The Nervous Breakdown: matchmaking writers and readers

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Brad Listi started the website The Nervous Breakdown in 2006 as a place for writers to come together, to discuss and support -- and promote-- each others’ work. The scope of the site has changed: It now reads more like a magazine than a message board, and the reading is good. It showcases editorially curated original fiction, nonfiction and poetry by writers such as Ron Currie Jr. and Tod Goldberg. But it’s still sort of a collective effort -- a discussion with Neil Gaiman about his hair was a blog post -- although the collection of writers steering things is now nearly 200 contributors, with 19 volunteer editors. Founding editor Listi, an L.A.-based author, answered Carolyn Kellogg’s questions about TNB via e-mail.

Jacket Copy: While The Nervous Breakdown appears to be a literary magazine, it grew out of a writing community. Could you explain the site’s history?


Brad Listi: I started the site in 2006 as an outgrowth of the work I was doing to my promote my debut novel, ‘Attention. Deficit. Disorder.’ It wasn’t really all that long ago, but the tech landscape was markedly different even then. The concept of an author promoting his book on the Web was a relatively new one, and I was having some success writing online and building a bit of a community around my work. Along the way, it occurred to me that it would be fun -- and likely more interesting -- to be doing something similar in concert with other writers. It felt experimental then, and it feels experimental now. The goal is to offer something of value to online readers -- particularly those who are interested in literature and the arts. We’re trying to distinguish ourselves from the static, so to speak, and, with a nod to irony, we’re trying to use the Web to let readers know about books and writers worth reading.

And it’s true: The Nervous Breakdown in its present iteration really is an outgrowth of a small writers’ community that formed back in ’06 and has been growing like a weed ever since. A lot of lasting friendships have been forged via the site. A lot of writers have really bloomed and developed loyal followings, and many have gone on to have some amazing successes in publishing. Best of all, two of our contributors -- Greg Boose and Claire Bidwell Smith -- wound up falling in love and getting married, which led to the birth of a beautiful baby girl (whom we all now jokingly refer to as the “TNBaby”). As the site improves its design and becomes more sophisticated in its functionality, the challenge is to preserve this grass-roots, community aspect and to find ways to integrate it with a more robust publication.

JC: Although there are many writing communities on the Web, few have a real constituency of working writers. Have any TNB contributors published books this year?

BL: We have dozens of contributors who published books this year, including Suzanne Burns (‘Misfits and Other Heroes’, Ron Currie, Jr. (‘Everything Matters!’), Ronlyn Domingue (‘The Mercy of Thin Air’), D.R. Haney (‘Banned for Life’), Tao Lin (‘Shoplifting from American Apparel’), Greg Olear (‘Totally Killer’), Lance Reynald (‘Pop Salvation’), and Laura van den Berg (‘What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us’), to name a few.

JC: What’s been the greatest surprise to you, in the evolution of TNB?


The community that it fosters. The lasting friendships. The marriage. The child. The dating. The relationships. Writers sending food to one another. Exchanging recipes, books, music. Visiting one another in foreign countries. You name it. There has been way more of that kind of thing than I ever envisioned when we started out. And maybe it shouldn’t surprise me. The fact is that our writers are a good bunch of people, and very talented, very open and honest, and very interactive on the comment boards and so on. The site amounts to a daily conversation, in effect, and it fosters a genuine sense of intimacy and connection among people. What better way to get to know someone, after all, than to read their deeper thoughts?

As I like to joke: should hire me as a consultant.

After the jump: Can new writers get involved? And how can a magazine be a community?


JC: Is there a way to add new voices to the work that appears on TNB? Do you solicit contributions, or have a submissions policy?

BL: Absolutely. We’re always looking to add good new writers to the roll. One of the nice things about the Web is that it allows for this kind of growth. We love the idea of expanding the community and maintaining a sense of openness, but at the same time, we’re very discerning about the folks we bring onboard. Quality is obviously of vital importance, as is a basic willingness to engage with the Web.

On occasion, we’ll approach writers we admire and ask them to contribute, but more often than not, the inverse is true. Writers will e-mail us directly, or else their agent or editor or publicist will send word.

And yes, there is an official submissions policy posted on the site, the link for which you can find at the bottom of our homepage. JC: How do the two parts -- magazine and community -- fit together? If someone submits a piece that the genre editors like, do they run it and welcome the writer into the community? How do community members interact?

Well, this is the million-dollar question, and it’s what I’m constantly thinking about: how to meld the magazine with the community. The interactive aspect of TNB is its most valuable asset, and something that has happened organically, with no real prodding from me. A lot of it comes down to serendipity. First, the technology was available to enable this sort of thing, which is a critical point. Without it, TNB couldn’t exist. And then it comes down to good writers and good readers entering the fold and embracing the opportunity and pouring a lot of energy and effort into it. The site’s success is a direct testament to the collective efforts of hundreds of writers and thousands of loyal readers. They make the community. They create the conversation. That’s the reality.

As it stands now, TNB is a marriage of our old design and ethos with the new design and its expanded functionality. It’s an ongoing refinement process. The old design and ethos can basically be summed up with the word anarchy. When someone becomes a TNB contributor, they get an account. They can log in and post in our Nonfiction and Arts & Culture sections as they wish. It’s a free-for-all. This is how we started, and it’s how we plan to continue. A punk rock sort of ethos, and something we don’t want to lose.
As for the new design and functionality: We’re obviously now becoming an online magazine, more robust and sophisticated in nature. We’re featuring artists, both big and small. We have other new bells and whistles, like podcasts and forums and a phone photo experiment. Our Fiction and Poetry sections are brand new, and these sections are edited. Our contributors are not allowed to post in these sections without first clearing an editorial process. The goal here is to make sure that the quality of what we publish is top-flight, and moreover that the speed with which we publish is moderated. If someone spent, say, three years of her life perfecting a short story, we want to give our readers a chance to find it. We don’t want it to get bumped from the Fiction page in a half-day’s time, lest somebody have an actual nervous breakdown.

As for the submissions process: As I said earlier, it’s pretty stringent. Writers, agents or editors will contact us. We’ll ask for writing samples and so on. We’ll go back and forth. One of the things that we try to communicate upfront is that we prefer to bring writers into the fold who truly want to participate and be a part of the community. We want writers who can commit to one or two posts per month -- not writers who simply want to show up, post once, get their name in the roll and then flake off and disappear. This obviously takes a certain level of commitment, but from my perspective, it’s an approach that has served us well. The more participatory our contributor base is, the better the site is and the happier our readers are. It’s a simple formula, really, and it requires an active -- rather than a passive -- approach.

JC: Are Twitter, Facebook or other social media networks important to TNB?


Social networks are definitely helpful as a communication tool. We’re particularly active on Twitter and on Facebook, both of which have proved to be a nice way to keep us in touch with our readership. These sites function, in effect, as an extension of the TNB community, and they enable us to get the word out to a lot of people quickly.

JC: What would you like to see happen next at TNB?

BL: Right now, my biggest job is preserving the community and the spirit of anarchy that were present at our birth, while at the same time improving the site in terms of design and functionality and so on. It’s a balancing act. We want to present our writers and their work in a manner befitting its quality, and we want to be one of the Web’s best online magazines devoted to literature and the arts. At the same time, we want to make sure that in doing so we don’t stifle the conversation or diminish the sense of connectivity that is so vital to who we are. So the plan is to keep working at it and refining it, and to maintain a sense of openness. As I said before, it’s basically an ongoing experiment and has been from the beginning. We make it up as we go along. -- Carolyn Kellogg

Left photos: Neil Gaiman, left, with author Douglas Adams on guitar, in 1983. Credit: Neil Gaiman / LitPark / The Nervous Breakdown

Right photo: Neil Gaiman in 1994 with pumpkins, intentionally unshaven before the birth of his daughter. Credit: Neil Gaiman / LitPark / The Nervous Breakdown