A few weeks ago, among a relatively large group of people, I sat in a bookstore and listened to several editors from women’s websites talk. An audience member stood and asked the panel about a new, infamously mocked site. Should you write for publications you dislike when you need the money?
One of the editors said that the audience member had named a website that ultimately doesn’t pay that much. She said that for one post they pay less than a nice lipstick cost the editor earlier that day. Should you write for publications you dislike when they don’t pay enough for your lipstick?
One person on the panel did cry out, “Write whatever you want!” in so many words. It seemed to go without saying what “women’s” writing was, why these sites were there, and what they actually did, when in fact no one seemed to know or want to say.
The gender line is largely a myth, and the answer to why any publication exists is money, boredom, both, or some nobler value. But what they actually do is up for discussion, I think. They serve a social function, and they do this most acutely with personal essays. Sure, there are also listicles that people pass around, and slideshows, and humor pieces, too. But personal essays are a marker of social exchange unlike those others. A site says to pitch your story; you tell a story; the site puts it up; other people respond by telling their stories. It happened to me, and so on.
It’s not a bad genre by any means. For me to say so would be hypocritical, as I write personal essays all the time. And there have been some excellent, recent examples of what the personal essay can do. Chief among them is Ariel Levy’s “Thanksgiving in Mongolia,” a violent, elegant piece about her miscarriage five months into term. I felt it was important to share that piece with as many people I could share it with, and not just because of its social value while miscarriage is still relatively taboo. Levy wrote something beautiful and honest about a personal trauma, and she has done it in an almost instructive way. She took a wide view of something bad that had happened. She allowed herself to be darkly funny, baldly self-critical, and softly hopeful as she walked through the steps of wanting to be a mother and coming to terms with the fact that she isn’t one, after all that time. It’s a powerful, grotesque, sad story, and there’s no question at all why she told it. Some aspects of our lives beg to be articulated, however natural, however brutal.
I want a good story, but I want it to be told for a reason. Is affirmation that the storyteller exists a good enough reason for the story to be told? Sometimes. Some stories aren’t told as often as others. I’m not saying there is a hierarchy of suitable topics for essays. Not everything should be about death or hunger or, you know, celebrity diets. But it’s really the frequent lack of quality in the story itself that bothers me, especially when it’s done for a price. Then I wonder what the fuck is going on. Then I ask myself why and what and why again, over and over. Then I feel like no one is asking why they are telling their stories. It seems like the only answer to that question is: so that I can be heard.
I feel similarly when I am reading those “reported” stories that are actually personal essays in disguise. The trend pieces with two friends as sources. Pieces about how elusive the female orgasm is for women who have casual sex. Any story where the problematic, journalistic “I” becomes deafeningly loud.
The piece in the New York Times magazine about the reporter being on the set of The Canyons comes to mind as an example. The angle for that story was that Lindsay Lohan is a difficult person to work with; the headline for the online version reads, “Here Is What Happens When You Cast Lindsay Lohan in Your Movie.” The print iteration was called “The Misfits,” a wink and an elbow in the ribs toward Marilyn Monroe’s last completed film, a reference which helpfully telegraphs the larger problem with this piece: this isn’t a new story.
The things we already can guess about a film that is having trouble getting made—fussy, distraught starlet; pompous screenwriter; dogged but visionary director; salacious new talent—are all there in that piece, but with different faces. Frankly, I would rather watch State and Main for the third time. It’s funnier, and I like the characters more. And I say that knowing I love Lindsay Lohan with all my heart, and I love hearing about Paul Schrader, and I will admit to an equal level of wormy curiosity about both James Deen and Bret Easton Ellis. But the question I had throughout reading the piece was: why is this being told? What is the value?
Simple answer: it was really fucking cool. It had a porn star, a tragic woman, and large numbers of hotshots swarming around LA like flies on shit. There will always be something cool for a reporter about being on the scene and telling others what it was like. I was there. Everyone would like to be there. Everyone would like to be Joan Didion sitting on the floor while Ray Manzarek tools around on the keyboard. Everyone would like to be Joan Didion, full stop.
But there is something lost in the pursuit of this coolness. So often you’re telling a story because you want to be the one telling it, and too rarely you’re asking why. Yeah, yeah: we tell ourselves stories in order to live. But we tell other people stories for different reasons. Reasons other than wanting to be heard, being cool, and being there. The Joan Didion I like to think about is in her review of Manhattan, when she is talking about eavesdropping on a woman sharing her room at a hospital.
Linda had two problems, only one of which, her “relationship,” had her attention. Linda spoke constantly about this relationship, about her “needs,” about her “partner,” about the “quality of his nurturance,” about the “low frequency of his interaction.” Linda’s other problem, one which tried her patience because it was preventing her from working on her relationship, was acute and unexplained renal failure. “I’m not relating to this just now,” she said to her doctor when he tried to discuss continuing dialysis.
That’s not just funny (Didion has great timing, knowing exactly when to deploy renal failure); as Didion says of self-absorption, it’s general. How easy it is to focus on questions we’ve asked ourselves before. And how hard it is to focus on the ones that come next.