Criticism & Features


Conversations With Literary Websites: The Nervous Breakdown

By Mark Athitakis

This post continues a series on Critical Mass featuring websites dedicated to book reviewing online. Read previous Q&As with The Rumpus, The Millions, The Quarterly Conversation, Open Letters Monthly, Three Percent, and The Critical Flame.

Launched in 2006, the Nervous Breakdown is among the most wide-ranging literary websites—in addition to essays, reviews, and interviews, it also publishes original fiction and poetry, excerpts from forthcoming books, and has recently launched its own book imprint.  Editor Brad Listi answered questions about the site from NBCC board member Mark Athitakis via email.

What prompted the launch of the Nervous Breakdown in 2006? Were there gaps in literary coverage, either in print or online, that you felt needed to be filled?

To a degree, sure. Part of it was rooted in a dissatisfaction with the deficiencies and inconsistencies presented by the old model. But on simpler level, it was a response to technology and opportunity. The tools were there. Writers could make their own publications. Readers were online. No waiting necessary. No permission needed. 

As a way of contextualizing how fast things have changed: Back in 2006, when The Nervous Breakdown started, a majority of authors didn't have websites. Fast-forward to the present day, and it's almost unthinkable that an author wouldn't be operating online. Nowadays, it seems like only the luckiest of writers are able to make a living without having to maintain some kind of web presence. It's almost like a mark of distinction when a writer can abandon the web or refuse participation.

It's interesting to think about.  Maybe the 21st century equivalent of Salinger or Pynchon is going to be the hugely successful literary novelist who never blogged. Ever. He'll write by hand with a Number Two pencil, and everyone will hold him high in their minds as pure and poetically wounded.  Then one day, shortly after he dies, it will be revealed that he actually did maintain a secret Twitter account, and its contents will be sold at auction for seven figures, with all proceeds donated to an obscure charity in North Dakota devoted to carpal tunnel research. 

Who are your reviewers and writers, and how do you find them? What kind of skill sets do you look for in a reviewer, and are there skills that you think are unique to writing about books online?

The writers at The Nervous Breakdown are a combination of published and emerging authors from around the world.  Often they arrive at the site by way of reading it regularly; then I'll get an email. Other times, I'm a fan. I like their work and I write them a note, asking them to contribute. Other times, it's a referral from one of our existing contributors. And other times an editor or an agent will send word and make a suggestion. It happens in a variety of ways.

Our reviewers tend to come from defunct print publications and the blogosphere. Our Fiction editors — Gina Frangello, Shya Scanlon, and Alex Chee — have done a wonderful job of bringing in gifted reviewers like John Madera and Angela Stubbs and Dika Lam

When it comes to writing about books online, I think one of the most vital (and often overlooked) skills is the ability to facilitate conversation, to make people think and speak.  A great review online might be measured by the response that it generates, the active thought that it provokes, the quality of the dialogue and debate. The best and most influential book reviewers on the web might in the end be those who are able to generate the most compelling conversation.

Unlike many literary websites, TNB has a fairly sizable team of editors working on different departments of the site. How does the team work together to coordinate the site's coverage?

The editors for each section run their respective sections, and I offer help and input when needed. My job is to create an environment for talented people to do their thing, and then to get out of their way.   

Instead of the traditional author Q&A, TNB runs an author “self-interview” series. How did the idea come about, and what do you think are the benefits of letting the writer do all the talking (or typing)?

I decided to go with the self-interview last November, shortly before we launched the latest version of the site. It felt like a natural thing to do, very reflective of the web and its impact on self-expression. Anyone who blogs with regularity is, in a sense, interviewing themselves. At TNB we take that tendency and make it explicit. It's one of my favorite things on the site.

The format is particularly interesting, I think, because we're applying it to writers, who are in many ways uniquely well-suited to this sort of performance: naturally introspective and accustomed to working with their own interiors. On the other hand, a lot of writers are shy and not inclined to share their direct personal feelings in a public forum. For me it's fascinating to see how an author will react. Some get serious.  Others get funny. Some really go for it and get incredibly candid. Others aren't as comfortable and deliver a very minimal performance. I find the omissions as interesting as the admissions.

TNB features a sizable number of excerpts from forthcoming books. How do you decide on what to excerpt? Are there particular kinds of writing, authors, or publishers that you're most interested in promoting through excerpts? Do different rules apply for the original fiction you run?

We generally run excerpts from the work of our featured authors, and our featured authors are selected by our editors.  We tend toward literary writing, but we've also featured some authors whose books might be deemed more “commercial” in nature.  We're less interested in categories and more interested in publishing interesting work. 

The Nervous Breakdown has remarkably healthy comment threads. What's involved in creating those kinds of discussions about books? Do TNB editors have to be hands-on about it, or are visitors and writers best left to themselves to manage the conversations?

It happens on its own, organically. The Nervous Breakdown has, over time, become a community. It's social. A lot of it comes down to luck. Getting the right people involved.  There are a handful of writers and readers at the site who really make the community tick. TNB has become a gathering place. People stop by like they stop by at their favorite bar.  To have a laugh. To see friends. To listen in on the conversation. 

Even better, many of our readers and contributors have forged lasting, actual friendships. Two of our contributors even wound up getting married and having a baby. Another pair from Down Under spent this past June road-tripping across the United States, staying with other TNBers along the way.  I think they wound up meeting upwards of 35 or 40 fellow writers. This amazes me.

Soon TNB will publish its first book, D.R. Haney's Subversia, a collection of nonfiction essays (many of which originally ran on TNB). How did you decide to get into the business of book publishing, and how difficult or easy have you found the process so far? What sort of books do you plan to publish down the line? 

The launch of the imprint is very similar in nature to the launch of site itself. It's a response to the current environment, both its deficiencies and its opportunities. Technology has made it easier to do certain things: print, bind, distribute.  But publishing good books has never been an easy business, and that hasn't changed a bit. 

We've been learning a lot on this first title, and we're fortunate to have D.R. Haney as our first author. He's a great talent who has lived quite a life, and his fan base on TNB is extremely devoted. The site has given us some pretty unique insight into how much passion his work can generate among readers, and this makes us all the more excited to share his book with a wider audience. 

As for what we plan to publish going forward:  It'll be a variety.  We've got a collection of cartoons from Ted McCagg coming up.  He has fans everywhere, from Ezra Klein at the Washington Post to Andrew Sullivan at The Atlantic to Conan O'Brien. We're also going to be publishing a terrific novel by Steve Abee called Johnny Future, and a humor collection by Lenore Zion called My Dead Pets Are Interesting. Lenore has been with TNB from the beginning.  She's a riot, and hugely talented.

As we go forward, my hope is that we'll keep experimenting.  The new publishing environment is ideally suited for risk-taking, and this, in my view, is great for literary art, and art in general. The idea now is to keep going, to keep pushing, to be unafraid to make mistakes.  If we do that, I feel like we'll be in good shape.