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Editor Stephen Elliott on sex, the Rumpus and literary culture

April 10, 2009 |  8:51 am
Stephenelliott Stephen Elliott is not just the author of seven books, including "Happy Baby" and "Looking Forward to It" -- he is also the founding editor of the Rumpus, an online literary and culture magazine with bite. Along with high-profile contributors such as Rick Moody and Jerry Stahl, each of whom has a column, there are pieces published every day about books or music or art or politics or film or sex. On Saturday, April 18, the Rumpus, which is based in San Francisco, holds a fundraiser in L.A. at the Steve Allen Theater ($10), featuring readings by Janet Fitch, Jerry Stahl, Aimee Bender, Josh Bearman, Zak Smith, comedy and a performance by air-guitar champion Dan Crane.

Jacket Copy: How did you come up with the sections that make up the Rumpus? What magazines, online or print, do you consider it in dialog with? Or does it stand apart?

Stephen Elliott: The Rumpus really started with me talking to Arianna Huffington about joining the Huffington Post. I had just finished my latest book, a memoir coming out this September ["The Adderall Diaries"]. It was November, the election was over, and I didn't know what to do with my life. I didn't want to start another book. I wanted to move into editing for a while. I met with Arianna a couple of times, and I'd have sheets of ideas for a HuffPo book page. I told her I wanted to review books that weren't getting any attention, that any book out less than a year should be considered new. I wanted a special section called "Better Late Than Never." And after a little while I knew she wasn't going to do it the way I wanted it. And it didn't take long to realize I wasn't capable of working for someone else anyway. Also, the fact that I had so many ideas convinced me I should just start my own magazine.

The other thing going on during that period was I was surfing the Web a lot. While I was working on my book I didn't even have a browser on my computer because I needed to focus on my book. When that was done, and I was online a lot, I couldn't find many frequently updated pages that I wanted to visit. There was too much garbage to wade through (though one man's garbage is another's treasure).

I think the Rumpus is really a response to what's missing on the Internet. The Internet was supposed to diversify content, and it did as far as blogs and very specific pages. But for magazines it's had the opposite effect. All the major online magazines are focusing on the exact same stories. There are a lot of interesting people out there, and books and films. I don't think the other online magazines are putting enough of their resources or space into covering these people and these art projects. I think they're too busy following "what's hot." I mean, not to be a jerk, but I knew if I opened Slate yesterday I would see a picture of Obama. And I love Obama. But really, an article about "Obama's new habit of exaggerating his opponent's claims." Who cares? At the same time, Salon was leading with an article on PTSD (important and relevant, I admit that) and followed with Keith Olbermann's "scathing criticism of Obama." Everybody's writing about the same things, introducing us to the same people. And these are places with paid staff, offices, marketing executives. The Rumpus is not a place with paid staff. Yesterday Huffington Post led with Geithner and Obama. In entertainment their top story was Lindsay Lohan. The Daily Beast led with Obama + Lindsay Lohan converts to Judaism. The Rumpus does some famous-people stuff too, there are some famous people we like, and I even mentioned Eminem in yesterday's Morning Coffee. But you have to admit, it's a fairly small slice of our total content. And we will never make the mistake of trying to co-op pop culture with some clever article on Paris Hilton. You don't co-op pop culture, pop culture co-ops you.

We focus on regular culture, not pop culture, and we try to introduce people to art they might not have heard of. At the same time, we kind of follow the rules of the Internet, which are still being formed. Our target audience is smart temps. We update at least 10 times a day. Our original features and interviews tend to be around 1,500 words, intelligent content you can read while your boss is focusing on something else. If you're wasting time, it's better to waste it on the Rumpus reading an oral history.

JC: The Rumpus includes multiple pieces that frankly discuss sexual attitudes, and sex. How does this fit into the larger cultural discussion?

Elliott: I should have a better answer to that question. I think sex is so central to human motivation; it intersects so frequently with music, writing, and art. Our attitudes toward sex inform everything and public sex figures like Lorelei Lee, who is also one hell of a writer, often drive the dialogue about how we relate to the world. That's especially true now that sex information and porn are so ubiquitous. 

Or, it might just be a topic I'm interested in. I was a sex worker in my early twenties and how that shaped me has been a topic I've explored a lot in my own work. In many ways the Rumpus is just the online magazine I want to read.

JC: Rick Moody and Jerry Stahl are rock-star authors. Does it take huge stacks of money to get them to contribute?

Elliott: Nobody at the Rumpus gets paid, including Moody and Stahl. Though if we ever made real money (above, say, the $30,000 I need to pay rent and live in San Francisco) we would all share it.

Rick and Jerry were instrumental in getting the Rumpus started. I had just begun the site in beta mode in early December when Rick and Jerry told me they would like to do regular columns. That was when I knew I was in too deep. Now I had to make it happen. Who wants to let down Rick Moody and Jerry Stahl?

But the reason they want to contribute to the Rumpus is because it's a Web magazine that takes good writing seriously. A place where sentences actually matter. We'll publish something just because it's well written. We have no interest in breaking news or being the first to report on something. 

A lot of literary writers know they have to start publishing online, but they don't want to publish something beautiful and introspective next to some television actor giving his opinion on the banking crisis.

JC:
You've taught writing at Stanford. What kind of a role do you see younger writers playing in the Rumpus? How do they fit into its audience?

Elliott: The Rumpus is a great place for younger writers. For one thing, we edit. We'll work with a writer to make his or her writing better. Younger writers often come in with fantastic ideas and essays full of energy and needing a little guidance.

And the Rumpus is just a really supportive place. We're trying to do something good. All we care about is quality. We're kind of approaching the Rumpus the way you might approach writing a novel. You work on it for a year or two, you don't know if anyone will like it or if it'll be any good. You reread every word and try to create something worthwhile. It's good for a young writer to work in an environment like that, where quality is the most important thing.

JC:
As traditional models of journalism and cultural criticism are proving shaky, what is the business model of the Rumpus? (the answer is after the jump)



Stephen Elliott: People keep asking me this ["What's the business model?"], and I've been writing about it in the Daily Rumpus, our e-mail newsletter. I don't know the model. I don't like a lot of advertising and I don't want to be beholden to corporations. I don't mind a little bit of advertising, but I don't want to smear it all over the page and I only want to advertise cool things, like books.

So maybe the model is I continue to keep my expenses really low, sharing a one-bedroom apartment with my young hipster roommate, and we do a bunch of events to pay for things. Maybe as the Rumpus gets bigger the events will get bigger. We have a huge event in New York May 30 featuring Amy Tan, Todd Barry, Eugene Mirman, Anthony Swofford, and Matthew Caws from Nada Surf. There will also be two special guests we can't announce until a week before the show, but definitely best to get early tickets to that one.

Or, maybe as we work on making the site really good, the model will present itself. We're learning so much so quickly. We've only been live a little over two months. There are so many directions we could go in. And it's so early still for Internet magazines.


But, as I mentioned, this is really no different from being a novelist. I mean, what's the business model for being a novelist? The business model is don't live beyond your means.

Jacket Copy:
The Rumpus was online in beta mode for several weeks before launching officially. What purpose did that serve?


Elliott:
If I were giving a seminar on how to start a website, which would be ridiculous, I would talk about the importance of launching a site this way. We were gathering content as we worked out our design. Because of that the content pushed the design, not the other way around. The Rumpus is a content-driven magazine. We will never have more people working on technology or design than we will writers and editors. 

Anyway, the worst thing you could do, I now realize, would be to launch a site without content. You would have to completely redesign it, which would have been out of our budget. 

It was actually Ben Brown's idea. He's at XOXCO and is responsible for the design and back end of the site and he's kind of a genius. He did the site really cheap because we're friends. He was the one who told me to start gathering content right away rather than waiting for the site to launch.


JC:
Is it a challenge working with such a tight budget? For example, you have a lovely short piece about the author James Purdy, which cast him in a clearer, more interesting light than other obituaries I've read. Did you use personal networks to get that piece? Was Don Adams a stranger who just happened to submit it?


Elliott: Thanks! That is a beautiful piece of writing. Don Adams is friends with our poetry editor, Brian Spears. The thing about a short piece like that is he could probably have published it in a regional paper, but he wouldn't have been paid much for it, $25 or $50. I think he wanted to publish online, so it came out sooner and had more readers, and he wanted to publish it in a literary environment.

The people writing for the Rumpus are literary writers. We're kind of a different breed from journalists. I don't think literary writing has ever been a good way to make a living. That's why most of us teach or do technical writing on the side. There's probably less than 10 people in America making a living writing book reviews. 

In general, poets and short-story writers write incredible book reviews and essays. Whatever they're doing to get by in their life is tied up in something else so they can really focus on just doing good work that they're proud of.

It's a hard life being a literary writer. Very hard to make a buck. But it's been that way for a long time, I think, even before the Internet.

When you don't have a budget you have to be really appreciative of the people working for free. So let me take this moment to say thank you Julie Greicius, Scott Hutchins, Dan Weiss, Isaac Fitzgerald, Bekah Otto, Jesse Nathan, Ainsley Drew, and Michelle Orange. I should carry a list of people to thank in my pocket at all times because really there is no Rumpus without them. It's really a group endeavor.


JC: The Rumpus is set up interactively, so readers can comment on any article; they can even comment on your editor's letters. As an editor and a writer, what has it been like to get feedback? Do you consider the possible response as you plan what to say?


Elliott: This has been happening for some time. Whenever I write nonfiction I'm aware of commenters. I try not to let it affect my writing in a negative way. Often it's a really good thing because you stop and think, "Do I really mean that?" At the same time it's difficult because the author/editor is a public figure, and the Internet is home to a lot of anonymous rage.

The comments on the Rumpus are moderated. If someone says something nice or thoughtful and germane to the topic, we'll publish it. If it's critical and well thought-out, we'll publish it. If it's mean, we'll still maybe publish it, but not if it comes from an anonymous source. No anonymous meanness on the Rumpus.

JC: What have you found to be some of the most popular pieces so far? Have they generated the most discussion, or are the comments and traffic two separate things?

Elliott: Some of our most popular pieces have been written by our contributing editor, Elissa Bassist. She seems to be building her own following. Her essays about David Foster Wallace and interviews with comedians are really popular. (On a side note, comedians give the best interviews.) The oral history with Lorelei Lee was our most popular feature because it was linked to by all the porn sites. And lists type articles are really popular, like "Books That Changed the World." But you don't want to let that drive what you do. I despise lists ("Books That Changed the World" excepted). There's nothing worse than a Top 10 list. Occasionally it's done right, but usually it'll be something like "The 25 Best Books of 2008" in the Seattle P-I. The Seattle P-I probably didn't even review 25 books in 2008. I mean, how would they know? Lists are generally the laziest form of journalism and should be avoided even though they drive a lot of traffic.

Similarly, sex is more popular than books, but we're not going do sex articles just because they're about sex. They have to also be interesting. 

And as far as discussion, that also has more to do with how argumentative an article is. We might get a ton of readers for the interview we did with Malcolm Gladwell, but not many comments.

JC: What's the Rumpus' publishing schedule? I can't quite figure it out.

Elliott: Ha! We publish from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Pacific, Monday through Friday, depending on the moon. On Saturday, Brian Spears takes over as Saturday editor and he usually publishes three or four things in the Rumpus Blog. Sunday, we'll often have one or two pieces prepped ahead of time. I try not to work on Sunday.

A more detailed explanation is that there are three sections. Going from left to right on your screen, we start with the Rumpus Blog, which is similar to Harper's Readings in that we're linking to interesting, well-written stuff we like. We do six to 10 blog posts a day. Then there is Rumpus Originals in the middle. We'll run one or two original articles, interviews, reviews, every weekday, and often one on Saturday. Then there's Rumpus Columns on the right. The frequency of the columns has everything to do with the columnist. Whenever Rick Moody writes a "Swinging Modern Sounds" for his music column, or Jerry Stahl writes a "Post-Young" for his column on aging, we run it. We have two cartoon columns now that are weekly. There are 15 columns total, and we probably average one a day.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Katherine Emery

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