Jessica Grose's debut novel, Sad Desk Salad, featuring the character of Alex Lyons, a writer for "Chick Habit, an increasingly popular women's website" (a la Jezebel and Slate's Double X, for both of which Grose has blogged), is out this week from William Morrow/Harper Collins. Valerie Frankel blurbed it as "The Devil Wears Prada for the blogger age," and Grose herself jokingly refers to it with the tagline "The Devil Wears Sweatpants." I spoke to Grose, now a fulltime freelancer who's pregnant with her first child (disclosure: I spent time working with her at Radar magazine in the mid-2000s), about her new book, of the current concerns and challenges of women writing online, of how things have changed—and of how some things remain much the same.
Jen: Let's start with the big question—one that I've talked about before with some other ladies of the Internet—what does it mean to be a woman writing online? Now versus way back when ...
Jessica: My first job out of college was in 2004, and I’ve always worked on the web, every job I’ve ever had. When I was still in college, in 2002, I wrote a first-person essay about how much I loved Kim Deal for the Village Voice's music section. I used to google myself all the time, but 2006 marked the point I had to stop; that was the first time I remember googling and finding something negative. It was this message board called I Love Music, full of Pitchfork-style music nerds, and there was a thread about me and another woman [referring to that long-ago Voice essay], asking "Why Can't Chuck Eddy Stay Away From the Jailbait?" That was my first experience of what it means to be a young woman writing personal stories online.
The female confessional, well, it's existed forever, but the big reveal or shock level seems to have ratcheted up. Do you agree?
Women writing first-person stories about things construed as women’s issues, that’s been around forever, but what’s changed is the volume of communities and comments. There are so many different outlets for everyone to have his or her own platform: Facebook, Twitter, blogs, sites, and that just amplifies the good and the bad. The good of it is the creation of vibrant, impressive communities where interesting discussions take place; on the bad, there are also ample platforms for trolls. The volume of everything is constant, and it can be overwhelming.
How does that affect you?
Something I tried to get across in the book is that when you work online from home and don’t interact with "real people," you can get incredibly myopic and lose track of how people talk to each other in the real world. Things that seem so important and pivotal, their relevance in the real world can be minimal. I remember losing sleep over something I'd written for Jezebel—I can't even remember what it was—that had been taken the wrong way. This is stuff with little real-world consequence.
What sorts of things have made you feel bad, or have you regretted?
At one point I was writing 10 or 12 posts a day—I’m not trying to act like I was working in a coal mine, it wasn’t like that at all, but at that volume, you’re going to write things that are less than thoughtful, or sort of knee-jerk reactions. There was a Wall Street Journal article I blogged about about women diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after being pregnant. I was snarky and obnoxious and not sympathetic, and a couple years later a woman wrote a piece for Salon about it. She tracked me down and wanted to talk to me about it. I felt awful, like, why did I have to be snide? I wrote it in less than an hour, and I was a 25-year-old ninny, I felt terrible ... but I didn't kill anyone or murder anyone's puppy. There are just pitfalls to that sort of hemorrhaging.
Is there an answer to that blogger metabolism conundrum?
The answer is to not to require workers to produce at that volume. Anyone producing at that volume is going to make mistakes. There’s no way around it. I haven’t worked at Gawker Media in five years, and my experience there was lovely—I loved my boss, Anna Holmes is a genius, I’m not trying to say what we did was bad. But I think now the requirements of the writers are much less stringent. There aren’t that many places, but I’m sure there are some, requiring that sort of pace. Especially when you're really young, the way to break in is to do that kind of aggregating. I think it will always exist, but every website is still kind of figuring it out. Websites, the modern way we think about them, they’ve been around less than a decade! We’re still figuring out the smartest ways to deal. My first job out of undergrad was at Spin, and nobody gave a flying fuck about the website then; I was 22 or 23 and writing almost every post. That was only 8 years ago.
How many sad desk salads have you really eaten?
I ate salad for lunch all the time. I usually made it myself, which was even sadder. I would just cut up some avocado and some eggs and shove it in my face and call it a day. I ate every day this same exact salad. All of America’s keyboards are probably infested with horrible diseases that we don’t even know about. [Jessica added, when I followed up for the full ingredient list of a sad desk salad: "It should be noted that the salad part usually came from a prewashed box or bag—so not even the effort of chopping that lettuce was expended. I basically just threw in whatever I had in the fridge, honestly. Sometimes it was sad couch scrambled eggs or sad couch leftover chinese or on particulary pathetic days, sad couch cereal."]
Let's go back to the idea of memoir and confession, especially for women online. Ladies often seem to get a bad rap for "revealing too much," being allegedly narcissistic, or "behaving badly," i.e. Cat Marnell, and then writing about it. What do you think about the way we share now?
I think anyone who has a tendency toward narcissism, well, this is just your playground.
Anyone writing about him or herself is probably some level of narcissist...
We all are; bloggers are. I have totally mixed feelings about it. On one level, I believe in it as a kind of cheesy '70s female consciousness thing. People sharing stories is a good thing, even if those stories are trivialized ...
Or there's no redemption?
Right, there’s innate value. On the other hand, I read Cat Marnell particularly because I find her entertaining and fascinating. A lot of the xoJane stuff, that’s a train wreck, but I’m addicted to hate-reading it so I shouldn’t talk. One thing I never want to read again from anyone ever is a poorly written chronicle of your teenaged eating disorders, it’s enough. I think there’s a tendency toward, when I read female confessionals ... it’s like constant self-victimization in a way that makes me cringe and feel sad. I would never say you shouldn’t write that or try to stop anyone from sharing stories, but sometimes it’s just really, you know, get a backbone. Some sharing that I’ve been disturbed by is people who tweet during funerals, and it’s like, show some fucking respect. As much as in theory I’m for all of the sharing, in practice I’m judgmental. It’s impossible to be a thinking human and not feel these things.
Tell me about the reaction to the book so far.
Tuesday was the first day it was out. I saw someone write on Goodreads that it was too negative, that they didn’t like that it was really cynical. I totally understand that point of view, but when I was writing it, it was important that every character not be a nice girl, that they did things that were complex and not always likable, and even be ethically compromised. It's just human. As much as I meant the book to be funny, I didn’t want it to be these people are all good and these are all bad, there’s nothing interesting about that, or revealing about the way we live now. It’s not a super positive, earnest thing. If you only like things like that, it's probably not for you. But I think people have taken it in the spirit in which it was intended, mostly to make you laugh, but also, to address issues of privacy, celebrity, and so on, on the Internet.
How much of it is true?
I’d say 15 percent is true. All the stuff about what it’s like to have a job where you work from home and have really tight deadlines. Also, I had a blue muumuu I wore almost every day in the summer of 2008. It was so disgusting. All the characters are really fictionalized, there's no one based on anyone in particular. The ex-boyfriend character, he's kind of dastardly and obnoxious, he’s an amalgam of four or five artist ex-boyfriends I dated in college and immediately after. It’s a loving portrayal of these dudes for whom I bear no ill will, and I hope, if they read it, they'll be able to laugh at him. I really strove to to make it as ficitonal as possible. I love all the women I worked with at Jezebel and Slate, and I'd be surprised if any of them saw themselves in the characters, but if they did, I’d be sad if they were offended.
One of the things that inspired me to write the book, do you remember the Duke Fuck List girl? I was fascinated by her experience. She wrote this thing that was pretty funny, elaborate, and I think she meant it just for her friends to see. Two weeks later they were talking about her on the Today show. That was serious mainstream, momentary fame; they were saying her name, calling her parents. It’s such a modern experience and conundrum that something you wrote when you were 21 as a goof has you suddenly being called a terrible slut on national television. Through no action of her own she ended up being a public person. That was fascinating to me. That got me thinking about the ethical questions of what we do.
How do you think writers and especially writers online can do what we do and not compromise ourselves?
I think you learn how to do it by writing some things you feel shitty about, where you feel like you crossed a line. What’s happened with the Internet is the bar gets so much lower about public vs. private and what is newsworthy. I remember something I wrote at Slate, I was upset about it, and I told my boss Hanna [Rosin] who’s become a good friend. She told me a story from her early days at The Washington Post: She’d interviewed some woman and gained her trust, and had not lied but had written what this woman had said, putting it in a light the woman wasn’t happy about. That woman was like, You ruined my life, and [Hanna] felt awful for a month afterward. This is not new, but the bar between public and private is much lower now, and I think we’ll be wrestling with it forever. It’s almost easier to justify it now. You think, If I don’t write about it now, someone else will. Before, if you didn’t write about something in the local newspaper, it might have gone unknown. The position has become different.
Is there a way we can be "good" or "responsible" on the Internet?
I don’t think there’s an answer. It depends. Every situation is idiosyncratic. A thing that happened in the past week that I’ve been thinking about whether it was right or wrong was, there was a Fox News anchor showing footage of a car chase, and the guy in the car shot himself. Fox tried to take it off the air, but BuzzFeed posted it. People said it should have never been disseminated. I don’t know what to say. I can see clear arugments for and against. I don’t know what’s right in that situation. That’s why I think for every situation, you have to use your best news judgment, and it’s not going to be the same each time.
Or the photo that the New York Times had up briefly on their home page of a man shot outside the Empire State building this summer, which people widely criticized, but others supported ...
Comparing those two situations, if I were the news editor in charge, I probably would have shown the Empire State building photo and not the car chase clip; that's a landmark building, and given the fear of terrorist attacks, it's a public matter. The other, essentially, is a private individual. I’m kind of glad that it’s not up to me. I think it’s great that these discussions happen. Anyone who’s working in news today should be thinking about these conversations, and anyone who says there’s one easy right answer is foolish. Every situation has a different set of circumstances.
We got so serious.
That’s the thing! I’ve been thinking about this stuff so much. I didn’t want to write some boring, didactic, nonfiction book about these things, where I had to have an argument. I though doing it in a light satire was better, or maybe just more fun for me. I know for a fact you read so much news every day, you turn this around in your head all the time. Even people who don’t work in our industry think about this all the time.
What do people need to know about the book?
My standard, joking tagline to it is "The Devil Wears Sweatpants," but I’d like to think it’s less frothy than that.
The Devil Wears Prada, though, that was representative of a real time in magazine publishing, and that time is pretty much over. Is Sad Desk Salad the new model?
The Devil Wears Prada, yeah, that is dead. There are maybe two publications for which that’s true. The New Yorker doesn’t even have a receptionist. That being the entry-level media job exists for like seven people now. I certainly meant for my book to be an updated portrait of what it’s like to be starting out in media. But I also structured it after Bright Lights, Big City, to show what it’s like to be in the New York media world. Like that book, it takes place over a work week; five days.
Would you go back to blogging?
I don’t think I'd do it full time. I kind of think you age out of it. I don’t know that you can do that job without burning out—anybody, regardless of gender—for more than, I don't know. I would never say never, it would depend on the circumstance of the gig. But never again to 10 to 12 posts daily. And when I was at Slate, I was editing, writing longer pieces, and blogging. If and when I have a fulltime staff job, I would miss the variety if I didn't get to do all that.
Do you think ‘blogger’ is an insult?
I think a lot of people think it is, but I don’t think it is. Especially older people use it to dismiss younger writers as poorly educated and poorly informed. But again, it’s like ... everybody blogs these days. I don’t think as a profession we’ve actually settled on what it means. A lot of blogs are aggregators, some are highly researched wonky super highbrow things. It’s harder to make it derogatory because it doesn’t mean just one thing.
Can you, I guess, pre-package the "magic" of a successful post? It seems like some places, usually the more corporate ones, try to.
I don't know if you feel like this, but I think, you can’t actually predict what will go viral. Certainly if you put porn in the headline, it has a better chance of getting pageviews. But there were often times I thought, this will do so well, and it did just O.K. And there were other things that I barely thought would make a blip that got hundreds of thousands of pageviews. Anyone who says they know what’s going to be popular is fooling themselves. There’s some alchemy that happens, and things take off.
What are you enjoying most about being freelance, a debut novelist, and off the blog grind?
The one major joy of being freelance and pregnant is that I spend a lot of time lying down and reading books.