The Decade in Literature

Books in the aughts were not all for naught: There were mega novels (like Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections” and Junot Diaz’s ‘The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao’), a boom in book clubs, and the birth of the e-reader. Joining me to discuss the ways culture and technology changed the ways we read and trade ideas about our favorite books (like the rise of the literary blog and the death of the newspaper review) is Jessa Crispin, who is the founder of Bookslut, a literary site and blog that began in 2002. She also contributes book reviews for the Smart Set, an online culture magazine.

I talked to Crispin by phone from Berlin, where she now lives and writes. (Full transcript after the jump.)

Editor’s Note: Art Beat talked to Crispin in March 2009 about Mary Gaitskill’s short story collection “Don’t Cry.”

JEFFREY BROWN: Jessa Crispin, welcome.

JESSA CRISPIN: Thanks for having me.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let’s start big. What about larger trends that you’ve noticed in publishing or the book world in the last decade?

JESSA CRISPIN: I would say that the most interesting thing to me has been the rise of the small publisher. It seems like the big publishers really started off the decade by eating up a lot of imprints, buying up some of the publishers and then homogenizing them, and they stopped taking really any big risks, and so you saw the small publishers coming in and filling in the gaps in publishing, the experimental fiction and the works in translation and stuff of that nature.

JEFFREY BROWN: With some success.

JESSA CRISPIN: With some success. They all seem to be weathering the economic changes at least ok. I mean, there have been some closures that have been unfortunate, and the university presses seem to be having a harder time, but small publishers like Soft Skull and Novel House, which have really been through a lot in the past several years, seem to be actually doing ok.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course the other big change in 10 years is well, I mean, that you do what you do and that a lot of people go online and read about books online in these blogs and online communities.

JESSA CRISPIN: Yeah. Bookslut started in 2002, so really we’ve, you know, we’ve grown up with the decade in publishing. And we were one of the first, so I’ve seen really the emergence of a huge number of blogs, and so now it’s, I mean, there are just absolutely hundreds of them, and they each seem to have their own little community, so it is interesting how that’s changed things, especially alongside the death of the newspaper review.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, speak about your own experience. What have you noticed about your audience or, either in numbers or its interests, the kinds of ways it might have changed since you started.

JESSA CRISPIN: Well, when I started the blog it was sort of like a way to kill time. I wasn’t taking it very seriously and so, until it turned into basically my day job as this ridiculous fantasy. You know, if I’d tried to do that I would have failed completely. And there haven’t been a lot of blogs or Web sites that have been able to do that. I mean, the ones that are major, the ones that get used as blurbs or they get freelance jobs, have been the same ones for the longest time. I mean, they were the first ones, like Mark Sarvis, Maud Newton, who came right around the time that Bookslut started. The newer ones really haven’t gotten as firm of a grip on an audience, they seem to be sort of smaller or more focused on a niche.

JEFFREY BROWN: I gather you hate lists. Everybody’s making lists now, but talk a little bit more about the kinds of books or trends in what’s being published. You were talking about the changes in the publishing world, but what about writing itself and the kinds of books that are either being written or that are actually sort of, I don’t know, reaching audiences or working with audiences now.

JESSA CRISPIN: Well, I think that maybe the biggest change has been the rise of the memoir. Really in 2000, there was still sort of the dominance of the novel. I mean, when Jonathan Franzen’s book came out, “The Corrections,” in 2001, that was a huge event. And we see that more with the memoirs now than you do with novels. I mean, there’s usually like one or two breakout things, like the Juno Diaz. But the rise of the memoir is like this autobiographical — and the misery part of it, as well. You know, you have like this sort of more literary memoirs and then you have the, you know, I smoked a bag full of crack or whatever, you know, the absolute degradation, let me show you all my scars kind of stuff.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you have some favorites over the last number of years that, particularly maybe some that were overlooked or that our people listening might not have come across?

JESSA CRISPIN: I would say that, I think maybe my favorite discovery of the last several years has been Kathryn Davis, who is criminally overlooked both by audience and by awards. She really writes these really sweeping, all encompassing books that are just so intricate and beautiful. I would say her books “The Thin Place” and “Versailles,” which came out, both of those came out this decade, are just phenomenal works.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ok, anybody else?

JESSA CRISPIN: Well, from this year the book that I was most impressed with is this nonfiction work called “The Master and His Emissary” by Iain McGilchrist, and its sort of this wacky theory about how the evolution of the two hemispheres of the brain has influenced cultural history. And it’s got a lot of reviews that are saying it’s not at all accurate. And I really am not up on neurobiology enough to know whether or not the theory is true, but it’s so ambitious and sweeping that you get something from it even if it’s completely bonkers.

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally, as you look ahead, I mean, you started by talking about changes of the last decade, if you look in the crystal ball, if you do, what do you see?

JESSA CRISPIN: Well, when I checked the tarot cards today…


JESSA CRISPIN: I think that things are going to continue to break out into little things. I think there are going to be fewer, you know, the giant bestsellers and more of these communities. These publishers, like Open Letters and Archipelago, who are doing these subscription services where you can subscribe for six months to a year and get every single book that they publish, I think that’s going to become more a trend, like each house is going to have such a cultured identity that you will be able to subscribe to it like, you know, a magazine or something like that. And I think that’s really interesting, but we’ll see how it, you know, how many of those can survive on such a narrow view of publishing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right, but a possible new economic model going forward.

JESSA CRISPIN: Yeah, and it’s interesting. I mean, we’ll see how it works. So far it seems to be doing ok, but it’s only been a couple years.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ok. Well, Jessa Crispin, thanks for joining us and Happy New Year.

JESSA CRISPIN: Thank you. You, too.

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