Pornokitsch: The Exit Interview
Friday, March 30, 2018
Thank you for attending your contractually mandated exit interview. Everything we discuss today will be kept confidential [shared on the internet] and anonymous [you will be named throughout]. We'll be using the contents of this discussion to ensure that our working conditions are optimal and our processes are as strong as possible [we're hoping you drop some juicy bits of gossip].
So let's get started, shall we? How long have you been at... Porno...quiche? Is that how you pronounce that?
Anne: Cast your mind back to May 2007, a time when you were visiting me in Chicago. One night we made a giant bowl of mac 'n cheese and watched the Sean Connery SF film Outlander. We spent the next day discussing the aesthetics of the film, and of late-70s-to-mid-80s SF films in general, and came to several very exciting conclusions.
'We should write this down!' we agreed. But we both had so many opinions about geeky things that our discussion soon turned into, 'well, maybe we should write all of this down!' And that turned into 'we should start a blog!' We already had a blog, a food blog you'd started a couple of years earlier, called The Carnivore Project, and which we'd been using to post recipes and restaurant reviews. We felt confident that we could run a second blog - a geek blog, if you will - as well. Because you have a habit of buying domain names, you already owned pornokitsch.com. We, being 27, thought 'Pornokitsch' sounded like a swell name for a geek blog, and thus was Pornokitsch born.
What are some of your earliest memories of the site?
Jared: I like to imagine the mirror universe in which we stuck with the food blog. Nominated for a Huge-O Award for Best Use of Bacon. Blurbed on a tin of artisanal mustard. Breaking reddit with ‘We are Salsa’.
I have the memory of a goldfish, so this is less historical record and more misty-eyed nostalgia. But those first few years of Pornokitsch were really important because there was a lot going on in our lives. Having the creative outlet of Pornokitsch meant a lot.
Much of early Pornokitschery was written while in the office after midnight.
Amongst other things, I was working long, long hours. Much of early Pornokitschery was written while in the office after midnight. It was either blog or scream, and the online banter between us, between the contributors, with the commenters - that kept me sane. The Friday Fives from that period are a great example of incipient madness. For an ostensible ‘SF/F’ blog we were weirdos from the start. I mean... remember the time we debated vegetables?!
But then, isn’t that the point of Pornokitsch? If we had a mission, it was showing that SF/F can be whatever you want it to be. I think.
Wait, what was our mission?
Anne: We retrofitted an explanation of our name at some point, a year or so after starting Pornokitsch. (I think because people kept asking us what it meant and also, why on Earth we named our website Pornokitsch, I mean really.)
And although it was 100% post-hoc rationalising for a name we accidentally fell into, the reasoning behind it was in keeping with an ethos we’d been developing for years - the idea that SF/F can be whatever you want, as you say. What was becoming increasingly important to us over the course of our 20s was the idea that it was less important what we were reading or watching or getting excited about than how we were thinking about it. And Pornokitsch became an expression of that.
We had both also begun to find ourselves increasingly frustrated by the kind of critical labels generally applied to the sorts of things we love, whether those things were books or movies or TV shows or whatever. Pop culture criticism tends to use words like ‘low-brow’ or ‘disposable’ or ‘trashy’ to talk about a particular kind of entertainment. The problem is, those words don’t just dismiss that content; they dismiss the people who consume it, too. We felt that, if other people weren’t going to take the things we love seriously, then it was up to us to do it.
The problem is, those words don’t just dismiss that content; they dismiss the people who consume it, too. We felt that, if other people weren’t going to take the things we love seriously, then it was up to us to do it.
Jared: We are also frustrated that ‘fandom’ seemed to find the reverse true as well - the things that we loved, or enjoyed, were never held up to scrutiny. And the act of criticism was often seen as an attack, rather than a type of honour. The phrase we bandied around a lot was ‘we’re respecting this by taking it seriously’.
Anne: There’s always room for improvement; pointing that out doesn’t mean you’re attacking the thing itself or the people who like it. It’s easy to take criticism as a personal attack; it’s not.
Jared: It is ok to be like “I love this book” and “this book has problems”. We can do that! It doesn’t make you a bad person for liking it, or a better person for disliking it. It has nothing to do with you, the person, at all. What’s the quote? The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.[Fitzgerald, apparently].
Fandom is perpetually struggling to function - not helped by the internet, which rewards only the most extreme opinions with attention. If anything, we were trying to flog moderation: create a place that sat firmly in the (seemingly unoccupied) space between rabid fandom and academic snobbery.
Anne: That’s all pretty grandiloquent stuff; the other thing that we cared about - which was just as important to us as our mission to take things seriously - was to have fun. To show that it is a happy medium between critical evaluation and unthinking adoration. Critical adoration? And it has been a lot of fun. What are some of your Pornokitsch highlights?
Jared: I’ll shout one, you shout one? The Big Book Drop, definitely. It was a really, really fun day; we hung out with a lot of lovely people, and the results were gratifying. Nice people are nice.
Anne: Roman week! It was one of our first theme weeks, with lots of contributors, and included our bonkers 'Romans vs Victorians' post.
Jared: Jonny Porkpie. Author of The Corpse Wore Pasties, mayoral candidate, and burlesque performer. We saw his show, then interviewed him. Which was utterly delightful - if unconventional “Tell us about your influences and also are you wearing pants now?”.
Anne: The Hawk the Slayer drinking game. Resulted in the worst hangover of my life. Worth it.
Jared: Oh god, there were so many White Russians involved. We ran to the corner store three times to get more milk. How are we not dead? Ok, to offset with something more serious, remember the first time we interviewed China Miéville? It was at the SFX Weekender, and we were trying to be all SRS ROVING REPORTER and, somehow, they made time for us to interview Miéville between his (many) panels, and we TOTALLY DIDN’T FREEZE. It was very impressive, the way we formed words.
Actually, remembering that weekend, it was lucky we didn’t freeze literally as well.
Anne: The first SFX Weekender was the single greatest convention experience ever, I think: all the book events took place in the bar, where the beer was plentiful and cheap; we were all trapped in a tiny Pontins in the middle of nowhere, so we all made friends with everyone; the weather was so cold our lock froze and we got stuck outside very late at night; and we ended the weekend with literal piles of bacon sandwiches. Someone mistook me for Julie Crisp and tried to pitch me a manuscript.
Jared: The closest offsite place to eat was a greasy spoon about a mile down the beach (which was SO COLD in the wind and the perpetual wetness). And the cafe was sinister. There were teddy bears everywhere, which is a lot scarier than it sounds, especially in rural Borkshire, or wherever.
Anne: Good times, is what we’re saying.
Jared: Wasn’t our ‘chalet’ invaded by slugs one evening? Like, actual slugs?
Anne: We’ve talked a lot about highlights, but how about lowlights? Frustrations? Difficult lessons learned?
Jared: We’ve talked about the name a lot. I still love it, and it is certainly memorable. But also,... there’s only so many times you can hear that your (distressingly innocent) website is banned from a workplace computer.
We also get a fair amount of disturbing junk traffic from people searching for obscure combinations of “porno” + “whatever”. Remember the time we had to take the picture of our cat off the internet because so many people found it while looking for "porno kitty"? Poor Mr Pickles.
Our policy was always, ‘eh’. But... should we have changed it? “The Journal of Contemporary Kitsch”. “The London Review of Popular Culture”? Blech.
Yes, in retrospect, we should maybe not have named it Pornokitsch.
Anne: Yes, in retrospect, we should maybe not have named it Pornokitsch.
It was also deeply frustrating, from my perspective, to be doing as much on the blog as you were, but to be getting less credit for it. Both our names were all over the site. Everything we posted, especially in the early years, was edited by both of us, but invitations to speak on panels generally went to you, and publishers generally addressed proofs to you as well. Emails to the site were addressed to you alone (or they began ‘Dear sirs’). People would even comment on posts I’d written by addressing you! To combat that we instituted the ‘he said/she said’ column, which initially ran once a week, inserted a side-menu with our names displayed more prominently, and made bylines on individual articles larger, with two interesting side-effects. One, people still did it ; and two, we saw an uptick in mean comments.
And man, mean comments. You know they’re going to happen, but nothing really prepares you, does it?
Jared: There’s something really amazing about a stranger on the internet taking the time and effort to tell you how stupid you are. Most of the abusive comments on the site were directed at you as well. Much of those, of course, being “We are Sansa”, which was a proper lightning rod for criticism.
When I got abuse it was, generally speaking, off the site and indirect - people within the fandoms of certain fantasy books (Stormlight!), loudly defending the books and denigrating my criticism to one another, not to me. Reassuring themselves that my reviews were vicious and unfounded, and using the insular, conversation that ensued as a way of reinforcing their existing opinions. I mean... sure?
Anne: I was often more frustrated by the comments (usually not made directly to us, but about us, and ‘loudly’ enough that we were sure to see them) that accused us of unthinking bias in favor of certain authors or properties.
Given what we were trying to do with Pornokitsch, I’d like to believe we earned the right to be taken seriously - that readers could trust that our reviews of certain books or authors weren’t just going to be thoughtless fansquee. Yes, we have favorites, but we made every effort to critique and review them as fairly as everything else we engaged with on Pornokitsch. I preferred comments such as ‘yeah, they’re liberal femtards, but they’ve got pretty good taste’ to ‘they’re fucking idiots who’ll always like whatever that author writes.’
Jared: That says a lot about our personalities (and GRUDGES), as I was more bothered by the reverse. When people brushed off critical reviews because “we were haters”. Of the genre. Of the format. Of the book. You name it.
I wholly understand that, if you get a critical review, you tell yourself whatever you need to do to recover your dignity and walk away. But there’s something I found deeply wounding about accusations that I don’t love this stuff. Going back to what we said above: we’re critical because we love it, and want it to be as good as it can be. Genre fiction ain’t going to get any better if we refuse to acknowledge where it can be improved.
Genre fiction ain’t going to get any better if we refuse to acknowledge where it can be improved.
Anne: Nicely put. And that includes reading criticisms of things we like, and engaging with them on their own terms.
Jared: Let’s talk about a situation in which you did face valid conflicts about what you could and couldn’t talk about. About five years in (halfway!), you jumped over the fence and became a GATEKEEPER. Will you talk a bit about - first - did Pornokitsch make a difference getting into publishing? And second, how did it affect the way you reviewed or wrote after you started your career?
Anne: I feel fairly confident saying I would not have the job/career/house/life I have without Pornokitsch.
Pornokitsch started as a hobby, a way of thinking through and talking about things I love, and engaging with other fans about them. And when publishers started paying attention to us, it wasn’t just flattering, but meant that we both got to engage with creators as well as fans. We met editors, publicists, authors, critics, and other fans - at book events, at conventions, at random meet-ups - and got involved with an exciting community just when it was really starting to take off. It’s hard to imagine, but in 2007/2008, book-blogging was really only just hitting its stride, and we essentially got in on the ground-floor.
Pornokitsch led us to found The Kitschies; the people we met inspired us to found Jurassic (mostly because we didn’t want everyone else to have all that fun without us). Previously, I had an academic background in writing and editing… non-fiction. Pornokitsch and Jurassic taught me that I could take all that training and apply it to fiction (insider secret: fiction is much more fun) and, moreover, that I liked doing so. When an opportunity arose to apply for a job at a traditional publisher, I already had that experience under my belt, so I figured I’d give it a shot. Six years later, here we are.
But Pornokitsch didn’t just teach me how to write and edit: it laid the foundation upon which I’ve erected a career as a publisher. It taught me the importance of networking, of owning my niche, and of being as up-to-date as possible on what my competitors are doing and how they’re doing it.
But you’re not in publishing, Jared, despite the fact that half of UK publishing seems to think you are. Has Pornokitsch contributed to your career? Changed your life? Made you a better man?
Jared: Maaaaybe. I definitely didn’t know how to think critically or edit properly, and Pornokitsch gave me a way to learn both. Or, more accurately, it gave us a way for you to teach me both. Pornokitsch also gave me a sandbox to learn through doing: practical skills like HTML and CSS, but also how to work things like mailing lists and organise events; competitions, submissions processes, project managing authors and artists, etc. Pornokitsch gave me a risk-free way to tinker and experiment, without any external pressure.
Other than that, I've actually tried to keep the site as separate as possible from my career. Over our ten year run, my (actual) career involved a fair amount of agency or consultancy work with various media companies, including publishers, TV and film. Most never knew or cared about Pornokitsch, but, in those rare instances where someone did know, it was very important to keep my professional life completely separate. You could probably track when I was working with a publisher: look for periods on the site when the reviews are of long-dead authors from defunct imprints.
We were both far more nervous about even the possibility of ‘conflict of interest’ accusations than we ever needed to be. But better not to risk it.
Based on your experience, would you recommend blogging as a way in to publishing? Or - with your publishing hat on - would you recommend it to authors?
Anne: I used the phrase ‘own [your] niche’ above, and it’s #1 on my list of advice to people who want to get into publishing: know what kind of book you want to do and get good at that genre. Read widely, read deeply, read criticism, watch film adaptations, develop opinions about covers and imprints and authors and editors. But part and parcel with becoming knowledgeable is developing that knowledge. It’s an obvious thing to say, but writing all that stuff down will help you develop your thoughts and feelings and opinions, and may perhaps get you noticed by someone who might, in ways you don’t yet know, help your career further down the line. A blog is one way to do that; a podcast is another, a YouTube channel another again. Find your medium, own your niche; the groundwork you lay now will never hurt you.
As for authors; some kind of online presence is important, because when a reader discovers and falls in love with your book, the first thing they’re going to do is Google you. Give them a place to go, to feel like they can connect with you! You don’t have to write 4000 perfect words a day, every day; even just an Instagram account can be enough. And publishers love an author with an online presence because it’s a direct line to fans and therefore potential bookbuyers.
But, as with all things: if you’re not feeling it, don’t do it.
But, as with all things: if you’re not feeling it, don’t do it. Plenty of authors don’t have websites or Twitter accounts, and many (most?) publishers don’t either. If it feels right and natural to you, that’s one thing; don’t force yourself to write/tweet/blog/sing/post only as a means to an end. Do it first and foremost because it brings you joy.
So let’s bring this back around to the important stuff: us. What are your favourite things we’ve posted on PK that you haven’t written?
Jared: Oh wow, ok. This is tough. I think most of the non-us posts are from thesis-writers - folks staying in a tight lane, and, more or less, investigating a single question.
Stark’s posts may seem disconnected, but then you realise that s/he’s repeatedly (if implicitly) asking the question “what is a ‘Western’?”. Erin’s trek through villainy is free-ranging and surprising and thoughtful. I’m a sucker for anything that opens up the genre and welcomes people in, so Jon’s approach with the One Comic Podcast and his exploration of big comic book ‘crossover events’ are both particular favourites, as are Jamie’s comic book reviews, Becky’s video game replays, and your exploration of 1980s fantasy films. I learned a ton from these - not only about the topic, but in critical thinking: how to approach silly things seriously.
We provided a lawless creative zone where people could write about whatever, whenever: the internet's Island of Misfit Toys.
That said, as much as we pretend to be a grown-up site where people think about Big Questions and approach them in Reasonable Ways... we also provided a lawless creative zone where people could write about whatever, whenever: the internet's Island of Misfit Toys. Kuzhali’s listen-alongs to old radio dramas are something I will cherish forever. Mahvesh digging for mixtapes. Becky making a new home with Funko Pops. Adam Kranz preaching the gospel of parasites. Adam Roberts reading to his kids. Justin Landon growing up with Shannara. Sarah Lotz surviving hatchet jobs.
...which is to say: everything.
What about you? Any favourites - is there a thing you wish you’d written (or could write)?
Anne: I love Becky Chambers’ columns about playing old PC video games, particularly when she doesn’t have the instructions to follow: the ants game is a highlight. Stark’s Western reviews are superb, exactly as you say; s/he just slides into the drafts folder with another hilarious, thoughtful take on the genre, and I learn from every one of them. But, I could sit here and write about all our contributors; they’re all spectacular, all well-written and hilarious, and I have learned so much about so many fantastic things from all of them.
As you say above, Pornokitsch is what we wanted it to be: a home for thoughtful, fun (and funny) essays about… whatever. Back when it was just the two of us writing for the site, that’s what we did. And it’s been a pleasure to watch the site bloom with much, much more of that.
As for what I wish I could write: there were a hundred more movies I wanted to review for Monsters & Mullets - but some of those essays became so personal that publishing them felt self-indulgent. I mean, who knew that my feelings about Conan the Barbarian (1982) were so intense? There’s an essay sitting in the drafts folder on my personal hard-drive, dating from 2008, titled, my hand to god, ‘Joss Whedon is a Bad Feminist,’ which is a very personal deep-dive into my relationship with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and how my feelings about it have changed over the years. If I could have found a way to write those essays, and many more, without making them all about me, I would have… but I didn’t, or couldn’t, so they stay where they are: in the drafts folders on my laptop or in my head.
If I could have found a way to write those essays, and many more, without making them all about me, I would have… but I didn’t, or couldn’t, so they stay where they are: in the drafts folders on my laptop or in my head.
By and large, I’m happy to say that I think I wrote more or less exactly what I wanted to write for the site. There are a few reviews I would do differently now, if I could go back in time. But we founded Pornokitsch as a way of talking about the pop culture we love with the humour and intelligence we wished to see in those conversations, and at the end of the day, I think we - and our many brilliant contributors over the years - have done just that.
Jared: On that note... We've mentioned our amazing contributors: words and art, regular and guest, past and present. We owe them a huge, huge thanks for all of their hard work and help and patience. Thank you all.