February 17, 2012
Hail & Farewell: Bookninja
by Dennis Johnson
Canada’s coolest, smartest, and bestest literary website, Bookninja, is no more. Chief cook and bottle washer George Murray has admitted that the fact that he hasn’t posted anything for a year is indeed a sign of the site’s retirement.
In an essay for Toronto’s National Post, he gives a history of the site, which started in 2003 — such as how it started …
Along with one of my best friends, novelist Peter Darbyshire, I decided to create a website for our group of friends to visit. We came up with a silly name, designed a logo and site, posted some links to articles along with our usual saucy commentary, and added an area for discussion. The initial announcement that we’d launched a website probably went out to 25 people.
… how it took off to a readership of some 10,000 people a day, huge for a blog …
… Eventually, even literary celebrities started showing up. After I hosted Irish novelist Roddy Doyle at a book signing in Ontario, he started reading Bookninja, and would tell people it was one of three sites he read daily. After someone dissed one of her authors in the comments, über-agent Anne McDermid chimed in to rebut. Margaret Atwood stopped me at a book event and said, “Oh! So YOU’RE the Bookninja!” and then proceeded to give me some advice on how to better skewer Stephen Harper on his commitment to the arts. What began as a virtual gathering place for friends had gone viral.
… and why he decided to end it …
Peter and I ran the site together for several years, but as the readership mounted, so too did the expectation. There were more books to read than ever. We had to closely monitor the increasingly vitriolic comments section for bullying and libel, less we find a lawsuit on our hands. … If I was late posting the links, I’d get angry emails from readers asking why there’d been a delay. “Listen, buddy,” I wanted to write back, “It’s a thing we do for FREE in our SPARE TIME!” But, of course, that was the problem — we ran the site around our other work and obligations. … Peter quit to devote more time to his own writing …
Through sheer will, and what’s likely undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder, I kept the blog running until last year, but forces in my own life conspired against me: children, jobs, houses, a divorce. I barely had time for the necessities, much less waxing wise about books. Plus, there was this little thing I used to do called “my own writing.” Wasn’t I supposed to be working on a novel? My fellow Ninjas had quit to concentrate on their own books; maybe I should too?
So I did.
And that was that. Murray says he’s relieved, and what’s more he feels the site had run its course — that it “wasn’t really ‘needed’ like it once was. The void it had filled was no longer a void.”
I’m not so sure about that. Beyond being the flat-out funniest blogger ever, Murray was one of the handful of great early bloggers — along with Maud Newton and Bookslut‘s Jessa Crispin — who were so blisteringly good from the start that they made it all viable. They showed the inspiring possibilities of an alternative to a media that had become big business and often didn’t seem to have much to do with reporting reality, and had badly demeaned writing about literary culture to boot. And nobody skewered that more joyfully, nor lifted the veil more naughtily, than Bookninja.
Ten years later the institutions are not only bigger but have become virtual monopolies, making something so marvelous as Bookninja seem all the more necessary to me. Still, it’s not like I don’t understand his weariness, as I write this at one in the morning … after a ten-hour day at the office … maybe twelve, I lost track ….
But there’s another reason I’m particularly going to miss Bookninja. From the early days of MobyLives, before Bookninja, when Murray lived in Manhattan and used to send in typo corrections from his day job at number 7 World Trade Center while I typed furiously in html … to the email he wrote to me about his horrific escape from that building on 9/11, which I posted, and which eventually inspired the missus and me to make our first book … which included one of his greatest poems … well, he’s been an important person to this blog and the publishing house that grew out of it. Despite the fact that he always calls me his fucking “grandpappy.” (You can see us talking about blogging in this CSPAN TV show. He showed more respect then, although he still gets off a grandpappy crack. Fucker couldn’t help himself.)
The world will definitely be a better place if George Murray finds time to produce more books. (Think you don’t like or get poetry? Read him.) But he’s gonna have to forgive his elders if they stay just a little sad to think the world is a place where something like Bookninja couldn’t make pots of money for its proprietors. But thus does art meet commerce, more often than not. And make no mistake: art it was.
Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him on Twitter at @mobylives