The Rumpus: A New Literary Mag That Plays by the Internet’s Rules

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Meet The Rumpus.net. When asked to describe his new online cultural magazine in six words or less, founder Stephen Elliott first spouted off the categories they’ll cover; “Books, Music, Art, Politics, Sex, Other.” Then he wrote, “Because the web needs an editor.” Then, “The literary equivalent of stolen wi-fi.” Then, “I only look like I’m online.” Once he got to “The national public radio of webzines,” we had to cut him off — he had to prepare for his site’s official launch out of beta 3 mode, which happened earlier this morning. But not before we asked Elliott a few more questions over IM; find our interview after the jump.

Caroline: Hey Stephen, it’s Caroline from Flavorwire.

nowhere50: Hi Caroline, at last we meet, online.

Caroline: Thanks for indulging me on the IM interview idea.

nowhere50: I need to get an avatar.

Caroline: I am a lethargic transcriber. This is better than just making stuff up.

nowhere50: No worries. This is just about the only time I IM, when I’m interviewing or being interviewed. The James Frey interview on The Rumpus was done over IM.

Caroline: And he’s reading at your launch party, right?

nowhere50: He is. He’s a great reader, actually. He’s got a lot of energy.

Caroline: So, how did the idea for The Rumpus come about?

nowhere5o: Hmm. There’s a long and short story here. I’ll try to go down the middle. It started because I had just finished my new book, The Adderall Diaries. I really scraped myself clean in this book, which is half memoir and half true crime. I wanted to do some editing. This was my seventh book and I wanted a little time off from writing. I was talking to Arianna Huffington about joining The Huffington Post. I gave her pages and pages of ideas. I realized pretty quickly that even though I’m hot for Arianna, it would not be a good idea for me to work for The Huffington Post. And at some point I was like, Why am I giving her all my ideas?

Caroline: The Rumpus is kind of the anti-HuffPo.

nowhere50: The reality is that there’s a lot of literary writers, like me, Dan Chaon, Michelle Tea, Rick Moody. But there isn’t really a good web magazine for us. Or there wasn’t before The Rumpus. If you look at the web magazine, Salon.com, The Daily Beast, Slate, The Huffington Post, they’re all fighting for the same stories. They’re all trying to be the People Magazine of the Internet, albeit from different angles. They’re all writing about Britney Spears and crash landing a plane into the Hudson and how Obama feels about his BlackBerry. The Internet was supposed to diversify content. And it has as far as the proliferation of blogs. But as far as full magazines it hasn’t at all. It’s actually intensified the echo chamber. For example, there’s very little review coverage for books that have been out six months and didn’t make a huge splash. We consider any book out less than a year to be a new book, and review it accordingly. People are so concerned with driving traffic to their pages, they focus on the popular stories, and “creating” breaking news. They forget all about the writing and the importance of introducing people to artists they haven’t heard of yet.

Caroline: Are most of the people writing for you friends?

nowhere50: A lot of the people writing for me are, hmm, not necessarily “friends.” People I like, people I’ve met primarily through all the literary political organizing I did and the three political fiction anthologies I put together. I guess they’re friends. But you know, I really really like Rick Moody, but I wouldn’t ask him for a lift to the airport.

Caroline: I saw him recently at the Happy Ending Reading Series, playing with his band.

nowhere50: He’s such a cool guy. His music blog is amazing. I mean, so I know these people, a lot of them, through political organizing. We did voter registration readings in Ohio, etc. And I sent them a note letting them know the kind of magazine I was going to put together.

Caroline: So today is a happy day for you.

nowhere50: Ha, today is a wonderful day. Anyway, there was this incredible response to this note I sent out about The Rumpus. Jerry Stahl actually sent me a three page pitch for his blog, Post-Young. I was like, You’re Jerry Stahl. You’re my idol. You don’t have to pitch me.

Caroline: I like his blog. I was also tickled by the idea of literary sports links.

nowhere50: Yeah. We’re doing a lot of cool stuff. We have three elements, an Around The Web section (aggregator), that’s frequently updated. Then we try to run two original articles every day. Interviews or book reviews or personal essays or stuff like that. And then we have blogs. But the blogs are more like columns. We’re part of the slow blogging movement, and bloggers only update like once a week. And the blogs are all about something.

Caroline: How did you come up with the categories you’d cover? I find it funny that Sex made the cut.

nowhere50: I wanted to do a cultural magazine. I wanted to cover all this culture that nobody’s talking about. Well, not nobody, there are actually some great blogs, like Maud Newton, Boingboing. And there’s aggregators like Arts and Letters Daily. But I just think among larger web magazines people aren’t paying enough attention to all the culture that falls between The Daily Beast, which is basically gossip, and Arts and Letters Daily. I used to be a sex worker, and I wrote a book of “literary erotica”. So I’m biased. But I think we’re taking an intelligent approach to sex.

Caroline: I like The Rumpus logo.

nowhere50: Thanks! Ian Huebert did that. He’s an incredible artist. Everybody was telling me it was going to cost a lot to get a logo. And we’re doing this site on basically no money. But I asked Ian, told him what I wanted (think rump + net). And he did that.

Caroline: I was going to ask you — why do this online as opposed to print? I’m assuming cost?

nowhere50: The funny thing is, before doing this, I hated going online. Last year, while I was working on my new book, I took the browser off my computer. Cost is one thing. But I just think this is the direction things are going. Also, when I started screwing around on the internet I didn’t really think there were any magazines for me. Like, I love The Believer and The New Yorker, but I want to read them in print. For frequently updated magazines I would go to The Daily Beast, or Gakwer. But those sites aren’t really for me. I was just going there because I was bored, sitting in front of a computer, and didn’t know where else to go. Of course, I read the New York Times online, and that’s great. But I wanted a magazine, and I couldn’t find one. So I created the magazine I want to read online. It’s basically a literary magazine that plays by the rules of the Internet. We care about the writing, but the articles are shorter, and we update ten to twenty times a day.

Caroline: How long do you work on it each day?

nowhere50: I’m working so much. I’m on this thing like 14 hours a day. I don’t remember the me that didn’t go online. I need an assistant. And I have an assistant editor, actually. But I can’t pay her, so I can’t really make her do anything.

Caroline: In a lot of ways, what you’re doing is similar to what I’m doing. I guess the difference being, your pro bono writers a lot more famous than mine are.

nowhere50: Ha. that’s true. I have hella famous writers. You know, it’s really because of all the political organizing I do and did. I built up a lot of good will. That, and a lot of what they’re publishing with me is stuff they would have published in literary journals. And that’s what I mean by needing a real online magazine that’s appropriate for that kind of writing. Like you look at Dan Chaon’s gorgeous article about his wife Shiela’s novel. It’ll break your heart. It’s perfectly written, 4,000 words, about his wife who died four months before her novel was to be published. Also, Michelle Tea’s LETTER FROM PARIS. The idea that you can cut up an article like that into twelve pieces (it’s 12,000 words almost) and run it as a mini-series blog. And then make the entire thing available as a PDF download.

Caroline: Did you talk to a lot of people to get their input? Because it seems like you’re being very smart about this.

nowhere50: You know who gave me some great advice is Larry Smith, from Smithmag. Larry said I need to handle people well, and empower people so they feel the site is theirs as well. I’ve tried to do that with my volunteers and editors. I’ve only been partially successful, but more than I would have been. It’s really crucial advice. You need to be surrounded by good people. But in this other way, you almost don’t want advice. Publishing a web magazine is like book publishing. Nobody knows anything. If publishers knew what books would sell, they wouldn’t publish all the other ones. All the other online magazines are losing money hand over fist, so there’s no example to follow there either. I approach it the way I approach a novel. Work on it a lot, try to make it good. You don’t know until you’ve already been working on it for a year if you’re going to be able to sell it, or if anybody’s going to want to read it. But that’s my whole approach to life. I never sell books I haven’t written yet, or pitch articles. I just go out and write them and hope for the best. And The Rumpus is the same thing.