May 21, 2013
Stephen Elliott: The Art of the Overshare
Posted on Oct 22, 2010
By Sheerly Avni
A few weeks ago, Stephen Elliott shared some good news with his Twitter followers. Not only was his popular memoir “The Adderall Diaries” finally out in paperback, but the actor James Franco had just optioned it, with plans to write, direct and star in his movie adaptation of the writer’s own life story. Less than an hour later, Elliott followed up with a second tweet, asking, “But is he handsome enough?”
It’s a joke that fans of both the writer and the model-pretty movie star can appreciate, especially since Elliott has written so extensively of his adolescent physical insecurity and feelings of ugliness. In fact, over four novels, a collection of short-form erotica, a book of political nonfiction and countless articles, Stephen Elliott has written extensively about pretty much every aspect of being Stephen Elliott: the illness and early death of his mother, the constant abuse and neglect from his father, years spent on the streets, more years as a ward of the state, shuffling from group home to group home, several suicide attempts, heroin use, anorexia, the search for love and desire among strangers as a stripper, a complex fascination with bondage and sexual masochism. There is very little in his private life that he has not at some point Facebooked, blogged, tweeted, photographed, videotaped, podcasted or detailed to the 4,300 subscribers to his daily newsletter—a newsletter he himself refers to as his “overly personal emails.” If the malaise of modern Americans is our endless fascination with ourselves, as reflected and refracted through the lens of new media, then Elliott’s literary output to date seems to peg him as just another of the afflicted—an Internet-enabled narcissist and a poster child for Generation Overshare.
On the other hand, Elliott’s career also provides a compelling counter-narrative to the common lament that the contemporary urge to disclose generates nothing but more disclosure. After publishing his acclaimed autobiographical novel “Happy Baby,” Elliott parlayed his growing clout into monthly literary readings as fundraisers for progressive political candidates, which led to two star-studded benefits that brought his total to almost $500,000. He also wrote a nonfiction account of his time following Democratic candidates on the 2004 campaign trail, and edited four books, including a collection of short stories called “Politically Inspired.” He wrote several eloquent essays about teenagers like Alonza Thomas, one of the first juveniles to be tried under California infamously draconian youth sentencing law, Proposition 21. Thomas received 13 years in prison for a first offense. Elliott held a fundraiser for that cause as well.
Finally, after Arianna Huffington courted Elliott to edit a books page for The Huffington Post in 2007, he instead decided to start a site of his own. He launched the site with an original financial investment of $2,000 and the help of a few talented and dedicated volunteers, having enlisted accomplished authors such as Dave Eggers, Rick Moody and Antonya Nelson to provide occasional content and interviews or even regular columns, and collected submissions from countless writers and poets in his vast network (New Yorker writer Ariel Levy once called him “the most well-connected person in his income bracket”). Today, The Rumpus features book reviews, a frequently updated blog, a wildly popular advice columnist named Sugar, a variety of lesser-known writers and poets, and thoughtful political commentary which often focuses on topics that Elliott connects with personally, topics like poverty, the rights of sex workers, and the dangers of mixing money and art. There are also plenty of new-media experiments, including a new Rumpus books imprint, a series of podcasts and even a chat-enabled iPhone application for “The Adderall Diaries.”
Most important, Elliott’s success as both an author and a Web 2.0 literary publisher underscores an overlooked upside to the much-maligned American cult of the self, in particular when individuals, seeing themselves in the world around them, try to make positive changes in the world: Sometimes it takes an ego to build a village.
Elliott spoke with Truthdig from his office in the San Francisco Writer’s Grotto, and several times again over the phone, about his shift from national to local activism, the future direction of publishing, and the changing nature of community on the Web.
Sheerly Avni: The Rumpus is primarily a literary publication, but one with a strong political orientation as well. How would you define that orientation?
Stephen Elliott: There are a couple things. First off, we write about sex a lot more than any other literary publication, because we have a philosophy around sex as a major point of human motivation, and we believe that it is important to demystify sex. So if you don’t like that kind of stuff you shouldn’t come to The Rumpus. We do a lot of stuff around rights for sex workers, gay rights, gay marriage, and then sometimes a topic just hits us; for example we’ve been doing a lot of coverage of the oil spill. It just kind of depends, sometimes something just grabs us—but we do at least one political roundup a week.
Avni: But you don’t cover major news headlines.
Elliott: The Rumpus’ mission is in part to be a place you go to hear about things you wouldn’t hear of otherwise. The Internet was supposed to add this diversifying of content, and sure, that’s the case with lots of niche mini-blogs. But then among all the big magazines that get a lot of traffic, like Salon, Slate, Huffington Post, they are all talking about the exact same thing, because they’re chasing traffic.
There is a certain kind of culture that is created by marketing executives, and we have no interest in covering it. So we’ll never write about Britney Spears or Paris Hilton, not even in a “smart way.” That’s the kind of bullshit people try to get with on Slate or The New Yorker, where they say, “Oh it’s OK because we’re writing about them in smart and different way.” No, it’s not OK. You’re chasing traffic, and you’re pandering.
As for editorial vision, here’s an example, we have various quotes in our rotating toolbar, and early on, one of our writers was putting up negative posts, you know, jealous posts about other writers’ big book advances. So I put a quote in the rotating quote bar: “The Rumpus: Three celebrations for every complaint.” That’s a philosophy. We’re not gonna be the place to whine. There are a lot of good things you can find in the culture, and that we can celebrate.
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