Criticism & Features


Conversations with Literary Websites: The Rumpus

By Mark Athitakis

This post launches a new series on Critical Mass featuring websites dedicated to book reviewing online.

The Rumpus, headed by editor in chief Stephen Elliott, launched in 2008 as an “online magazine focused on culture,” with a strong emphasis on books and long-form reviewing. “I usually tell reviewers to aim for 800-1000 words,” writes books editor Andrew Altschul, “but that if there's a good reason to go beyond that–say the review is of more than one book, or it's more of an essay about a topic in contemporary lit that the book serves as a jump-off to–to run their ideas by me and I'm usually open to a longer piece.” Altschul answered questions from NBCC board member Mark Athitakis about the Rumpus's approach to book reviewing via email.
A description of the Rumpus on the site says, “We want to fill that void in cultural criticism that exists today thanks to the decline in regional newspapers.” Was there a particular moment that made you feel you needed to step in and launch a new site? What, exactly, did you feel was missing from the critical landscape, either in print or online?

I don't think there was one particular moment, but 2008, when we first conceived of The Rumpus, felt like an acceleration of the long decline of book reviewing. Newspaper after newspaper announced they were either reducing or eliminating their book coverage. Then, as if to prove our point, the Washington Post eliminated its Book World section just a few weeks after we launched.

But you didn't have to do a survey of major newspapers to know that book reviewing was in a terrible death spiral. You just had to be an author, or talk to authors. There is so much fantastic new literature being written in this country, and the vast majority of it goes unnoticed because there are so few venues for coverage. And the venues that do exist tend to have a herd mentality. They all want to review the books by writers who are already successful, already bestsellers – or, the “hot young thing” that some major publisher has foolishly thrown a $500,000 advance at (and who will almost inevitably not earn that advance back). You see the same handful of titles being reviewed everywhere. But in between the long-established writers and the celebrity debut du jour is where the most interesting writing can be found, and we felt almost an obligation to make sure people found out about it.

The reviews that appear almost daily on the site largely focus on poetry and small presses—two categories that are left relatively neglected by many review sites. Is there a particular philosophy that guides what is and isn't worth reviewing on the Rumpus? What is your process for deciding which books get reviewed?

We try to find out what's coming out–from major publishers as well as small presses, university presses, poetry presses, etc.–and every month or so I send out a list of a few dozen titles to our reviewers and let them claim what they're interested in. That's how about half our reviews get assigned. The other half comes from reviewers pitching something to me, something I may not have heard about. I get dozens of pitches from publicists every day, too, and I tell them all the same thing: If it's right for us, and if we have an interested reviewer, we'll review it.

We don't feel an obligation to review anything, regardless if it's the Next Big Thing, or the latest book from a Pulitzer Prize winner. In fact, we tend to think that those authors don't need our help–they'll get plenty of coverage in all the standard places. So yes, we like to review books from independent presses, and we review a lot of poetry, because those are books and authors that we can help with coverage in The Rumpus. But we review plenty of books from major houses, and established authors, as well. It just seems like we don't, because we're not slaves to the latest hype.

The other major difference is that The Rumpus doesn't care if a book has been out for a while. There's an obsession in publishing about getting reviews in the weeks right around publication date. It probably makes marketing sense, but it's really quite toxic for a healthy book culture. So if a book is out a month, or six months, or a year, and someone wants to review it, we're perfectly happy to do that, too.

Who are your reviewers, and how do you find them? Are they established writers, people who are starting their reviewing careers, people who aren't particularly interested in reviewing per se but want to write about a particular book?

All of the above. When we launched The Rumpus I sent out an email to several dozen fiction writers and poets and asked who might be interested in reviewing, and if they had anything in mind to review. Many of them responded, some sent reviews right away. Since then, I get email introductions on an almost daily basis from people who want to review for us, or who just want to write about one book.

Just about every Web site seems to be searching for a successful business model, which often means contributors are writing for little or no money. How do you handle the compensation piece of the puzzle, and what do believe is motivating writers to contribute, if not money? Are there compromises you have to make because of that?

It's definitely not money–we don't pay our reviewers. We would love to pay reviewers. We really wish we could. But we can't. They get the book, of course, and whatever benefits come from having published in The Rumpus. But as far as I can tell, the main reason they're doing it is because they love books, and they want to contribute to the conversation about books. It's the same reason things like Goodreads and Shelfari are so popular–people still love books, and they can't help but talking about books.

This is what's so frustrating when you talk to people in the mainstream publishing industry. They're so sure no one loves books anymore–because the corporate accountants are telling them they can't hit a 15% profit margin. And so they're bending over backwards to find the magic bullet: Is it e-books? Can the iPad save us? What if we get Sarah Palin to write a vampire novel? But people still love books. Period. And they want to talk about them. They want to be a part of that conversation. And it's a much more important, healthier conversation for us to be having as a society than talking about stock options or Grand Theft Auto or America's Next Top Model all the time.

Stylistically, what do you look for in reviews? Is there a particular type of book review that you feel works better for the Web than for a print publication?

We look for a sense that a reviewer understands not only what the author is trying to accomplish, but how that fits into contemporary literature and American culture. We look for a certain well-read-ness, but it's true that book reviews online–especially when the reviewers aren't paid–can be (or even have to be) looser, less obviously erudite or “professional.” We try to publish reviews that straddle the line between a real seriousness about capital-L Literature, and a less restrained enthusiasm about books, and about encountering new writing that's exciting and original.

One of your calls to contributors is to ask people to write about the last book they loved, but the books-related articles that seemed to attract the most conversation were highly critical: I'm thinking of Steve Almond's rebuttal to Katie Roiphe's New York Times essay on sex and male writers, and a negative review of Kathleen Rooney's For You, For You I Am Trilling These Songs. When do you feel it's worthwhile to run a negative, or at least more critical piece?

The aphorism, “All publicity is good publicity” is often true. As an author, I would much, much rather be reviewed negatively than not reviewed at all. We don't really publish reviews that are slams, and I've sent a few less-than-glowing reviews back for revisions if I feel an author just wanted to vent spleen about a book, rather than discuss it evenhandedly, its positives along with its negatives. I don't publish anything that feels like the reviewer was grinding an axe. That said, in the majority of cases, if we've assigned a review, we will publish the review, because the important thing is just to add to the conversation.

What's interesting to me about the Rooney piece was that the reviews editor was deeply engaged in the conversation about that review, especially the commenters who really didn't like it. What role do you and your fellow editors need to play in managing the people who come to the site to talk—not just on the contentious pieces, but throughout the Rumpus?

Yes, that would be me. That was a really interesting–and, I think, an important–debate that we had. And while the review of Kathleen Rooney's book was critical, I should say that Rooney herself did not get involved in the mudslinging and was gracious enough to send me a note thanking us for reviewing it. And now she's actually written a poetry review for us.

I rarely pay attention to the comments, unless a review or essay unexpectedly starts racking them up. In this particular case, I wanted to see how people reacted – not so much to the postivity or negativity of the review, but to the very tricky issues about memoir and creative nonfiction that were brought up by the reviewer. That is, can one review a work of memoir without reviewing the memoirist? And it turns out to be a very complicated question – at some level, the better the memoirist has done her job, the more difficult it is to separate the writer from the work. So how do you approach it as a reviewer without sliding into the ad hominem?

What happened with the Rooney review was that a lot of people felt the review was unfair, but instead of responding by offering different views of the book many of them attacked the reviewer and her motives. Complicating the whole thing was that both Rooney and the reviewer are young women, and I felt some commenters tried to bring gender politics into it, or even in some weird way to “protect” this poor, delicate writer from the mean, nasty reviewer. It all got very personal and weird, but I felt, as the editor, an obligation to stand by the reviewer, who in my view had done exactly what I'd asked her to do in writing about the book.