I’m not exactly an insider here at The Rumpus. I’m not really an outsider either. I’m the Sunday editor. If I were a Ghostbuster, I’d be Winston. Or maybe even Rick Moranis’ character in Ghostbusters II.
From this role, where I have a bit of distance, it’s been hard not to notice that the success of the Rumpus has led to a bit of a Rumpus identity freak-out. So I asked Stephen Elliott if I could say a few words about it, and he said it’d be okay, so I’d like to do that and then open this up for your comments. I’d also like to ask that, in the comments, we not single out any specific people or articles or blog posts. Any comments like that won’t be approved.
Here’s a story: A few months after I started here, Stephen asked me to write up a book blog panel I happened to be at in LA. The panelists there had some good advice, but they also spoke again and again about the importance of “dust-ups.” To make it as a book blogger, a few of them said, it didn’t hurt to get your hands dirty. There’s nothing like a good old-fashioned Internet fight to drive traffic.
This isn’t what The Rumpus was about, and I knew it. So I attacked. I wrote a blistering blog post about how many of the people involved in this “dust up” panel were ugly (in fact, they were mind-numbingly attractive) and dumb (I was wrong there too) and must eat children in their spare time (there is no evidence I was wrong about that one.) It was supposed to be an over-the-top meta-commentary mocking them for calling for meaningless fights just to boost traffic.
But when I showed it to Steve, he said, “Can’t do it, Seth.”
This was the one and only time anyone had asked me not to print anything I’ve written here. It was also the only time I’d cleared anything with him beforehand.
He had a problem with it (and I guess I did too) because whether its editors consciously know it or not, the Rumpus isn’t really about “culture” as opposed to “pop culture.” It’s not, as some of our critics put it, about being nice all the time. And it’s not only about Stephen Elliott or Isaac Fitzgerald or that wonderful Sugar or Rick Moody or Elissa Bassist. These people are all important, but they’re aspects of something else: this site is about inspiring and creating a community for a huge group of writers in one of the bleakest times in the history of literature. And it’s about turning that bleakness into something beautiful.
What I’d done in my blog post was try to put down some writers for self-aggrandizement and to get The Rumpus some hits. It wasn’t cool because it would have hurt the writing community, because there were a hundred positive things I could’ve talked about and I chose something that would start a war, just because I could.
And that was really fucked up, considering what the site had done for me.
I joined The Rumpus after sending Steve an email asking him if I could help answer emails or lick envelopes. He met me at a coffee shop, loaned me his computer charger, and asked me to write up a couple blog posts. I did. At the time, I was at a partial residency program; I was happy with the program, but, like most MFA’s, it wasn’t going to get me anywhere on its own. I had one publication. A couple weeks later, Steve and Isaac asked me, with my incredibly tiny amount of experience, if I would be on the masthead as the Sunday editor.
At what other magazine or website would that be possible? So much of the literary world is so fixated on status that it seems impossible to break in. Most people, many of them extremely talented, give up on writing for that reason. Most sites or magazines would ask me what kind of readers I would bring in (very few), or where I went to school (a great school that doesn’t get enough credit), or who my agent was (ha!). The Rumpus saw me as a potential writer, as a potential blogger, as someone who would probably work hard for them. They saw me as someone who believed in and could be a part of a community. And I love them for that.
And because they had no money, they also saw me as someone who would work for free. I was happy to do this. I’m still happy to do this. For one, there’s lots of people at the site who deserve to get paid a lot more than me. Also, it gives me the freedom not to feel bad about messing up.
But it also leads to the question of the day, the thing Rumpus writers keep bringing up in whispers at parties and my parents keep asking me about and the editors are grumbling over. I’m in awe of how quickly and spontaneously the Rumpus has grown. The average number of daily hits has increased something like 800 percent since I started. The Book Club is doing wonderfully, with hundreds of subscribers. According to the last daily Rumpus, some people are actually donating money. As someone who runs another literary website, I can’t tell you how amazing that is, especially since The Rumpus isn’t a nonprofit.
This is still a literary site, so no one is rolling in hundred dollar bills. But something has changed, and I’m not sure what it means. Will money and audience corrupt us? In a community of hundreds of people, how do you make sure no one feels left out? Who do you pay and who don’t you? Do you continue to pay no one and invest all the money in expanding the website? Do you pay everyone $2.75? Do you allow advertising, like this, to try to bring in more funds so you can pay more people? Do you give Isaac a raise? Really, how do you keep the people who joined The Rumpus to join a community from feeling shitty? How do we make sure we’re still letting in people like me a few years ago, people who need this place more than anything? How does The Rumpus remain The Rumpus?