine the amount of traveling you did (and continue to do) is where reality clamps down like a steel trap. It’s hard to be bored, as you say, when you’re terrified in another country. Going beyond the book and more about the process of reflecting and editing your experiences are there things you regret including or which you could have included? What was left on the editing floor to use film parlance?
It wasn’t so much what was edited out as it was what was never included. And we’re talking a year and a half of travel and living, so of course there was a lot. There were two stays in Budapest, both for about two weeks long, that didn’t get included. I have a good friend there, and there is goulash and rosé wine there, so it was just a kind of recuperative thing. There was a trip back to the States to help celebrate the anniversary of my friends’ publishing company.
The biggest thing was there was this weird, terrible situation where someone important to me went overseas as a journalist and was taken and held hostage for years, and that was through that whole traveling time. So it just added this huge amount of anxiety and vulnerability to the process, but it couldn’t be written about of course because that would just swamp the whole thing. So it was creating emotional weather that couldn’t be acknowledged. But in some ways, that’s just how you live your life when something long term terrible outside of your control is happening, you have to sort of la la la your way through it, even with your mascara running down your face.
That sounds nightmarish but I’m interested in you bringing up vulnerability. Travel puts you into an unfamiliar situation where it’s easy to get misled or exploited. But you open up about this vulnerable state you’re in constantly throughout the book. Of course, as a writer you have the control to hide vulnerabilities. Considering you previously noted you weren’t into naked writing (preferring at least a hat and a silk scarf) what does being vulnerable as a writer imply? Is it the la la la with mascara or something else?
There is a difference between being naked and being vulnerable. Naked is almost like a performative exhibitionist. Everybody take a good look! And naked can be a way of denying vulnerability. You’re distracting them with your tits so they won’t notice the blood under your skin.
Vulnerability is absolutely necessary or else why write? To make yourself look good? I see that a lot in literature these days, and that bothers me. Or, maybe I see it more on Twitter than actual books because I’ve kind of descended into reading mostly academic work these days. But everyone has that persona, everyone has that exhibitionist edge, but it’s filtered through this need to look good. To be pretty. To be envied. Vulnerability is letting yourself be ugly, letting other people see you be ugly. Not in the sense of being a monster and being applauded for that. Ugliness is something else.
I’m thinking of all the wonderful ugly writers I have read, from Kathy Acker to Marguerite Duras to David Wojnarowicz to Clarice Lispector. They weren’t trying to make themselves look good.
Do you think most, if not all writers adopt a persona in their work? That there isn’t always an intention behind what’s crafted? Or not at all? Or sometimes? I’m asking since some writers seem out of sync with what’s on the page and others line up to where the text and person are in harmony.
I think you have to create a persona on some level to survive the experience of being published and read. If there wasn’t some sort of constructed distance, it’d be hard to deal with the process of being reviewed, being edited, being packaged, etc.
I think this might lead me to the homestretch of our conversation. As someone who has earned her place in the wider culture initially as a reviewer and publisher of reviews via Bookslut, what do you do as you approach a text? Are there certain things you need to keep in mind? Certain things you think you owe the author (or the author owes you) when you sit down to read and write?
I don’t know how to answer this, because I never actually felt like a critic. I am one, I guess, but it’s not a thing I think about seriously, as in, I don’t have a philosophy of criticism. When people use the word “text” to mean, a piece of writing, I roll my eyes. I take it seriously, but that doesn’t mean I take myself seriously for doing it.
If you’re iffy on calling yourself a critic, what would you call yourself to sum up what it is you do?
I do a lot of different things, so I don’t tell myself, Oh I am a critic or I am a writer or I am a special magic puppy unicorn with bat wings or whatever. I do a lot of different things from writing to editing to tarot card readings to art collaborations. Just letting myself be who I am feels like enough of a label.
Puppy unicorn sounds pretty great though. Regardless, before I let you go do you have future travel plans? Revisiting old haunts? Blazing new trails?
Oh yeah, in two weeks I leave for the summer, a little introduction to Byzantium. We’ll see how it goes.