Frisky Q&A: Anna Holmes, Editor Of The Book Of Jezebel

If you are a lady of a certain age with an Internet connection, chances are you read In fact, you might be on it right now.  The blog launched in 2007 and truly proved — to the mainstream media, to our feminist foremothers who complain that women today are apathetic, to men — that there is an appetite for smart, sassy, feminist commentary on the Internet. The site inspires intense feelings amongst feminists and Reddit-trolling men’s rights activists alike — the former critiquing the site for its coverage of hot-button issues and the latter for encouraging women “to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.”

OK, that last one was Pat Roberston, but I am betting he would not like Jezebel either. Which is precisely why I love it.

So you can imagine how thrilling it is that Anna Holmes, founder and original editor of Jezebel, has published The Book Of Jezebel, a coffee table encyclopedia of modern womanhood.  The contributors’ page reads like a who’s who of the smartest women writers today, who have written entries ranging from “Roseanne” to abortion to Alice Walker to vulvas. No wonder the conservative web site The Daily Caller already had an apoplectic fit about The Book Of Jezebel, accusing its “angry women” authors and fans of having widespread daddy issues.

I called up Anna Holmes to discuss the book’s release and her thoughts on the feminist media ecosystem today.  Here’s our conversation, after the jump!

The Frisky: Why don’t you tell me about how you chose the particular entries for the encyclopedia?

Anna Holmes: There wasn’t a science to it. It was me brainstorming, and putting down ideas in alphabetical order, and then asking staffers of the site to look at the list and tell me what they thought was missing, then asking the contributors to the book — two of them were staffers on the site — to look at the list and tell me what they thought was missing, and then me reading a dictionary because, I figured, I was definitely going to forget stuff. And I did, I forgot tons of stuff! Then once we had a list, it got added to occasionally, because I would think of things, or I would see something on TV or I would read something that would make me go “oh wait, did I put on ‘blah-blah-blah’ in the book?” Then I’d go look, and if it wasn’t already on the list then I would add it. But at a certain point, I [stopped adding entries] because I could’ve just done that for a year straight. And the book would’ve been late, and the book would’ve probably been 400 pages longer than it is.

How did you decide which entries to cheekily editorialize on (“Youth: Expected of women throughout their life cycle”) and which entries to just write up with straight facts (“Carrie Chapman Catt: Leading campaigner for women’s suffrage in America.”)?

It just depended on what the writer who wrote the entry wanted to do. I decided to trust them. … Oftentimes I’d just give them direction before they started in on them. I would say “This one doesn’t need to be very long,” or “This one can be short and sweet” or I’d say “Can you flesh out this one instead of being brief with it?” So it was those directions I gave them, but it was also me just wanting to see what they came up with. I their execution didn’t feel adequate enough then I would ask them to tweak it ,but for the most part, [the writing process] was the same thing as the site. I edited them, but there wasn’t lots of back and forth between myself and the writers on the site all the time. I guess we didn’t have the luxury of time to do that so it was just hiring people who you trust,  who get it.

Did you solicit any ideas from older women — say, in feminist activism or older women in the ciivl rights movement or in Hollywood — that have very specific institutional memory to get their suggestions on what might be good for inclusion?

No, not really. There would’ve been too many cooks in the kitchen, I’ll put it that way. There were already a lot of cooks in the kitchen as it was, and if I had the luxury of more time, then maybe that would have made sense. But I also knew, like I was saying, that we were going to forget stuff. Ideally, if the book sold well we could have another edition where we would put in things that we missed. So, as opposed to the book being like a last word it’s more of an opening to a conversation, and we can add things to it.

What has been the response to the daily entries that have been going up on, which showcase snippets of the book?

It depends on the entries. Some things get clicked on more than others … You know, it’s easy to tell which entries are going to do well. Like, today we put up Gilda Radner, and a lot of people know who Gilda Radner is, but there are a lot of readers who don’t know who she is! Or they’re just so young that they were not consumers of pop culture when she was in her heyday. We could’ve picked something that would maybe be more broadly relevant to a larger swathe of the demographic of the site, but I really wanted to put up Gilda Radner because it’s a great photo and a great entry. It depends on what kind of mood I’m in the night before in addition to considerations, like is there an accompanying image, what went up the day before, etcetera.

So, switching gears a little bit, I read that interview that you gave with Mother Jones, and you  spoke about your history in  journalism. Before you were at Jezebel, you were working on women’s magazines, and I think Jezebel has had a huge impact on how those magazines now assign their stories and what kind of writers they get for them. What do you think of the impact that Jezebel has had on the media?

I kind of hate this question. I don’t know how to articulate anything — I think it’s because I almost feel like I’m too close to it, so I don’t have any objectivity. What I might expect is the case isn’t necessarily the truth. I certainly think that American women’s magazines have taken inspiration from a number of different women’s websites, Jezebel included. Maybe it’s more fair to say the broader internet [has done so]. But it’s very hard for me to draw a direct line between a women’s magazine doing something and Jezebel unless it’s a very Jezebel-y thing — for example, when I see women’s magazines declare they’re not going to Photoshop the models or celebrities. That feels like a very direct line from the complaining that went on on the site, and still does. That’s an easy thing to point to, but I think it is much harder for me to make an airtight argument that the site had an effect on women’s magazines, even if I suspected it did. I’m also hesitant to do it because then it sounds aggrandizing.

Well, I guess what I would say — and this is totally anecdotal and I can’t factually back it up — but I’m a couple years younger than you but have pursued a lot of the same sort of career goals, and I feel as if nowadays people in decision-making positions are more open to people with a history of feminist and lady-centric writing. Maybe it was just because I was starting out when I was like 21, 22, 23 and I didn’t have as many clips, but I do feel like nowadays it is sort of a given if you want to pitch Elle magazine, you’ve written in the past for The Hairpin or The Frisky or Jezebel. That’s something that you just do now, whereas before, I feel like maybe if I pitched Elle and I just had my feminism column for the college newspaper, they’d be like “well, hmmm, I don’t know.”

I definitely think that there are more traditional/mainstream media outlets that are running content that deals with gender politics. Many more. A lot of times the running content that deals with gender politics and feminism is written by those women who have cut their teeth writing for the feminist blogosphere. But I don’t think that’s because of Jezebel. I would never say that. I think it’s because Jezebel came along at a certain time in which it had an impact and a resonance, but it wasn’t like people weren’t talking about these things before the site got launched. People were talking about them in more kind of niche venues, so, maybe it — I don’t want to use the word popularized — maybe it helped mainstream feminist conversations. But it didn’t do it on its own, and oftentimes the stuff that was on the site was being aggregated from those very writers who are now getting a lot of exposure. So it’s very hard to separate. This is like an ecosystem. It was an open ecosystem rather than a closed ecosystem.

But I definitely see more explicitly feminist opinions being proffered, and columns, and essays, and even reported pieces being published in traditional/mainstream media than I ever did before. But I don’t think it’s just because of [Jezebel alone], I think it’s because of the site and sites like it. It’s also a moment in time when there’s a lot of extra aggravating bullshit going on that deserves comment and pushback. And because a lot of women, younger ones especially, have shown that they have the hunger and the appetite for these sort of discussions and this sort of content. Whatever it was that inspired me to create the site — which was many years of frustrations and also just a kind of constant ache of annoyance about what was available to women in women’s media — I wasn’t the only one feeling that way, obviously. So, the site came along at a time when there was that sort of ache and annoyance in a lot of other people too. And now that ecosystem that I just spoke of is huge.

I feel like every six months or so, or maybe every nine months, there’s another fairly large lady-blog popping up on the web. So, this is a kind of loaded question, but did you ever feel like there could be an over-saturation of the ladyblogs?

There have been times when that’s occurred to me or I wondered that. Then I immediately, figuratively snap out of it and say, well, I wonder if that sort of thinking is the same thinking that we as women are often socialized to have in the sense that there’s only enough room for a couple women, that we’re somehow in competition with one another and that the world is only going to support or allow so many female voices or females in this industry or that industry. I wonder whether [worrying about over-saturation] is along the same lines.  I’m not saying that it is, but it’s something that occurs to me every time I wonder. Because the Internet is still in its infancy. In terms of a big picture,  I mean, Jezebel’s only been around for like six-and-a-half years. It might feel like there’s a certain genre of site that now is populated or overpopulated, but that’s in the context of, like, the past 10 years. There’s so much more that we don’t know about how the Internet’s going to evolve and how media’s going to evolve and how conversations are going to evolve. So it would be really short-sighted to put one’s foot down and say “I think we have enough of this already.”Also, everyone brings something new to it.

The other thing is that there are sites in any genre that aren’t good aren’t necessarily going to succeed, so it is kind of Darwinian in a way. But there were times when new sites would launch when I was in the midst of running the site, and I would kind of refer to them as copycats — which is not an entirely fair way to characterize them, but I didn’t really have another word to use. But also, I think that I felt extremely competitive with them at the time. Now I can be more like “there’s room for everybody!” It’s not that I thought there wasn’t room for everybody before, but I took the launch of a number of other sites after Jezebel that seemed Jezebel-y in nature as kind of a challenge. So I would get very competitive internally about them. It can really be summed as “we will be better than you, you will not surpass us in quality or traffic.” But how do you make that happen? You just keep doing what you’re doing, which is put your head down and work very hard — sometimes too hard.

And I guess there’s the benefit of having been the first big entrance in that space, so that you’ve kind of helped define it, but I didn’t want some upstart to like supplant us. So I would feel very competitive at times with other sites, and I had mass RSS feeds of almost every major site on the internet and I had a special folder for other women’s sites. I’d get a sense of when they were posting things and they were often posting things after we did …

Let’s talk about the drawings, photos and cartoons in the Book of Jezebel — they’re really rad! [The book contains original illustrations by artists like Molly Crabapple and Vanessa Davis and comics by Jen Sorenson.]

I commissioned the illustrations and I picked the photos, which was really fun and time-consuming. But I think one of the most fun acts was commissioning the illustrations, because the illustrators’ works in the book are just so talented and they come up with such hilarious stuff at times. A lot of stuff that was just kinda gross in some instances. But I love illustration — that was one of the things that makes me the happiest is just seeing how someone translated an idea into pictures because I’m so used to dealing with words. So, hopefully my personal glee for the illustrations will be shared for other people. And I really love the photos, I chose them for a reason. I think the illustrations really help make the book pop. And that sounds corny but that’s the only way I can think to put it!

You can buy The Book of Jezebel here! If you’re in NYC and are interested in the subject of the lady-blogosphere, Housing Works is hosting a panel with Anna Holmes and other women’s blog editors, including our own Amelia, tomorrow. You can get more information here.

This interview was condensed and edited for length and clarity. 

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