In some corners of the internet, personal essays are derided as frivolous and narcissistic, but I couldn’t disagree more. I find personal narratives to be deeply compelling and important. I believe they can be as effective as hard reporting in conveying important ideas, and sometimes even more so in terms of opening people’s minds by engendering empathy, first for the person telling the story.
I consider myself very fortunate to serve as Essays Editor for a publication that recognizes the value of personal essays, pays writers fairly for them, and makes room in its editorial calendar for at least two of them each week.
Member support — which WordPress.com is matching times three! — makes this possible. (All the money in Longreads’ story fund goes toward paying writers, illustrators, photographers, copyeditors and fact-checkers.)
While it’s difficult to single out particular essays as favorites, or most important, in the interest of possibly persuading some of you to contribute, I’d like to point to a few that have made me especially proud to have the opportunity to do this work and be part of the incredible Longreads team.Read more…
At Elle, author Emily Gould has a profile of “The Handmaid’s Tale” star and executive producer Elisabeth Moss. While Gould manages to draw Moss out a bit on topics the actress is famous for being tight-lipped about — like the feminist messages of Margaret Atwood’s book and its television adaptation — she finds it difficult to get Moss to address what appear to be parallels between the fictional theocracy of Gilead and the Church of Scientology, which she was raised in.
There’s just one last thing left to pester her about, and I’ve saved it for last because it’s the most likely to piss her off. She’s said repeatedly on this tour and in profiles circa the last few seasons of Mad Men that she’s said all she’s ever going to say about being raised in Scientology. But… well, in the words of a recent Jezebel headline, “Isn’t It Relevant That the Star of The Handmaid’s Tale Belongs to a Secretive, Allegedly Oppressive Religion?”
Unsurprisingly, I get nowhere. To her, the show isn’t about the danger of religious extremism, it’s about the importance of religious freedom. “Whatever anyone believes, I don’t believe that Church and State should get too close. And some of the things that have happened recently have really frightened me. For me, what the book and the show are so much about is that separation. It’s a theocracy! No government should be run by any religion!” I press on, saying that after watching the show I’ve been thinking about the Hasidic Jewish women who live in my neighborhood in a different light. Their uniforms and constant pregnancy can’t help but remind me of the Handmaids. “Except there’s a huge difference,” Moss says, “that they would be murdered in Gilead.” (On the Wall that Offred and her fellow Handmaids pass on their walks, bodies are often marked with religious symbols; practicing a faith other than Gilead’s ultra-Christianity is a capital offense.) For what it’s worth, Margaret Atwood also considers Moss’s religion to be a nonissue; to her, the alleged abuses that take place within Scientology are par for the course for any religion: “They all have their pluses and their minuses,” she tells me, after listing a few of the lesser-known gory horrors found in the Old Testament.
During my son’s first two months on earth, I read 25 books about taking care of babies and children. I read them on my phone while breastfeeding and on the subway in stolen moments of solitude while my baby napped in his carrier, his fuzzy head an inch from the pages. Brain-damaged by love and exhaustion, I could not make sense of any other kind of book. For someone who has been partway through at least one novel since learning how to read, this was akin to a psychotic break. But when I opened any novel in those early weeks, the words swam on the page. I would stare till they came into focus, force down a few pages and then give up. Where was the baby in this story? Were the people in the story parents? They couldn’t matter to me otherwise.
The only thing worse was when the people in the story were parents, and there was a baby, but it was in some kind of danger. When my son was about 8 weeks old I picked up a novel which has both a stillbirth and the rape of a 6-year-old in its first 30 pages. Half an hour later my husband found me clutching the baby to my chest, silent tears streaming down my cheeks. I’m sure it’s a great book but I’ll never know. I threw it in the garbage can and heaped trash on top so I wouldn’t be tempted to go back in for it, as though it was some kind of enticing yet poisonous cake.
But my appetite for parenting books was infinite; they were the one thing I wanted besides sleep and icy beverages. My addiction, like most addictions, fed on itself. Because the information in each book was both redundant in some of its particulars and wildly contradictory in others, each dose of information required an antidote in the form of the next book.
All of these types of books appealed to me; if it had “baby” or “sleep” in the title, I was in.
The question ofhow to get your child to sleep provided the starkest, most dramatic dichotomy. There were two schools of thought: Either you could let your child cry himself to sleep, or you could comfort him, for hours if necessary, until he finally dozed off. Each camp promised a happy, healthy baby and family if you followed their advice, and ruin—of your health and your marriage on the one hand, and of your baby’s nascent trust in the world on the other—if you didn’t. Are you thinking, as I naively did, “Oh, I’ll just split the difference between these two obviously crazy extremes?” According to these books, avoiding a decision is the only thing worse than choosing the wrong path; intermittent reinforcement will confuse and madden your baby, likely making him even more demanding and teaching him that the world, and you, are not to be trusted.
Writing in LitHub, Alana Massey responds to Emily Gould’s essay on publishing’s “niceness” requirement for women to ask: what’s wrong with nice? Shouldn’t we ask men to be more nice, rather than giving women permission to be less so?
The idea that writers are good at writing and little else perpetuates a mythology that we are special creatures whose agility with language renders us more deeply attuned to the human condition than others and therefore exempt from doing the bare minimum: answering questions in full sentences at industry events and talking about our work when we are, indeed, at work. It is the decency of returned emails and speaking to your tablemates at a party thrown to honor you. Such decency is demanded in every other profession on Earth besides being a Real Housewife or playing in the NHL, and I don’t think that just because the men in our industry eschew this in favor of offensive levels of self-regard makes it courageous or authentic in women. This decency need not be the over-indulgence of cookies or new friendships on demand, but a manifestation of that thing we are allegedly so good at: seeing the human condition and responding to it with just enough tenderness to connect but not attach.
At New York Magazine’s The Cut, Emily Gould profiles Cat Marnell, the famously self-destructive former beauty editor who miraculously managed to complete a compelling, well-written memoir, How to Murder Your Life — despite first blowing her entire advance on drugs.
Marnell missed her first book deadline, overdosed on heroin, and spent her whole advance before writing a word. She more than justified the concerns of everyone who thought that book would never be written.
But then Marnell managed to get herself to rehab, at a facility in Thailand helmed by a guru who also treats Pete Doherty. There, she finally started writing without her usual helpers. “Rehab is basically a memoir-writing workshop,” she told me. “You have to reiterate your story so many times, you storyboard it out. You basically leave with an outline that you can send to a publisher.” Now, despite a recent “drug vacation” (more on that below), she says that she’s healthier than ever before. “My survival is not a fluke. I have definitely chosen the better path.” The mere fact of the book’s existence means that she is capable of putting her ambition ahead of her addiction, at least temporarily. The book is also far from messy — her control of style and tone is impressive, as is her wry self-awareness.
The iOS app, pending improvements, still might catch on, but if it doesn’t, we’ll have to figure out how to try to keep those subscribers as we fold them back into the original distribution system. We’re also in talks with an established indie publishing house, trying to figure out whether doing a handful of print and e-book Emily Books originals in collaboration could make financial sense for both us and them; I’m hopeful, but when I look at the profit and loss statements they’ve given us for reference, I get less so. The idea that print availability is the only difference between selling a few hundred and a few thousand books seems like a stretch. Then again, we have a built-in base. “Two hundred people who love you are more important than 2 million people who like you,” some startup guy or other once said. Startup guys say a lot of stuff, though.
When night fell on our retreat, we put away our laptops and curled up on the couch in front of the TV. The Devil Wears Prada was showing on Lifetime, as it always is, and we were delighted to sit down and rewatch it. Outsized caricature that it is, this monumentally great chick flick does seem in some ways to encapsulate my own journey from principled young striver to glamour-chasing young sellout and back again. As we watched Andi toss the cell phone that had tethered her to her dream-nightmare job into the fountain and put her terrible corduroys back on to work at some kind of scrubby newspaper, I wondered if the movie wasn’t an omen. Maybe it’s time to embrace something old-fashioned instead of something glitzy and new and untried. Maybe our future–and publishing’s future–isn’t to be found in technological advancements that change the way we read, but in advancements that change the way books reach their audience.
In 2008 I sold a book-in-progress for $200,000 ($170,000 after commission, to be paid in four installments), which still seems to me like a lot of money. At the time, though, it seemed infinite. The resulting book—a “paperback original,” as they’re called—has sold around 8,000 copies, which is about a fifth of what it needed to sell not to be considered a flop. This essentially guarantees that no one will ever pay me that kind of money to write a book again.
It took me a while to realize that my book had failed. No one ever told me point-blank that it had. It was more like the failure occurred in tiny increments over the course of two years, after which it was too late to develop a solid Plan B.
I spent some of the advance on clothes that no longer fit my body/life, but mostly I spent it on taxes—New York even has a city tax, on top of the state and federal kind—and rent. I lived alone for three years in Brooklyn, paying $1,700 a month ($61,200 all told) for a pretty but small one-bedroom within eyeshot of the Brooklyn–Queens Expressway. I also spent $400 a month on health insurance. At one point I thought I would find another full-time job after finishing the book, but then I must have convinced myself that teaching yoga part time would better enable my writing. I also thought that I would immediately start another book, which I would sell, like the first, before I’d written half of it. In order to believe this I had to cut myself off from all kinds of practical realities; considering these realities seemed like planning for failure. In retrospect it seems clear that I should never have bought health insurance, nor lived by myself.