On Monday, Laura Bennett’s Slate piece on the boom of first-person essay writing sparked a fierce online debate between editors and writers: how can one best work between the vulnerability of a writer and the traffic goal of an editor? What’s the line between publishing someone’s personal experience and exploitation?
In response to Bennett’s piece, we asked senior editors at several publications known for publishing first-person stories about what they value in them, how they look after their writers, and why it is that so many confessional stories seem to be written by women, and not men.
Doree Shafrir, ideas editor, BuzzFeed
It’s a mischaracterization to say that first-person essays have “traditionally” been written by women. (A quick glance at Philip Lopate’s canonical anthology The Art of the Personal Essay should dispel that myth.) But the internet’s democratization of voices – allowing writers, particularly women and writers of color, access to platforms and audiences previously unavailable to them, and the ability to tell their own stories – has led to anxiety among some gatekeepers of culture.
So when I assign essays like Jennifer Chen’s Why I Didn’t Want My Miscarriage to Stay Secret or Kristin Chirico’s My Boyfriend Loves Fat Women, both of which are incredibly thoughtful, smart explorations by women of formerly taboo subjects, I’m also thinking about how I can give people access to the huge platform that BuzzFeed offers.
I don’t keep track of the gender breakdown of our personal essay pitches – I’m more thinking about whether the writer is telling a compelling story that we haven’t heard before, and/or telling a story in a unique voice or with a perspective we haven’t heard before.
Latoya Peterson, editor at large, Fusion
We are not interested in people searching for meaning in their navels. There are plenty of otherlife experiences to explore that do not get enough attention.
This overshare, gross-out phenomenon of “first-person writing” is generally a door that leads to more fame and work for white women. It is selling pieces of yourself to get bylines. This route to publication and a book/movie deal simply is not open for non-white women. Society sees women of color’s shameless writing as proof of deviance, not a relatable and fun story to share on social media.
This route to publication and a book/movie deal simply is not open for non-white womenLatoya Peterson
The backlash, when we do open up in that way, is normally immediate and often includes a Twitter referendum on how we are failing the race.
I may have missed it, but I can’t think of a woman of color who became the belle of the literary ball by simply writing about her sexual transgressions. (The closest piece I can think of in recent years is Helena Andrews-Dyer’s Bitch is the New Black, but the lingering notes from that work are not sexual, but rather about friendship and hollowness and the vulnerability of black women.) We always have to bring more to the table.
Where are the men is also an interesting question. Men write these kinds of pieces all the time. They just aren’t seen in the same, marginalizing light. A man writing about his drug addiction or squandered nights in sweaty sheets is just considered normal. Interesting. Literary. Tom Chiarella wrote about being sexually abused by a teacher for Esquire – but the piece wasn’t framed as a gross-out confessional piece. It was given the consideration it deserved. For some reason, the lives of men are inherently more serious affairs than the lives of women.
I often think about Katha Pollitt’s Learning to Drive (I think it’s being made into a movie). I remember the shock in some corners of the internet, that a thinking woman like Pollitt would actually be subject to the same human struggles as the rest of us. I mean, here’s an excerpt from the New York Times review:
And now Pollitt’s up at bat. Her three previous essay collections gathered brilliant commentary on welfare, abortion, surrogate motherhood, Iraq, gay marriage and health care, mostly from the pages of The Nation. But with “Learning to Drive,” she gets personal, and shameless. She has decided to wave her dirty laundry (among which she found unidentified striped panties) and confesses to “Webstalking” her longtime, live-in, womanizing former boyfriend. (Take that, you rat!) It’s hard to tell if she’s coming into her own, trying to sell more books or has lost it entirely. Or perhaps she’s giving up her dignity in a generous motion of solidarity toward the rest of us who have already blown our cover? Whatever the reason, she’s entitled.
As if Pollitt earned the right to be a full human because she spent most of her career as a serious woman. Imagine that.
Emily McCombs, executive editor, XOJane
I can’t tell you how often I have encountered the attitude that because these stories are about women’s lives, they are somehow superficial, silly, or unimportant. Women’s lives – our stories – are not unimportant. They often reflect the feminist maxim that the personal is political.
For every story we publish, there are three that we choose not to runEmily McCombs
The whole language of “oversharing”, “TMI”, and “confessional blogging” is condescending and dismissive. Nobody uses that kind of language when men write memoir.
As editors, we try to warn writers who choose controversial topics that backlash that may occur, and offer them the opportunity to publish anonymously. We never want to put anyone’s safety or livelihood at risk. For every story we publish, there are three that we choose not to because the writer doesn’t seem mentally or emotionally ready, or lacks perspective or self-awareness.
Of course there are consequences to what personal information you put on the internet, but to suggest that adult women aren’t fully capable of deciding when and where to share information about themselves denies them an awful lot of agency.
I write about my own personal life because I want to lessen shame and encourage connection. If people read a piece I wrote and say: “This writer has had this experience, done this thing and felt this way so maybe I don’t have to feel ashamed of who I am,” it’s worth it.
That happens whether I’m writing about something silly like back fat all the way to serious topics like addiction and rape. And the best reaction is when someone emails me to say: “I didn’t know I had been raped (or was an alcoholic, or needed to go to therapy) until I read your piece.”
Even the stories that may seem silly or lurid are forging a connection among a group of women who are often not encouraged to speak out about our own lives and bodies.
Haley Mlotek, editor-in-chief, The Hairpin
Since I took my current job, the word I use more than any other is “more”. I am constantly talking with my writers about why they should write more, once we’ve spoken about whether they should write at all. I always tell them yes, write, write it all, write as much as you want, and then it’s my job to figure out the rest.
I don’t agree that there is something inherently easier about writing a personal essay, or that they are by nature exploitative, because it’s just like any other kind of creative labor: it depends! But I do know how many brilliant writers are sitting on their work because they believe it’s somehow cheap or reductive just because it’s about their lived experiences, while editors are scrolling through inboxes stuffed with men who have no hesitation about demanding that their voices and their stories come first.
There’s never going to be a time when we, as readers, are going to say: 'No thanks, I’ve heard and seen it all'Haley Mlotek
I have my personal taste when it comes to personal essays, but here, too, I find the word “more” is the best descriptor. I think we need as many people as possible writing about as many different experiences and telling as many different stories as they want to, because that’s how we find out what we like!
That’s how we find writers who speak to our exact same experiences, or to wildly different experiences – writers who can show us something unexpected or familiar. There’s never going to be a time when we, as readers, are going to be like: “No thanks, I’ve heard and seen it all,” and there never should be. More is more.
Emma Carmichael, editor-in-chief, Jezebel
I think a balance of empathy and patience goes a long way in working with freelancers on personal work. We know better than anyone how a wave of response can feel for a writer, so we want someone new to it to be as prepared as possible – both mentally and through the strength of the work – for the onslaught. We can’t prescribe a writer’s belief in her work, but we can make that work as strong as possible before we put it on the internet. At the times when I’ve felt we’ve faltered in that goal, we’ve attempted to pull off the clumsy editing acrobatics required to tie a personal essay to a news story.
Yes, we are publishing things that we want people to read. If we do so with empathy, no one should feel exploited.Emma Carmichael
Bennett touched on this in her piece and I think it’s actually the bigger issue with the “unreported hot take”, where you’re trying to squeeze someone’s experience into a news angle. It doesn’t work that way. The best writing that, in Bennett’s words, “[doesn’t] merely assert the universality of their experience” but “[arrives] at it by guiding us through the precise arc of their self-reckoning” justifies itself. You can’t rush that.
That said, I am also reminded here of Deadspin editor Tim Marchman on the reflexive reader’s “clickbait” insult: “If journalism were as easy as tricking people into pushing buttons, it would have been automated by now.”
We’re not over here mindlessly pressing big red “Publish Without Consequences For The Writer!” buttons and cackling, but yes, we are publishing things that we want people to read. If we do so with empathy, no one should feel exploited.
Bella Mackie, commissioning editor, the Guardian
Recently, a pitch came through from a writer dealing with their mother’s alcoholism. The story was interesting, but the author hadn’t thought about what publishing might do to their family. In those situations, it’s best to err heavily on the side of caution, and turn it down.
If the subject is a very personal one, it’s my responsibility to make sure the writer understands that the reaction may be negative, that online commenters may be brutal about their lives, and that social media might opine on their story in a way that they are not comfortable with.
Although there have been many pitches that I would have liked to have read more about, common curiosity is not a good enough reason to commission an article. It has to be an angle that may help others, foster a new sense of understanding, or explain a little heard perspective. You want to be able to learn about body confidence, or living with cancer as a young person. For this reason, I turn down more pitches than I say yes to.
In 1998, Ralph Terkowitz, a vice president of The Washington Post Co., got to know Sergey Brin and Larry Page, two young Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who were looking for backers. Terkowitz remembers paying a visit to the garage where they were working and keeping his car and driver waiting outside while he had a meeting with them about the idea that eventually became Google. An early investment in Google might have transformed the Post's financial condition, which became dire a dozen years later, by which time Google was a multi-billion dollar company. But nothing happened. “We kicked it around,” Terkowitz recalled, but the then-fat Post Co. had other irons in other fires.
Such missteps are not surprising. People living through a time of revolutionary change usually fail to grasp what is going on around them. The American news business would get a C minus or worse from any fair-minded professor evaluating its performance in the first phase of the Digital Age. Big, slow-moving organizations steeped in their traditional ways of doing business could not accurately foresee the next stages of a technological whirlwind.
Obviously, new technologies are radically altering the ways in which we learn, teach, communicate, and are entertained. It is impossible to know today where these upheavals may lead, but where they take us matters profoundly. How the digital revolution plays out over time will be particularly important for journalism, and therefore to the United States, because journalism is the craft that provides the lifeblood of a free, democratic society.
The Founding Fathers knew this. They believed that their experiment in self-governance would require active participation by an informed public, which could only be possible if people had unfettered access to information. James Madison, author of the First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of speech and of the press, summarized the proposition succinctly: “The advancement and diffusion of knowledge is the only guardian of true liberty.” Thomas Jefferson explained to his French friend, the Marquis de Lafayette, "The only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed.” American journalists cherish another of Jefferson's remarks: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
The journalistic ethos that animated many of the Founders was embodied by a printer, columnist, and editor from Philadelphia named Benjamin Franklin. The printing press, which afforded Franklin his livelihood, remained the engine of American democracy for more than two centuries. But then, in the second half of the 20th century, new technologies began to undermine long-established means of sharing information. First television and then the computer and the Internet transformed the way people got their news. Nonetheless, even at the end of the century, the business of providing news and analysis was still a profitable enough undertaking that it could support large organizations of professional reporters and editors in print and broadcast media.
Now, however, in the first years of the 21st century, accelerating technological transformation has undermined the business models that kept American news media afloat, raising the possibility that the great institutions on which we have depended for news of the world around us may not survive.
Pulse news aggregator app.
These are painful words to write for someone who spent 50 years as a reporter and editor at The Washington Post. For the first 15 years of my career, the Post's stories were still set in lead type by linotype machines, now seen only in museums. We first began writing on computers in the late 1970s, which seemed like an unequivocally good thing until the rise of the Internet in the 1990s. Then, gradually, the ground began to shift beneath us. By the time I retired earlier this year, the Graham family had sold the Post to Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, for $250 million, a small fraction of its worth just a few years before. Donald Graham, the chief executive at the time, admitted that he did not know how to save the newspaper.
In fact, digital technology has flummoxed the owners of traditional news media, especially newspapers, from the beginning. For example, in 1983, in the early years of computerized production of newspapers when almost no one knew what was coming, The New York Times almost committed digital suicide. The Times decided it only needed to retain the rights to the electronic versions of its stories for 24 hours after publication. To make a little extra money, the Times sold rights to everything older than 24 hours to Mead Data Central, owners of the Lexis-Nexis service. Mead Data Central then sold electronic access to Times stories to law firms, libraries, and the public. By the early 1990s, as the Internet was becoming functional and popular, this arrangement was a big and growing problem: newspapers, including the Times, were planning “online,” computerized editions, but the Times had sold control of its own product to Mead Data.
Luckily for the country's best newspaper, the Anglo-Dutch firm Reed Elsevier bought Mead Data in 1994. The sale triggered a provision in the original Times-Mead contract that allowed the Times to reclaim the electronic rights to its own stories. That enabled the Times to put its journalism online in 1995.
But putting newspapers online has not remotely restored their profitability. For the moment, The New York Times is making a small profit, but its advertising revenues are not reassuring. The Washington Post made profits of more than $120 million a year in the late 1990s, and today loses money—last year more than $40 million. Newsweek magazine failed, and Time magazine is teetering. Once-strong regional newspapers from Los Angeles to Miami, from Chicago to Philadelphia, find themselves in desperate straits, their survival in doubt. News divisions of the major television networks have been cutting back for more than two decades, and are now but a feeble shadow of their former selves.
Overall the economic devastation would be difficult to exaggerate. One statistic conveys its dimensions: the advertising revenue of all America's newspapers fell from $63.5 billion in 2000 to about $23 billion in 2013, and is still falling. Traditional news organizations' financial well-being depended on the willingness of advertisers to pay to reach the mass audiences they attracted. Advertisers were happy to pay because no other advertising medium was as effective. But in the digital era, which has made it relatively simple to target advertising in very specific ways, a big metropolitan or national newspaper has much less appeal. Internet companies like Google and Facebook are able to sort audiences by the most specific criteria, and thus to offer advertisers the possibility of spending their money only on ads they know will reach only people interested in what they are selling. So Google, the master of targeted advertising, can provide a retailer selling sheets and towels an audience existing exclusively of people who have gone online in the last month to shop for sheets and towels. This explains why even as newspaper revenues have plummeted, the ad revenue of Google has leapt upward year after year—from $70 million in 2001 to an astonishing $50.6 billion in 2013. That is more than two times the combined advertising revenue of every newspaper in America last year.
And the situation for proprietors of newspapers and magazines is likely to get worse. One alarming set of statistics: Americans spend about 5 percent of the time they devote to media of all kinds to magazines and newspapers. But nearly 20 percent of advertising dollars still go to print media. So print media today are getting billions more than they probably deserve from advertisers who, governed by the inertia so common in human affairs, continue to buy space in publications that are steadily losing audience, especially among the young. When those advertisers wake up, revenues will plummet still further.
News organizations have tried to adapt to the new realities. As the Internet became more popular and more important in the first decade of the 21st century, newspaper proprietors dreamed of paying for their newsrooms by mimicking their traditional business model in the online world. Their hope was to create mass followings for their websites that would appeal to advertisers the way their ink-on-paper versions once did. But that’s not what happened.
The news organizations with the most popular websites did attract lots of eyeballs, but general advertising on their sites did not produce compelling results for advertisers, so they did not buy as much of it as the papers had hoped. And the price they paid for it steadily declined, because as the Internet grew, the number of sites offering advertising opportunities assured that “supply” outstripped “demand.” Advertising revenues for the major news sites never amounted to even a significant fraction of the revenues generated by printed newspapers in the golden age. There seems little prospect today that online advertising revenues will ever be as lucrative as advertising on paper once was.
The other online innovation that has devastated newspapers is Craigslist, the free provider of what the newspapers call “classified advertising,” the small items in small print used by individuals and businesses for generations to buy and sell real estate and merchandise, and to hire workers. Twenty years ago classifieds provided more than a third of the revenue of The Washington Post. Craigslist has destroyed that business for the Post and every major paper in the country.