I don’t have the background people in publishing have,” literary blogger Jessa Crispin freely admits. “Bookslut is on the outside: we’re not located in New York, we’re not print, and we take things less seriously than the New York Times Book Review.
“But that’s why we became popular. I talk about books in a casual, off-the-cuff way. We’re making book reviews more accessible without dumbing it down. That’s what was missing in the national discussion of books,” explains the 29-year-old founder of Bookslut.
Bookslut.com, one of the first of the scores of literary blogs that have proliferated on the Web in recent years, is regarded as one of the most provocative and, at the same time, erudite of the book review sites. Bookslut has no fulltime employees other than Crispin, whose stable of writers has now grown from two five years ago to 30 to 40. Their reviews, features, interviews and columns are read by 8,000—9,000 unique readers each day.
According to Crispin, reviewers—whom she pays with books, though feature writers receive cash—select the books they wish to review. But Crispin reserves the option to publish the review or not.
Bookslut was created out of boredom. Working as a fund-raiser for Planned Parenthood in Austin, Tex., six years ago, Crispin started writing book reviews on her blog because, she said, “it took me one hour to do my job and I needed to fill the other seven hours. At first, it was an experiment, a timekiller.”
Six months later, Crispin’s online musings were receiving up to 1,500 unique hits each day.
Although at the time she launched Bookslut, Crispin had no prior professional experience reviewing books, she describes herself as possessing the one essential quality necessary to any aspiring book critic: she’s always been an “omnivorous” reader, who “reads across the board”—everything from graphic novels to academic tomes to fairy tales. As a toddler, in fact, Crispin cut her literary teeth, so to speak, on “hardcore science fiction” such as Dune and Isaac Asimov’s short stories, because her father—who wasn’t into children’s books—“read us whatever he was reading at the time.”
After moving to Chicago in 2003, and not wanting to search for another job like the one she’d left in Austin, Crispin went full time with Bookslut and she began accepting ads to support the site and herself. That same year, Time.com named the site one of 50 Best Websites: “A highly readable blog that will keep you in the literary loop,” and praised its “smart book reviews and commentary.”
While Crispin argues that “delivery systems have changed,” she maintains that there’s room for both traditional print reviews and literary blogs, pointing out that she reads both the New York Review of Books and the New York Times (online, of course). But Crispin bluntly describes the ongoing debate over the legitimacy of book reviews written by literary bloggers as a “fear-based” controversy, fomented by “lazy-thinking” print reviewers.
“All the critics whose jobs are in danger are turning on the Internet as if it were some invading force,” she complains. “It’s just a different medium.”
Pointing out that, of course, the quality of online reviews varies, as does the quality of print reviews, Crispin emphasizes that, by focusing on the “crazy bloggers,” critics of literary blogs are “ignoring real problems and acting like cranky old men.
“We’re not talking about books. Can we talk about books again?” she asks rhetorically, mocking the dwindling numbers of print media book critics who refuse to take literary blogs seriously, “until they’re forced to start their own.
“It’s about quality,” Crispin says. “Things of quality will always find a following.”