Emily Gould, exhibitionist blogger (is that redundant?), landed on the cover of The New York Times Magazine over the weekend and created a firestorm of criticism and vitriol. She's been attacked, as she has over the years for her blogs on Gawker and her own personal online mags, but this time the criticism is aimed equally at The New York Times for publishing her long essay about herself. Here's the good news: At least she's writing.
As a writer and the director of the 36-year-old Santa Barbara Writers Conference, writing is something I think about all the time, but especially at this time of year. In three weeks, more than 400 writers - published and non-published alike - will converge in Santa Barbara, Calif. They'll spend hours each day in workshops, crafting and re-crafting works of fiction and nonfiction, poetry, screenplays, travel pieces, you name it. Authors such as Sue Grafton, Joseph Wambaugh, Luis Alberto Urrea and Ray Bradbury will speak about their lives and how they write. Literary agents and editors will hear pitches for novels and nonfiction books. Young writers will be encouraged.
A very few of those writers, to be honest, will be published soon. But some will. And that week of immersion reassures, as Gould's essay did, that writing still has the power to evoke change. And get people talking.
Yes, Gould's piece was self-possessed. Her painful, exacting recitation of her experiences in cyberspace certainly isn't literature. But here's a 20-something woman who can express herself with words. Grammar was good. Sentence structure was sound. The essay, despite its content, was well-crafted. In the end, she offered some insights about the wisdom of putting everything out there for all the online world to see. Shouldn't we all be celebrating? Geez, folks, lighten up.
Every year those of us engaged in the world of books and the written word bemoan losses in publishing. Fewer books are being published, and those that do make it to the shelves are often there by dint of the celebrity of the author (who often doesn't even write the thing; a ghostwriter does). Very few unpublished writers, no matter how well-written and conceived their work, get the nod from a publisher.
Similarly, politicians and educators wring their hands over declining test scores among schoolchildren in the language arts: writing and reading, phonics, spelling, comprehension, vocabulary, grammar, analytical thinking. We worry about what it means for the future of our democracy. If we're not educating people with the skills to understand and make sound judgments about what they are reading, how can we hope to elect sound leaders? It's a valid point. Yet there are glimmers of hope.
People are still reading books. And young people, like Gould, are blogging. Who cares if it's about her? There's a reason memoir is the hottest trend in publishing today. And it's not just because of Oprah. We want to know about other people's lives. We compare and contrast our lives, feel awe and sadness at the tragedies that befall others, smirk when someone gets a deserved comeuppance, smile at shared good times. Like Gould, many of us want to tell people about our own lives. But not all of us can write well.
Writing is, inherently, self-revelatory. Good writing engages often without the reader knowing it's self-revelatory. It doesn't matter whether it's fiction or nonfiction. In fact, fiction often is more true to life than we know. The writer only can bring to the page what he or she knows or has experienced in some fashion. Even the most outlandish flights of fancy are rooted in the hopes, fears and dreams of the writer's psyche.
Gould is merely following in the footsteps of so many others before her, although more blatantly. Jane Austen, Philip Roth, Virginia Wolf, Brett Easton Ellis, Sylvia Plath, Augusten Burroughs, David Sedaris, Joan Didion and untold others have revealed themselves and their lives through their verse and prose. Writers do that. It's one of the reasons reading is such a distinct pleasure. We identify with their stories or their characters, all of whom are in some ways extensions of the author. We feel each character's shame, joy, anxiety, melancholy - whatever the author wants us to feel. In doing so, we find community, a sense of belonging, an investment in the lives of those we are reading about. And, ultimately, we get the satisfaction of going through an experience with someone we have come to care about.
The blogosphere is like the great Wild West, where anything goes, the most intimate details of lives are revealed and documented, even broadcast into our homes via glowing computer screens. Do we have to read the posts? No. Are some of them awful? Yes. Are some of them brilliant? Absolutely. Will some of those bloggers become the next Brett Easton Ellis or Edwidge Danticat? Of course.
The New York Times Magazine moved Emily Gould from the world of blogging to the world of mainstream publishing. So what if she made herself the primary character in her story? People are reading her and considering all the ramifications of her essay. That's something to celebrate. Tell you what, I'll offer her a free pass to the Santa Barbara Writers Conference next month. We can teach her how to branch out into writing about subjects other than herself.
(Marcia Meier is a writer, sometime blogger, and owner and director of the Santa Barbara Writers Conference)