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rumpus (n.) :: a usually noisy commotion

founded in 2008 by san francisco-based writer stephen elliott,, a literary website, is fast becoming a staple of many a bookworm’s diet.

last year elliott earned a place in the spotlight when he embarked on an unconventional tour for his latest book, the adderall diaries. originally, as with most authors lucky to tour these days, stephen was scheduled to appear in 5 major cities along the east and west coasts of the US. having received some great reviews early on, his friend mentioned he should add extra stops. stephen, aware of book publishing’s budgetary woes, knew he wouldnt be able to get anything else out of them; so he came up with an idea.

in his essay, “the d.i.y. book tour”, that ran in the new york times sunday book review he explains: he asked readers if they wanted to hold an event in their home. if so, they had to promise 20 attendees. stephen would read, talk, and answer some questions in their living room and, bypassing the tricky hotel situation, he’d then sleep on the host’s couch. it was cute, clever, and sincere.

elliott’s site is as quirky as he is and while i sit here trying to describe it i’m reminded of the line from walt whitman’s poem, song of myself, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” the rumpus contradicts itself, or rather it rejects concise definition. it’s outrageous but subtle, geeky but bawdy, smart and serious yet playful.

when i first learned of the rumpus i saw it mainly as a site for book recommendations but as i became familiar with all the site had to offer it unfolded as one stop shopping for the literary-minded freak. the site’s design—most recent posts down the center of the page, on the left a sidebar, updated multiple times a day, with, among other things, links to literary news grabbed from other sites, papers, and journals, and a menu of simple options at the top of the screen—make for easy reading and navigation. their original pieces are some of the most creative and entertaining out there.

dear sugar, their weekly advice column, is a fun diversion. as one might expect, sugar receives and publishes many letters from people seeking advice on sex and relationships—most recently from a woman wondering about the morality of sleeping with a married man for $1,000 a month—but every so often someone needs some help with their family members and careers.

one of the more provocative contributors is antonia crane, a sex worker and activist living in northern california. she writes an occasional-column highlighting sex workers’ rights around the US. some of her profiles have been of a madam in new orleans, a san fran riot girl who writes, directs, and stars in porn, and a porn photographer whose work has been affected by the recession. crane is working on a memoir, stripped: tales of a sexual outlaw, edits the citron review, a literary quarterly, and hangs from poles in los angeles and new orleans.

what would a well-rounded site be without comics? the rumpus has a host of comic strips that run weekly, bimonthly, monthly, or at random. one of the weekly artists includes jon adams, a cartoonist whose work is published in the san fran chronicle*, and contributes to wired magazine, mcsweeney’s, and dark horse comics.

as you scroll down the page, you’ll see they also post videos—a nice way to break up the workday. mainly uploaded from elsewhere, although with a few originals, the short clips you’ll see are of choice political speeches, cartoons, book reviews on video, book trailers, and any other kind of random, potentially viral thing you can imagine.

equally unpredictable is rumpus radio, a series of unscripted interviews with guests from varied corners of the cultural landscape. stephen elliott, often joined by co-hosts, speaks with comedians, musicians, contributors, and yes, authors.

the rumpus, aside from all the great content above, has an unconventional approach to book reviews. their tastes tend toward the literary, covering newly-released highbrow fiction, poetry, and short story collections. the most well-known author i’ve seen featured is paul auster for his latest novel, sunset park—to give you an idea. most readers don’t discriminate when it comes to when a book was published, and neither does rumpus. their frequently updated last book i loved column features guest writers who share with readers the last remarkable book they’ve read. these personal essays—written by scholars, journalists, writers whose work has been published in reputable literary journals and magazines, and recognizable figures in the publishing industry—read like nerdy confessionals.

as with stephen’s book tour, the rumpus cultivates a sense of community and nowhere else is it more actively pursued than with their monthly book club. for $25 per month subscribers are mailed a yet-to-be released book, most likely a fiction pick. the site hosts an online discussion, which often includes a q&a with the author, while the book is read and accepts review submissions from members for that particular title. the best is posted. they recently added a poetry book club for $22—combo deals available.

possibly my favorite column on the site—and i admit to possible bias—is funny women, a series of female guest’s personal essays. the editor, emily bassist is wacky, outspoken, and pulling her weight in the fight for women in the literary scene. early in january, Greenlight Bookstore in brooklyn, a beautiful, inviting space, hosted a book event for the newly self-published rumpus women vol. 1, a sturdy, over-sized hardcover collection of essays by both past contributors and new voices. driven by a feminist ethos, julie greicius, the rumpus literary editor, and elissa bassist teamed up to choose which much-loved writers would carry this anthology. in their own words, the book is:

a rich cross-section of women’s lives that cuts across culture, age, occupation, orientation, and literary style. The essays are as diverse in form as the authors themselves—and their stories speak to each other, contradict each other, and inform each other. The authors are wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters. They are loved and unloved. They are gay, straight, and everything in between. They keep horses and sleep on benches. They are self-destructive and caretaking. They are religious and quietly converting. They have breast cancer and ovarian cysts. They are sex workers, sex scholars, teenage virgins, mothers-to-be or not-to-be. They are fighters, runners, and interns. They are writers.

that night five of the contributors, including elissa whose essay on her ill-fated move to san francisco appears in the book, read their their stories to a packed house. jamie attenberg a novelist with a new book in paperback, the melting season, read her essay about traveling alone in italy; justine blau seized the audience’s attention when she told about her childhood on the streets of new york city with her mentally ill mother; nell boeschenstein read a heartbreaking story about her family’s breast cancer gene; and, mixing theory into her personal essay, michelle orange delivered an intriguing philosophical investigation.

as contributors to, and admired writers of, a site that so obviously holds the language arts in high-regard, it had to be asked: what is the best writing advice you’ve ever received? elissa, needing little time to respond, quoted advice columnist, sugar, “write like a motherfucker” . . . and if that inspires you, you can buy it on a mug from the rumpus store—and pick up a copy of rumpus women vol. 1 while you’re at it.

[dig deeper] ::
dear sugar #48:
“write like a mother fucker”
rumpus radio: available for free on iTunes, as an iPhone app, and can be downloaded to listen online. i suggest the steve almond episode.
donald: this parody novel about donald rumsfeld by stephen and eric martin will be published by mcsweeney’s on february 8th, the day rumsfeld’s real memoir hits the streets.

*the bio for jon adams on the rumpus lists a weekly strip in the san fran chronicle. there is also a blog post on jon’s site from late-2010 announcing that friendship town would run on thursdays in 96 hours, the chronicle‘s alternative weekly supplement, but i was unable to locate the strip online to confirm.


Written by Gabrielle

January 16, 2011 at 12:42 pm

Posted in books

Tagged with ,

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