Author Archives

Senior editor, Longreads. Chief Semicolon Advocate, WordPress.com. Professional writer, editor, napper, and dog-snorgler. Knows you are, but what is she?

Strong Writer-Editor Partnerships Create the Best Stories, As This Extended Bus Metaphor Will Prove

longreads member drive

Editors don’t make stories better because we’re pedantic about grammar and sentence structure (although we are) or because we’re better writers (we’re not) or because we have some kind of special insight into what people want to read (we wish). Editors make stories better because we free writers: to experiment, to push boundaries, to explore the limits of their topics. Editors give writers the support they need to take risks, and risks lead to more interesting, thought-provoking stories.

A good story takes you on a journey. Think of it like being on a bus tour. No, really; stay with me here.

The writer is the guide driving the tour bus, taking you past the key sights and using color commentary to explain how they’re linked and to give you context and insight. The reader — you — are sitting on the bus, sometimes listening closely, sometimes lost in thoughts inspired by the trip. And the editor is the person in the passenger seat, keeping track of the time, checking the map so we don’t miss any exits, turning on the A/C when the bus gets stuffy and off again when it gets too chilly, making a note of that interesting new building on the side of the road.

(In case you’re wondering, we’re on a double-decker bus here, because that’s obviously the most fun kind of bus.)

A good tour guide needs to be engaging and in-the-moment, or the tour’s boring. They need to describe things to the passengers in interesting and accessible and fresh ways, and make sure passengers get the detail necessary to understand what they’re seeing. That is, they need to be focused and present. But they can’t be focused if they’re thinking about whether their new anecdote is landing, or about whether a stop has gotten boring and should be removed from the tour. And they can’t be present if they have to worry about logistics — how to deal with a detour or how much gas is left or what that weird clanking noise is. They need someone in the passenger seat taking care of all that. That person — the editor — takes the notes that enable the tour guide to do their thing and helps them hone their delivery for the next group.

Tragically, most double-decker bus tours don’t have editors, so they’re rote and boring and the stops are in the wrong order. But Longreads stories do have editors, which is why Anne Thériault can have fun with the text message dialogues in her “Queens of Infamy” pieces — her editor has his eye on the overall shape of the story. It means Rachel Somerstein can lay her pain bare in “How to Survive a Vivisection,” because her editor is there to make sure that every detail is both checked and handled with the utmost care. It means writers can write, knowing that someone will tell them if a paragraph is unclear or a flight of fancy flutters a little too far, knowing that someone’s making sure facts get checked and typos get found, knowing that their blind spots will be IDed and their strongest ideas brought to the fore.

For the past two years or so, I’ve edited Soraya Roberts‘s culture columns for Longreads. Here’s a selection of the notes I’ve left on her drafts lo these past 24 months:

  • Obviously, we are a shitty country. But is it just us? Is this not a larger Western issue?
  • It feels like a significant gap in the piece to say that “I believe X” rather than laying out the why. It’s important to explain, not least because the simple statement is going to raise hackles and prevent people from engaging with your actual arguments, but also because then you can compare contrast U.S./French actions later on in the piece to really illustrate the ramifications of this understanding of #MeToo.
  • I think you need more of a segue into this quote, and then a little more unpacking; it’ll better set up the final section. I’d put a para break here and then flesh this out a little more.
  • YES.
  • Master’s house, master’s tools, why do we never listen to Audre Lorde.
  • Small potato? Pshaw. You’re at least a medium-sized potato, with a healthy blorp of sour cream.

The push and pull has (I think) resulted in some remarkable criticism from Soraya, and it’s helped me hone my own philosophies and politics, both as an editor and a human being. Supporting our writers like this is a gift. Every day, I get to ride new buses, see new places, hear new voices. I lend my support to every journey, and in turn learn things that I’ll be able to bring to the next trip I get to go on.

Every Longreads story is a partnership between a passionate writer and an equally passionate editor, and always will be. It’s how we best serve our writers and our readers. When writers have that support and freedom, they produce amazing work that we’re privileged to publish for you.

We can only keep doing this with your support. If I may stretch my already-exhausted metaphor: bus tours aren’t free, and neither is publishing the calibre of work we publish (and compensating writers fairly). We don’t put Longreads stories behind a paywall, but we do ask for your help.

Become a member, or give a one-time gift. Click the button. You know what to do.

Make a contribution

The Hate Is Coming From Inside the House

Image from Quote Catalog via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Body positivity, fat activism, intuitive eating: all of these things are meant, in part, to free us from the tyranny of diet culture. But if you’ve spent 50 years living your life according to the Gospel of Jenny Craig — each of those 50 in a world that doesn’t hate fat people any less — it’s hard to keep the self-love switch in the “on” position. In the New York Times, Sarah Miller takes a hard look at her relationship to her body and to body positivity.

I am not saying that no one has accepted her body, that it’s all a lie. I am just saying that I’m pretty sure we haven’t “arrived” anywhere. And why would we have? The material conditions of being a woman have not been altered in any dramatic way, and seem to be getting worse, for everyone. And while there is certainly more of what is called a “celebration” of different shapes, it is rare that those shapes are not proportioned in a fairly universally attractive way.

Even if by some miracle I were to accept being not thin, as I have many times — for five or 10 minutes or three whole days like when I finished Lindy West’s excellent memoir, “Shrill,” and naïvely thought I had finally been cured of my sickness — I would remain the sort of person destined for re-infection.

That person is always prepared for contempt from men who don’t find her physically attractive, and has been on high alert to general woman hatred since she was 4. (Honestly, I pity the women who are not.) At any rate, I’m 50 and I am way too scared of the world to stop dieting.

Read the essay

How Do You Live In a Body That Doesn’t Feel Like Yours? If You Have No Choice, You Just Do.

Photo by Ford Motor Company via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

It’s hard to choose a passage to highlight when every paragraph of an essay makes you stop to catch your breath because it’s so lovely, or candid, or difficult. Such is the case with Paraic O’Donnell‘s Irish Times essay that juxtaposes the progression of the seasons with the progression of his Multiple Sclerosis. I’ve chosen one particularly no-holds-barred section that’s both blunt and darkly comic, but I could just as easily have chosen one of dozens of other paragraphs.

In software engineering, there’s a concept called graceful degradation. That’s where, if something unexpected happens, the system doesn’t just silently lose its shit. It issues a brief statement and tries to get its affairs in order. Having performed these final acts of heroism, it can go tits up with a clear conscience. That’s graceful degradation. It’s an elegant term, I’ve always thought.

Anyway, with multiple sclerosis, graceful degradation is very much not a thing. It’s the opposite kind of deal, in fact. When you’re exhausted, which is most of the time, what happens instead is graceless degradation. There’s just no kind of showmanship or dignity to the proceedings. You’d see better performances, in the collapsing line, from a fucked deckchair or a condemned block of flats.

It’s a shitshow, seriously. You hurt yourself, sometimes, just trying to sit down. Actually injure yourself. It’s a fucking fiasco, is what it is.

And you feel, after exertion, like a crash test dummy. You feel like a shit zombie, like a tortured golem. You can’t cry any more – this is still a thing, for some reason – and you’re getting resentful about that, because sometimes you desperately want to.

You feel, sometimes, like a motherless child.

These, then, were the prevailing conditions in the spring of 2013. This was what I was up against. And faced with odds like these, I did what anyone would do. I bought a colossal number of plants, took a boatload of drugs and embarked on a massive construction project.

Twitter is often a festival of hate and ignorance and poop, but sometimes it also brings you links to pieces like this, pieces that you’d never have seen otherwise, and then you remember how being connected to the whole world can be a beautiful thing.

Read the essay

This Story About Coronavirus Is Both Deeply Alarming and Deeply Calming

A worker wears a mask as a preventive measure against COVID-19 as he rides away after removing Lunar New Year decorations from a street in Beijing on February 27, 2020. (GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images)

How do you stop a virus that spreads easily and is often asymptomatic? Answer: you don’t. In the most useful piece anyone’s written about current Coronavirus epidemic the Atlantic‘s, James Hamblin explains why COVID-19 could become everyone’s new normal, and why our energy is better spent on long-term responses than short-term panic.

Despite the apparent ineffectiveness of such measures—relative to their inordinate social and economic cost, at least—the crackdown continues to escalate. Under political pressure to “stop” the virus, last Thursday the Chinese government announced that officials in Hubei province would be going door-to-door, testing people for fevers and looking for signs of illness, then sending all potential cases to quarantine camps. But even with the ideal containment, the virus’s spread may have been inevitable. Testing people who are already extremely sick is an imperfect strategy if people can spread the virus without even feeling bad enough to stay home from work.

Lipsitch predicts that within the coming year, some 40 to 70 percent of people around the world will be infected with the virus that causes COVID-19. But, he clarifies emphatically, this does not mean that all will have severe illnesses. “It’s likely that many will have mild disease, or may be asymptomatic,” he said. As with influenza, which is often life-threatening to people with chronic health conditions and of older age, most cases pass without medical care. (Overall, about 14 percent of people with influenza have no symptoms.)

Lipsitch is far from alone in his belief that this virus will continue to spread widely. The emerging consensus among epidemiologists is that the most likely outcome of this outbreak is a new seasonal disease—a fifth “endemic” coronavirus. With the other four, people are not known to develop long-lasting immunity. If this one follows suit, and if the disease continues to be as severe as it is now, “cold and flu season” could become “cold and flu and COVID-19 season.”

Read the story

‘What’s this guy doing loose in Malheur County?’

Image by Curtis Perry via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Anthony Montwheeler spent 20 years in an Oregon mental healthy facility after being found not guilty of kidnapping his ex-wife by reason of insanity. He was released after claiming that he’d been faking the whole time, then immediately kidnapped another ex-wife, eventually stabbing her and killing another person during an ensuing car chase, all in full view of witnesses. And yes, he’s going to plead insanity again. How did he get the “not guilty” verdict 20 years ago? How did he get out? Is he mentally ill; what even is “mental illness” in the criminal justice context? In Rolling Stone, Rob Fischer walks us through Montwheeler’s case and the many blurry lines and troubling policies around the insanity defense in the U.S.

The hearing lasted more than two hours, but Montwheeler testified for only eight and a half minutes. When a state official asked if he ever had trouble sleeping, Montwheeler said, “No. I’ve always been able to sleep at night.” Had he ever been depressed, or felt that life is not worth living? “I’ve always been happy,” Montwheeler said. “I mean, I’ve never been depressed.” So then, the official pressed, you’ve never had any trouble getting out of bed and going about your activities? “No,” Montwheeler replied. “I’ve always showed up for work. I’ve always been Johnny on the spot.”

After a brief recess, the review board found Montwheeler was “no longer affected by a qualifying mental disease or defect,” which meant the state was legally required to discharge him. Offenders who are discharged from the state hospital, even those, like Montwheeler, released before the completion of their full term, are not diverted into penitentiaries. They are set free without additional oversight or guaranteed access to state mental health care.

The board’s chair, Kate Lieber, a Portland-based attorney, was clearly upset. “I don’t even know where to start,” she said. While maintaining a lie for 20 years, she noted, Montwheeler had avoided prison, lived rent-free, and received expensive care from trained professionals. “I mean, that is troubling on all sorts of levels,” Lieber said. “I’m assuming somebody in the system might do a forensic look at this and figure out what the hell happened. But as of now, you’re discharged.” Before Montwheeler walked out the door, she added, “My hope is that you’ll do the right thing. I am sincerely worried that you won’t.”

Read the story

Don’t Pretend Like You Don’t Love Wikipedia

Wikipedia: it’s the best trash fire on the internet. It’s sexist. There’s rampant trolling. You can lose hours of your life falling down a rabbit hole looking for information on that one guy from that movie. And you can learn about anything at all in recorded history, and it’ll probably be mostly true. At Wired, Richard Cooke penned a loving paean to the playground for pedants that’s the closest thing the internet has to a public square.

The site’s innovations have always been cultural rather than computational. It was created using existing technology. This remains the single most underestimated and misunderstood aspect of the project: its emotional architecture. Wikipedia is built on the personal interests and idiosyncrasies of its contributors; in fact, without getting gooey, you could even say it is built on love. Editors’ passions can drive the site deep into inconsequential territory—exhaustive detailing of dozens of different kinds of embroidery software, lists dedicated to bespectacled baseball players, a brief but moving biographical sketch of Khanzir, the only pig in Afghanistan. No knowledge is truly useless, but at its best, Wikipedia weds this ranging interest to the kind of pertinence where Larry David’s “Pretty, pretty good!” is given as an example of rhetorical epizeuxis. At these moments, it can feel like one of the few parts of the internet that is improving.

And because I know it’s the thing you seized on while reading, here is Khanzir’s entry, and here is Khanzir:

In this photograph taken on July 12, 2016, an Afghan veterinarian administers an injection to a pig inside an enclosure at Kabul Zoo in Kabul. (WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images)

You’re welcome.

Read the story

The Misogyny Is the Point

Does this photo not make much sense? Neither does the actual Miss America Pageant in this post-#metoo year of our lord twenty and twenty. (Miss America 2019 Nia Franklin poses with Chewbacca on September 12, 2018 in New York City. Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images)

Are you not already a fan of Lyz Lenz? MISTAKE. Exhibit A is this Tucker Carlson profile from 2018, but close on its heels is Exhibit B, her recent Jezebel essay about the flagging Miss America pageant. I’ve never wanted to attend Miss America in person, but I would gladly go if I got to do it in the company of Lyz Lenz. To wit:

The Miss America pageant wasn’t supposed at the Mohegan Sun Casino, but it makes sense that the pageant would end up at a place that’s both a triumph of capitalism and an absolute hellscape. The casino is divided into two main areas: earth and sky. But once inside, both real earth and real sky immediately recede. It is simultaneously soothing and disorienting. Everything anyone could possibly need is right here, especially if need consists of a Sephora and Bobby Flay’s Bar Americain.

(Here, we try not to think about how many people’s needs might actually be fully met by a Sephora and a Bobby Flay restaurant.)

After breakfast, I go to meet Miss Iowa, because that’s where I live and it’s like going to meet a state representative who you didn’t vote for, but somehow is supposed to embody something about your state that you cannot really define. I don’t end up meeting her—“pageant day,” of course. But her mother is there. Miss Iowa’s mom is confused about her daughter’s success. Not that she doesn’t think her daughter shouldn’t win, just that Emily Tinsman just started pageants in college and now here they are, in a casino in Connecticut right before Christmas. What a world.

(Here, we are all Miss Iowa’s mom.)

But whatever else they are, they are still defined by their bodies. Each contestant has to sign a contract saying they’ve never been pregnant and never had children. They can’t be older than 25 years old. They also have to be single. Translation: No abortions. Bodies: Pure. Even if they aren’t donning swimsuits and strutting on stage, their viability in the pageant is about the sanctity of their bodies. Just like Margaret Gorman, the childlike, innocent first winner, they must remain pure objects of desire—tight, poised, flesh vessels for our values.

(Ouch. Awful. And so America.)

If you’re not yet convinced, there’s also an Exhibit C: her name, which is cooler than my name and your name put together, and I say that with confidence despite not knowing what your name is. It’s a sharp name for a sharp writer.

Read this essay, is my point. It’s time well-spent.

Read the story

Sit Back, Relax, and Try Not To Think About the Hole We’re Making In Your Skull

Image by Hey Paul Studios via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Mary South’s New Yorker short story on rape trauma and recovery, “You Will Never Be Forgotten,” is being rightly praised, but her “Frequently Asked Questions About Your Craniotomy,” published in at The White Review, is equally gripping — a different kind of pain, a different kind of recovery, but the same clarity of voice and unsparing candor and dark wit. It starts with a bang and takes you along for the ride from there.

If you’re reading this page, chances are you’ve recently heard that you need to have a craniotomy. Try not to worry. Although, yes, this is brain surgery, you’re more likely to die from the underlying condition itself, such as a malignant tumour or subdural hematoma. Think of it this way: insomuch as being alive is safe, which it is not, having a craniotomy is safe. We fill our days with doing laundry, replacing our brake pads at the auto shop, or making a teeth-cleaning appointment with the dentist, in the expectation that everything will be fine. But it won’t. There will be a day that kills you or someone you love. Such a perspective is actually quite comforting. Taken in that light, a craniotomy can be a relaxing experience, rather than one of abject terror.

Read the story

Life After Pain

Photo by Riyan Nugraha from Pexels

Ge Gao’s beautiful essay at The Threepenny Review explores life after pain: chronic, inexplicable arm pain that rendered her right arm useless:

I did not jump off the Williamsburg Bridge or drown myself in the East River when I took my evening walks along the river parks in lower Manhattan. Every morning I woke up, flipped my body to the left side, and stretched the right arm long and hard, with a childish hope that the pain would suddenly ebb, just as it had arrived in my body, without any warning. Quickly, disappointment became a daily dose I had to swallow. Then anger. Then depression. Pain camped somewhere inside of my muscle, nerves, or bones and decided to take an extensive lavish vacation there. In order to sustain my daily life, I realized, I had to endure the pain the way other people manage their grief. You bargain, you retreat, you accept.

But it’s not just about coping with pain, because this is her right arm, her dominant arm — it’s also about the loss of all the potential that her right arm represents.

I had just turned twenty-seven years old. I had just run away from a disturbing relationship. But I still wanted things. Aristotle continues the discussion of a soul by pointing out that “within the soul the faculties of knowledge and sensation are potentially these objects, the one what is knowable, the other what is sensible.”

His words explained why my disability of a hand crushed me more than anything. My right hand was the tool for sensations, as well as for recording and clarifying thoughts. The cruelty of not being able to use my right hand was not just about the pain, but the trap of the pain. No release; no writing about it and shaping it into an episode for something larger or sadder than pain itself.

A hand, I concluded, was the soul.

She excavates her pain with a clear-eyed frankness that is itself a bit painful in its sharpness, and the result is a gripping read.

Read the essay

Racism in Romance, or Why Is the Duke Always White

Photo by duluoz cats via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Alyssa Cole’s romance novel was widely recognized as being one of the best of the 2017, so why didn’t it get nominated for a Rita (aka the Academy Award of the romance industry, bestowed by the Romance Writers of America)? Surprise, the romance novel industry is just as racist as the rest of the world! In The Guardian, Lois Beckett takes a close, hard look at the history, ongoing struggles, and future of romance novelists of color — change seems imminent, but old (racist) habits die hard.

Last year, however, many observers felt that this was sure to change. One of the standout novels of 2017 had been Alyssa Cole’s An Extraordinary Union, an interracial romance set during the civil war. The book had already won a number of awards and made multiple best-of-the-year lists.

When the Rita awards finalists were announced in March 2018, An Extraordinary Union was nowhere to be seen. A novel rated exceptional by critics had been not even been deemed as noteworthy by an anonymous judging panel of Cole’s fellow romance writers. The books that had beat Cole as finalists in the best short historical romance category were all by white women, all but one set in 19th-century Britain, featuring white women who fall in love with aristocrats. The heroes were, respectively, one “rogue”, two dukes, two lords and an earl.

What followed, on Twitter, was an outpouring of grief and frustration from black authors and other authors of colour, describing the racism they had faced again and again in the romance industry. They talked about white editors assuming black writers were aspiring authors, even after they had published dozens of books; about white authors getting up from a table at the annual conference when a black author came to sit down; about constant questions from editors and agents about whether black or Asian or Spanish-speaking characters could really be “relatable” enough.

Then, of course, there were the readers. “People say: ‘Well, I can’t relate,’” Jenkins told NPR a few years ago, after watching white readers simply walk past her table at a book signing. “You can relate to shapeshifters, you can relate to vampires, you can relate to werewolves, but you can’t relate to a story written by and about black Americans?”

The answer, for some readers, is that it never occurred to them that they’d be able to relate.

A particularly infuriating comment, some black authors said, is when white women describe taking a chance on a romance with a black heroine, and then express surprise at how easily they were able to identify with the story. Shirley Hailstock, a black novelist and past president of RWA, told me about a fan letter she once received from a white romance author. She sent me a photograph of the letter, with the signature concealed.

“Dear Shirley,” the white author had written, in a neat cursive hand, “I’m writing to let you know how much I enjoyed Whispers of Love. It’s my first African American romance. I guess I might sound bigoted, but I never knew that black folks fall in love like white folks. I thought it was just all sex or jungle fever I think “they” call it. Silly of me. Love is love no matter what colour or religion or nationality, as sex is sex. I guess the media has a lot to do with it.”

The letter, dated 3 June 1999, was signed, “Sincerely, a fan”.

Read the story