From Bookslut to Tarot Cards

A Conversation with Jessa Crispin

/ by Noah Charney

Jessa Crispin’s latest book is a new take of Tarot. We’re all familiar with Tarot cards, but she is an expert in them, and would like to draw them away from the wayward realm of gypsy caravans and medieval fairs, and help you put them to use in your daily life. She has quite a daily life, herself. A regular contributor to The Guardian, she is best-known as the founder of the review website, Bookslut (and its later offshoot magazine, Spolia). Bookslut is hugely influential in literary circles, and draws more readers than many long-established magazines. A powerhouse on Twitter, Jessa has a firm hold as a mighty presence in the world of literati. We spoke to her about her new book, The Creative Tarot, as well as her role as mover/shaker in the publishing world.


Noah Charney (NC): I live in Slovenia where folks love to play Tarok. What's the difference between Tarok and Tarot, and were Tarot cards ever used for a card game, or did they begin as a fortune-telling device?


Jessa Crispin (JC): I think Tarok is played with just a standard deck, though, right? I don't think there's a link, other than the name, which is a variation on the Italian game that the tarot cards were originally designed for. So yes, the tarot was originally just a game, but they started to be used for divination in the way that everything -- cheese curds, clouds, playing cards, coffee grounds -- has been used for divination. People always want some sort of glimpse of the future or of their own psyches, and we find external imagery is really helpful for that.  


What was it like the first time you had your fortune told via Tarot cards?


Not that interesting, actually. I had my own deck in high school, but I was crap at it. I think my first reading by someone else was just a college friend. I don't remember anything she actually told me, just that it was the standard, "You will stop feeling like shit all of the time soon, you will find love at some point, we are just trying to make you feel better so you can get out of bed in the morning" kind of thing.


Which is still, I find, the way most tarot readings go. There are a lot of bad readers out there who just want to... not scam you, but tell you what you want to hear. I don't know how many of them are even aware they are doing this. But it's always the same. Money will come, love will come, happiness will come. Sometime. It's vague. But soon. I don't find that helpful at all. 


Do you have a card that you find most intriguing (I hesitate to ask about a "favorite," but...)


Tarot image
They're all pretty good and crazy, right? Even the Devil, that fucker. My "birth card" is the Chariot, and so I look for him. When he's in a reading, or when he's my card for the day, I feel like I'm well-aligned, like I'm doing the thing I'm supposed to be doing. But when he's been missing for a while, I wonder what it is I'm doing wrong. 


You've founded two very successful magazines, Bookslut and its offshoot, Spolia. Bookslut very quickly became a major player in the literary world, and has more monthly readers than many more institutional publications. What do you see as the source of its success? What do you think it was that launched it into the orbit of the literati, becoming a household name and reliable source of quality articles? 


Oh man, I don't know. We were young and didn't take ourselves too seriously, but had a high standard for intelligence. All of these things were kind of missing from the literary conversation at the time. I grimace a bit at your calling Bookslut and Spolia "very successful," but okay. 


Tarot image
Look: we had a good run at the beginning, because it was this weirdo thing. And that gets you a lot of attention at first. But then, if you're still the weirdo thing ten, or in our case fourteen, years down the line, people don't really know what to do with you. The establishment is going to want you to conform to their standards, and we never did. So now we're in this odd space. And there was no way I was ever going to conform, there was no way I was ever going to say something like City on Fire is a super important book or whatever. I was never going to play cheerleader for a sexist, racist capitalist industry. Or for its inane white boy heroes. So it's cute when you're new, but tiring after a while. Now I'm not sure where we exist, to be honest.


You're being interviewed for a new online magazine that hopes to enjoy some of the success of Bookslut (though with a very different focus). Any words of advice on how to raise the visibility and influence of a new publication like ours?


None. Everyone is fighting for visibility. Fight for fucking integrity instead. 


As an editor, what do you look for in a good article? Or perhaps it's easier to list some red flags that suggest you won't care for the writing? 


Poet of the Week
Valentina Neri
Little Red Riding Hood

In your bowels swallow my mutiny.

My sin abdicates to obey your cruelty

No one must see, hidden

through the modest redness of my hood

My desire of evil.

No one must understand

Your enchantment  upsetting my senses

Your wicked soul that will give me my womanhood

I yearn for punishment

I want to be a victim

I am your longing for evil.

I knew it all! About the woods… about the wolf…

And now I am meeting you:

You cannot disappoint me.

Be what you’re not

There is no hope for you

Seduce me slashing through my body with the frenzy of your claws

Scratch me by the sweetness of your lies

Swallow me…do not spew me!

Swallow me.

Swallow my misunderstood loneliness

Swallow my inept nonentity.

Hurt me, really hurt me badly

So badly as to be understood,

So badly as not to be hurt anymore.

So badly as to become someone

In the dark wood of hypocrisy

To be someone

At last.

If it sounds like it came out of an MFA workshop, not interested. If it has banal ideas of feminism, not interested. If, and this is a recent example, two dude writers are joking around with each other about whether their wives are going to let them out to play, not interested. (Fuck men who treat their wives like mommies.) If poets write about their process for writing poetry, not interested. If there is not a serious engagement with ideas, not interested. If it reads like promotional material, not interested. If it references Buffy the Vampire Slayer, not interested.


Your new book describes using tarot cards to "boost the creative process." Can you give us an example of what you mean by this, what a reader might expect from the book?


Tarot cards are cues. They bring clarity just by presenting a random idea or image to you, and you use that image or idea as a spark in the confusion. As in: here is this chaotic mind that is blocked or too full or unable to focus, and you pull a tarot card, or do a whole spread, and you use that to help organize and arrange your thoughts. It's the narrative, the spine. It organizes the chaos, helps you sort through it to see what is valuable and what is not. But you have to put work into it, you can't just expect it to be a magical key. You will have to do the work.


Do you own an antique tarot card set? I see some rather evocative ones occasionally in Slovene or Austrian antiques shops and they always draw my eye.


Nope. They're expensive, I'm a broke writer. 


Is the gypsy tarot tradition distinct from the traditional use of tarot cards elsewhere, or are the two similar/linked?


Tarot cards are just cards. You can kind of doing with them whatever you want. Tell fortunes, use them for self-analysis, play a game. There's nothing inherently magical about the cards. You get out of them whatever you put in.


Have you tried to use tarot to predict when The Creative Tarot will hit the best-sellers list?


Like I tell all of my clients, I don't use tarot cards for prognostication. Plus, having a bestseller, being famous, people talking about you and looking at you, this is basically my nightmare. Don't tell my publishers, but I am most happy when being ignored. I write things because I believe in them and love them, but I publish them because I need the money. If I were independently wealthy, all this shit would go into a drawer. The actually being read part of all of this is the part I am least comfortable with.

Noah Charney

is a professor of art history and best-selling author of, most recently, The Art of Forgery. You can learn more about his work at or by joining him on Facebook.