Stephen Elliott, the author of seven books including The Adderall Diaries, and the Editor of the online literary site, The Rumpus http://therumpus.net, sat down with 12th Street’s Jennifer Sky to discuss the politics of writing and the lure of the website for the literary world. This is the premier interview of 12th Street Online’s monthly author series. Enjoy – Liz Axelrod, Editor in Chief
12th Street Online: What was the catalyst to starting your online literary magazine, The Rumpus?
Stephen Elliott: I was done with The Adderall Diaries—that was my seventh book—and I didn’t really have the urge to write another book. I wanted to do something else. I thought, “Well, I should get into editing,” because that’s kind of what I know how to do. If you write long enough, eventually you learn how to edit because editing is such a huge part of writing. So I thought I would start editing somewhere.
I was actually talking to Arianna Huffington about joining The Huffington Post. I had all these ideas—pages and pages of ideas—about how I wanted to build a book section for The Huffington Post and all these cools things I wanted to do with it. Then at some point I thought, “Well, it’s just a website. If I have all these ideas why am I giving them to Arianna Huffington?” You know, I’ll just do it myself. So I started The Rumpus. I didn’t know if I was going to make any money or if anyone would read it. That’s the same way I write. You start it and see what happens. It’s like I do everything.
12th: The Rumpus has already carved out a pretty invaluable place in the online literary community. How do you account for its popularity?
SE: Huh… “invaluable.” I don’t know about that description. Can a literary website really be invaluable? The Rumpus is good. There’s a lot of good content. It’s updated frequently. So if you have some shit job and you want to distract yourself and you want a website that is updated all day long, there are a lot of options, but there are also not a lot of options. There’s Gawker, which is really mean and kind of spiteful. There is The Huffington Post, which is so stupid, so full of so much overwhelming idiocy. There’s Slate and Salon, which are pretty good but they are writing about the same things. They’re chasing clicks all the time; they rarely introduce us to something new. They always have stories about Obama or whoever else is the popular person for that day. They are kind of always behind what’s happening, as opposed to setting the agenda. There are not that many options for somebody if you want a site that is about literature, smart, updated frequently, and is going to introduce you to new people—that strives to have some integrity. We never do any pop culture on The Rumpus. We never do any smart essays about Britney Spears. It’s a Britney-Spears-free zone. There’s no Paris Hilton on The Rumpus, ever. And even though we love Obama, we don’t do anything about Obama because he’s over exposed. We try to introduce people to new culture, to culture they wouldn’t have heard of otherwise. We are trying to take that role of curating a little more seriously than I thing people are currently taking it. And so I think that’s why The Rumpus is popular.
12th: Does The Rumpus have a mission statement? Do you operate under any specific guiding principles?
SE: If you go to the website, there’s a post describing what The Rumpus is, which is available from any page on the site. It talks about that, while the web was supposed to diversify content, it hasn’t; it has just focused attention on the same few things. It has become the lowest common denominator, in a lot of ways, and that The Rumpus is the place you can go to get away from pop culture. It’s okay if someone’s popular. We will write about Dave Eggers, Malcolm Gladwell, Joan Didion—these are popular writers—but we won’t write about mass-produced culture, culture that is created by marking executives.