In late October, on the New York uberblog Gawker, a young writer named Jessa Crispin became the latest target of author and critic Dale Peck's famously vicious verbal abuse. Peck, the subject of a recent New York Times Magazine profile, is perhaps best known for his starring role in an ongoing lit-world debate over harsh reviews, or "snark," which many say began when he kicked off his June 2002 New Republic review of Rick Moody's The Black Veil with the fighting words "Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation." Peck had never heard of Crispin before Choire Sicha, his interviewer (and roommate), told him during an IM interview that Crispin had trashed Peck's oeuvre and called him a "twat" to boot. But he was ready with a comeback: "i can see that someone who appears to be as ditch-dirty stupid as jessa crispin wouldn't get what i'm doing," he typed, and then, several paragraphs later, "i think that people like jessa crisp-tits dislike my books precisely because they like books by industry favorites--they've had their tastes co-opted, as it were."
Crispin, an unemployed 25-year-old college dropout, is the editor in chief of Bookslut, a Web zine and blog that she runs out of her basement apartment in Andersonville. "Dale Peck called me ditch-dirty stupid," she posted that same day. "I feel I have achieved my purpose in life."
Crispin's not easily cowed. In the 18 months she's been publishing Bookslut, she's taken aim at literary targets large and small with the wry confidence and rhetorical dexterity that characterizes the best of the blogosphere, not to mention a breadth of erudition that would knock Dale Peck's preconceptions sideways, were he to actually read the site.
"Where to start on this Dale Peck profile?" she wrote in the post that so got Peck's goat. "His reviews, or hatchet jobs as he likes to call them, are so graceless, so bitchy, so unrefined. While [fellow New Republic critic] James Wood sticks to the target and hits it effortlessly, Dale Peck gets piss all over the rim, your bathroom rug, places you'll be cleaning up for days." Not to mention, she added, "his books suck. Not even good enough to be trashy. I tried to read The Law of Enclosures until I noticed I was using the cover to try and saw through my wrist."
Ever since March, when Heidi Julavits, coeditor of the literary magazine the Believer, appropriated the term snark to describe the "hostile, knowing, bitter tone of contempt" that she argues is threatening the enterprise of book reviewing, a wild and woolly debate on the nature and purpose of criticism has barreled through the literary community. Are book reviews too mean? Or are they too puffy? Whose interests do they serve? The readers'? The author's? The critic's? For months now pro- and antisnark pundits have weighed in on these and other questions in just about every publication with New York in its title, a few alt-weeklies, and (most rabidly) on Web sites, blogs, and chat rooms across the Internet, producing an impassioned, seemingly unstoppable loop of posting, cross posting, linkage, and feedback.
"Most of the time the problem is reviews aren't harsh enough," Crispin wrote in May. "Not that every book deserves to be skewered, but there are too many mediocre books that are touted as the Hot New Thing! and Best Book Ever! when really they're far from it."
"I love snark when it's brief," says Crispin now. "I don't like things like [Peck's review of Moody], which isn't even snark. It's foaming at the mouth. I think people don't understand, though, what's snark and what's not. To me, snark is what I do on my blog all the time.
"I'm conflicted on the whole thing, though," she continues. "I understand, you know, why bother doing a bad review of an unknown author or something like that. I mean, use your position to tout what you love. But at the same time, if you wrote a bad book--a really bad, offensively bad book--there's nothing better than a really juicy takedown. Like James Wood's review of [Zadie Smith's] The Autograph Man. I love that review. I want to hang it on my wall and frame it. But I do have to rethink it every once in a while. Like, when someone does a takedown of me."
A native of Lincoln, Kansas, Crispin spent two years at Baker University, outside of Lawrence, before she bailed to move to Dallas with a boyfriend in 1999. When the boyfriend didn't work out she headed downstate to Austin, toiled for a while as "a corporate whore," and eventually landed a job at Planned Parenthood.
She started a blog called Bookslut in early 2002 as a way to exchange book news and gossip with her sister Jen, a graduate student in environmental science at the University of Arizona in Tucson. By May, Crispin had redesigned the site as a full-fledged zine (www.bookslut.com), enlisting her sister and a friend, Mike Schaub, as coconspirators. "I didn't know of any literary Web sites I liked," says Crispin. "At least none that treated small press, comic books, and genre works as seriously as they did books released by Knopf. I figured it'd be a way to practice writing, talk about books, and scam free books out of publishers at the same time."
The first issue was pretty brief, comprising a column on post-9/11 comics collections, a now discontinued column by Crispin called Slut Lessons, something on her sister's crush on Sherman Alexie, and the first review Crispin ever wrote, of Andrew Solomon's treatise on depression, The Noonday Demon. ("It's dreadful," she says of that review. "It's poorly written, badly organized, and not completely coherent at all times. I keep wanting to delete it. But then I feel bad. If it's there to begin with, it should be there till the end.")
Within weeks of the launch, people were writing in asking if they could contribute. Nowadays the site's updated monthly and includes at least a dozen reviews of new fiction and nonfiction, and contributions from 11 columnists covering everything from cookbooks (Cookslut) to children's lit (Bookslut With Baby), plus Bookslut's "100 Books Project"--an endeavor inspired by the glut of "books of the century" lists that made the rounds at the turn of the millennium and in the service of which the Crispin sisters and Schaub have vowed to tackle their own list of 100 necessary reads. So far, the project's produced reviews of 29 books, including Crispin's hopping-mad summation of William Styron's Sophie's Choice as "a bad, horrible, terrible book."
Crispin adds to the blog every weekday with links to American and British lit-world news, jubilantly championing pets like multigenre polymath Neil Gaiman and Scottish novelist Alasdair Gray and lobbing the occasional hand grenade of scorn in the direction of heavy hitters like New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani and Salon's Laura Miller.
The site gets about 3,000 hits a day, and Crispin's regularly referenced and linked to by other "blogerati" like Brooklyn fiction writer Maud Newton and the anonymous host of the wildly popular and equally withering site The Minor Fall, The Major Lift. Time Online included Bookslut in its June list of "50 Best Websites," and the now defunct Book magazine pegged it as one of four notable book review sites in its November issue--along with Newton's, the Literary Saloon at the Complete Review, and the blog run by the East Waterboro, Maine, public library. Early this month the Complete Review, in its own roundup of literary Web sites, lauded Bookslut as "a must-visit."
"I like her site more than Moby Lives or the Literary Saloon because she's more of a pure blogger," says D.C.-based writer Ana Marie Cox, who runs a blog called the Antic Muse and has filled in for Crispin as a guest blogger on Bookslut. "She's randomly opinionated, and she seems really dedicated to posting about everything....Her tastes are really idiosyncratic."
Despite the accolades the site's collected, no one's making any money, but so far that's all right with Crispin. She's not really interested in making a living as a writer. She's tried, a bit, but says she's just too undisciplined, and lousy at networking. The site's just "something to do with my ADD tendencies," she quips. Plus, she adds, "I get to send e-mails to Neil Gaiman and he writes me back." Her expenses--hosting costs and postage--run about $75 a month, but they're generally covered by the money brought in through a referral arrangement with Amazon, in which she gets a cut of every book bought by a reader linking to the store via Bookslut. Reviewers and columnists are paid in books.
In September Crispin and her boyfriend, Kenan Hebert (Bookslut's Web master), packed up their Austin apartment, sold off a bunch of books, and moved to Chicago. Neither of them had a job, and until Hebert landed work a couple weeks ago (she's still looking), they spent a lot of time poking around the city looking at architecture and visiting cemeteries.
"We hated Austin," says Crispin. "There're so many nice things about it, but we weren't really looking for any of those things. It's great to raise children--we don't want children. If you're a tech person it's great, if you're into outdoorsy sports it's great, but we needed an actual city and Austin's not an actual city."
Much of her restlessness stemmed from her growing frustration with Austin's literary scene--or, more precisely, the lack thereof. "The Chronicle runs, like, one review a month maybe, and the Statesman runs 'This is the new book from Random House; this is the new book from Doubleday,' and they're all terrible," she says. "And there wasn't anyplace in Austin to contribute to any other publications. I managed to publish one review in the Chronicle for a pretty mainstream book, but I don't think I've ever seen them review a small-press book, unless it's by an Austin author. And I just don't like Austin authors."
Last January she and Schaub addressed an Austin American-Statesman article on the merits of chain bookstores versus independents. In a lengthy transcribed conversation on Bookslut, the pair waxed ferocious on both and--after lambasting the local independents BookPeople and BookWoman for shoddy service and crappy selection--came down squarely in favor of the chains.
The discussion prompted another Austin blogger to dismiss her as "litter-snotti" and generated a story on Bookslut in the Chronicle full of angry responses from the bookstores in question, whose proprietors said, in essence, that Crispin and Schaub didn't know what the hell they were talking about. "We were probably a little bit more mean than we needed to be," she says in retrospect. "But seriously, Austin has no sense of humor about itself."
The site's not without other critics. In September 2002 Bookslut inspired the wrath of a host of feminist readers with double-whammy slams of Inga Muscio's Cunt: A Declaration of Independence and Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards's Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future. Crispin called the latter "patronizing Feminism 101"; Schaub compared the former to "being stuck in an elevator with the most obnoxious gender studies major ever to attend college in western Massachusetts."
In flew the angry e-mails, but, at least in Crispin's case, it appeared the writers were enraged more by her steamrolling tone than by the substance of her review, which also contained a fair share of perfectly reasonable observations. "Their book is white, white, white," wrote Crispin, "with small token passages about women's involvement in civil rights, never mentioning whether these women identified as feminists....Whether Baumgardner and Richards want to admit it, feminism did shove race issues aside throughout most of its history. The women who fought for civil rights tended to do so separately from feminism because the white leaders just weren't interested."
"That was a bad month for the feminists," concedes Crispin.
As anyone who's ever played in a band, started a theater company, or lived in a group house knows, communities thrive on conflict as much as they're damaged by it, and the literary community is no exception. There's no real answer to the question of harsh reviews. The debate feeds on itself, as endlessly self-referential as the cycle of blogging that helps perpetuate it.
But some facts are undisputed. Newspapers have slashed their books pages in recent years, and as publishing houses further consolidate it gets harder for books from the margins, or anywhere outside New York, to get any ink. A 1999 study by the National Arts Journalism Project found that 40 percent of all column inches devoted to arts coverage in daily papers consisted of listings, and only ten percent to books coverage.
The other big problem with most book review outlets, says Crispin, is that "everyone wants to let the world know that they loved Fortress of Solitude. They also found God in the pages of Life of Pi. Do we really need the alt-weekly's opinion on that book?
"I'm sick to death of the Knopf books taking all the review space," she continues. "I love using Bookslut to rant about books that piss me off, but I also love making people take notice of books they might not."
Bookslut, says Crispin, is a totalitarian government, run by the fiat of one, but her mission is a lot more ecumenical than snap judgments like Peck's imply. "Why can't one site have everything," she asks, "and not treat comic books like they're dumb and science fiction like it's just for boys?" The November issue of the zine features interviews with Optic Nerve creator Adrian Tomine and critically acclaimed, utterly obscure novelist Kathryn Davis, plus reviews of the latest from former investigative reporter William Heffernan, poet Renee Gladman, and feminist academic Jane Gallop.
Crispin denies, however, that the instinct to favor the underdog over the heavyweight comes from any underlying political agenda. While she's not likely to assign a review of Ann Coulter, that decision, says Crispin, has as much to do with not wanting to waste space on a writer that ubiquitous as it does with her view that "opening [Coulter's] book immediately coats you with a thick, black tar that never washes off."
She'd rather spend her energy haranguing Bookslut's habitues to read Alasdair Gray's 1981 novel Lanark, out of print until last year, when it was reissued by Canongate. "How can I convince you to read Lanark, oh those who are resistant?" she wrote last week. "Can I say it's simply brilliant and delightful yet again? Can I promise to send you candy if you do? How about if I tell you I've gotten a dozen e-mails from people thanking me for recommending it and bringing it into their lives? Alas, the only power I have is to continue to link to every online short story, profile, interview, and review I can find on the old bastard. I will break you all down. Oh yes, I will."
"I'm not saying we're the light and the way," she says. "We've printed some dumb-ass reviews. But at least we have some fire, which is more than I can say about most book review outlets. It's like they're run by people who don't care about books. Possibly people who don't read at all. I think you can tell we're passionate about books. Sometimes that clouds our judgment, but at least it keeps things interesting."
To her critics she says, bring it on, though she's firm about keeping things in perspective. "I talk shit, but at least my e-mail is up and people let me know when I'm being an asshole. But when [people are] talking about how they want to bash your head into the concrete because you gave a bad review to a book they liked, there is a time when you just have to step away and do something in the real world. Like spend too much money on comics."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.