Live Free or Die! Lisa Carver and the Death of an Alternative
Lisa Carver is the first writer I ever really loved and claimed as my own. I came of age in the beginning of the 90’s in an all-white town in a rural part of the mid-west, and it was pre-cable television, pre-internet all the way. If you were an arty kid, destined for cool, you had to rely on your one friend with the pothead dad to take you to Cleveland Heights to go to Record Revolution where you could buy punk hair dye and zines. Thanks to Sassy
I knew enough to find my way, but it wasn’t until I found Rollerderby
, Lisa’s magazine, that I really fell in love with somebody’s voice, with a writer in general. I simply could not believe someone this influential
was living in a regular town in New Hampshire, and if you wanted to you could write to her PO Box and she would totally write you back.
I followed her columns and zines for 8 years. Every single thing she wrote at that time made me feel something real and challenging. She was an obvious feminist who had broken all the rules of feminism; she made it okay to be a girl or a grrrl or a lady or a man. She slept with horrible people, fell in love with them, had their children, left them, and kept on writing and publishing and going. Her mother was dying, her father was a sociopath. She was nuts and brilliant and alive, imperfect but determined and free; she taught me about empathy and self-protection. I learned to be alone in her company.
When I moved to NYC and started working at a literary agency, Lisa was finally having her moment. She had published a book of comic essays with Holt
. She could often be seen on HBO and MTV, where she was heralded as the mistress of culture that she was. She wrote the most popular column for Nerve magazine (then both in print and online), and her diaries were being collected
. And so it happened that I became an agent and she agreed to be my first official client.
Then some stuff happened: 9/11, an economic downturn, a new baby. By the time we had something great to share with the Big Men on Campus, it was 2003. I thought the world would be waiting for a memoir called DRUGS ARE NICE by a writer the newspapers lamely heralded as “Hunter S. Thompson in a miniskirt,” and some pockets of them were. I got plenty of love from sad-faced editors who sung Lisa’s praises in private and would happily come to the book party when someone else took on its actual publication, but despite a lot of passion in the end we ended up with a small press
. Over and over again from then on, I heard a rejection that I have begun to hear more and more from editors: such great “voice” but the subject matter is “too dark” to appeal to readers in large enough numbers. Could this be true? Would memoirists now have to tone it down for the delicate post-9/11 sensibility of America? Were readers “only interested in characters they could root for?” (a patronizing response I’d seen in reaction to a brilliantly dark and satirical novel by a bestselling female author of the 80’s, whose latest fiction is now only published in the U.K., among numerous examples
) Weren’t all my favorite novelists and writers in general dealing pretty exclusively in the dark? Hadn’t I grown up with Stephen King, with Brett Easton Ellis, with V.C. Fucking Andrews?
I hadn’t seen Lisa in years but last week she read to a packed house at the Bowery Poetry Club
. She’d written a manifesto of sorts about being recently rejected for a freelance piece by her old employer, Nerve.com, who is now owned by another entity entirely. I think there are a few writers on here who can probably relate to this conversation.
EH: Tell me about your experiences as a freelancer these days.
: Sparse and disrespectful! You're expected to turn fluff around in 24 hours, get all these expert opinions rather than have your own (the writer is now just a collector of phone numbers), tone it down, fit the script, then they just rewrite it anyway, or kill your thing with no kill fee. I suppose it's related to the Internet making everything sort of equal, so equally meaningless. I mean, seriously, I used to find more respect for craftsmanship in writing back in the '90s working for porn mags.
EH: What happened between 1999 and 2009 to get us to this place now, where suddenly your tone isn't welcome? Is it purely the recession?
: I don't think it's just the recession, because look at how wild the underground in the '80s was during that recession. Writers have never been about money, because look how hard you have to work to get just a tiny little bit of it! It's pretty dumb to be a writer. No one would do it unless they'd die if they didn't. So I can't believe it's connected to the economy or politics. My guess is it's due to a change in how younger people's brains work due to growing up with constant access to information, culture. Teenagers today don't get lonely like we did. They don't seem to feel the need to create a society for like-minded weirdos out there, because they already have access to them over the internet, night or day, wherever their locale, however weird or singular. Same thing with relationships. People go out in groups; sex is casual; friends rotate. Do you remember how intense things were for us? We wanted to DIE if we felt loss over a friend or beau. Because we knew the pit of loneliness that awaited us. That pit no longer exists. So people don't need to create utopian monuments or little intense love affairs or movements to stave off the threat. The threat of the abyss! RIP loneliness. Long live death; death is dead.
EH: You did take a break…
: The change in culture was not gradual for me. I was like Rip Van Winkle suddenly waking up last month and going, "Oh my god! This world SUCKS!"
I checked out from 2005 -- 2009 during my custody battle where my ex constantly sought out and used against me everything I wrote, my beliefs and experiences, to call me an unfit parent to judges, guardian ad litems, Child Protective Services, psychological evaluators, and drug testers. In the end, I got sole custody. Everyone -- social workers, therapists, judges -- even in this conservative state -- ended up all telling me the same thing: "We don't care what you think or what you do when you're away from your children, and if your lifestyle was good enough for the child's father when he was married to you, it should be good enough when he's divorced from you." But I was still scared. The only thing that ever scared me at all was the thought of losing my children, and here was someone with a lot of money and time completely dedicated for years to exactly that, so I got my very first writer's block. I even got reader's block! I became afraid of freedom in any form! Anyway, after my sixth court appearance in 2009, and $75,000 later, it all got straightened out and I finally emerged from my black hole and I had so much pent up stuff to say, and I went back to my old work connections and approached new ones, and god was I shocked! It was like coming out of a coma and your country doesn't even have the same name anymore... somebody bought it and renamed it and part of the agreement of the sale is you're not supposed to notice or say out loud that it happened.
My friend, who is editor-in-chief of a big glossy magazine, likes to say that when the Internet started, advertisers saw how many hits and were all, "Wow!" Then they had time to do studies and figured out how many hits were needed to sell one product, and what kind of article grossed people out and got them thinking and they'd send the link to their friends and it would get a ton of hits but people would be in shock and maybe not in the mood to buy the baby stroller or whatever was flashing in the ad next to the article about, oh, "What It's Like When Your Dad's A Pedophile." You can't be honest anymore, because honesty is the opposite of advertising, and advertisers somehow got totally in control. When magazines used to be printed, people paid for them, so it was half subscription rates, half advertisers. Now subscriptions, or readers, don't hold much weight anymore. Only as consumers of what the ads are selling, not what the magazines are selling (which used to be ideas, information, revolution).
EH: I don’t know if circulation is half – all Conde Nast talks about are ad pages, ad pages, but it does seem much more extreme – the crackdown on content. There used to be an alternative. JANE before it closed. Miss Behave before it died, pretty much at least one mag for each genre…
: It used to be you were supposed to show readers something new, which is often a disturbing experience. Now you're supposed to please -- please advertisers, please readers, please your editor and the publisher and the backers. I used to fight all the time with my editors because we both cared about the piece -- we both considered it worth fighting over. Now I can't see ANYONE caring about the piece, the idea. I see people worrying about it NOT being offensive or not going up on time or being too long... It's just a product.
What do you guys think?