How much do either of you read or respond to what’s posted about you online? I never respond to anything, and I had to take myself off Google alert because there were too many unpleasant surprises.
M.D.: I respond to about a quarter of comments. It’s a good barometer of my mental health—when I’m healthy and busy, I don’t read them.
E.G.: I aspire to be perfectly good and not respond to anything. The thing I’ve learned—lo, from my perch of wisdom—is that if someone attacks me, someone else will attack that person. Commenters are really talking to one another, and if you respond, it’s like you’re butting in. They’re not responding to you, they’re responding to an idea of you.
One of the things I get frustrated by is the preoccupation with female likability. For instance, with that Times Magazine piece Alex Kuczynski wrote about her gestational surrogacy, readers seemed to respond to how much they’d want to be friends with her rather than recognizing the article as a crafted piece of writing. Do you see a difference in the way people read nonfiction written by a woman?
E.G.: If a woman writes about herself, she’s a narcissist. If a man does the same, he’s describing the human condition. But people seem to evaluate your work based on how much they relate to it, so it’s like, well, who’s the narcissist?
M.D.: There’s this tradition of women’s magazines—which have been my bread and butter as a freelancer—where the paradigm is that the writing is about relationships, body image, lessons, and it’s always redemptive. An example of this is Eat, Pray, Love, which Liz Gilbert wrote after a heavily reported, far superior book that was nominated for a National Book Award [The Last American Man] and didn’t go anywhere [in sales], through no fault of Liz’s. In my own writing, I tend to be very honest, and my goal is to identify something people think but are afraid to say. That’s not the general cultural expectation of women.
E.G.: When women are honest about their experiences, it’s destabilizing. It’s not socially acceptable for us to think our thoughts are interesting or valuable. Or if you write about personal experiences, it’s like people think you want advice about how to live, like you’re holding a public referendum. Recently I read reactions to Sandra Tsing Loh’s Atlantic essay, “On Being a Bad Mother,” and some of the comments were cowardly, bullying, and also weirdly normative and conservative. What on Earth gives people commenting on a blog under aliases the right to judge Sandra Tsing Loh’s parenting skills? I do think that people who write honestly about their lives are doing people who won’t or can’t a favor, to put it bluntly.
Which writers have inspired you?
E.G.: Eileen Myles, a poet who also wrote the autobiographical book Chelsea Girls. And I like Cookie Mueller. They never seem overtly to be constructing a story, just reporting—“This happened, then that happened.” But they’ve actually pared “what happened” down to only the most essential information. Some detail might seem random, but by the end of the story, you realize they are never telling you any item of information just for the hell of it.
M.D.: For the tonal precedent she set, there’s always Joan Didion. Joni Mitchell is also analogous, again not for content but for voice and the idea of the concept album—like The Hissing of Summer Lawns, which evokes California and the tension between bohemian ideals and suburban inertia. I also like Alain de Botton, David Shields, Geoff Dyer …
E.G.: I love Geoff Dyer!
M.D.: And I thought Katha Pollitt’s [Learning to Drive: And Other Life Stories] was fabulous and widely misread, mostly because she used the term webstalking. She was just talking about Googling.
Who do you think will read your books?
M.D.: People with a sense of humor.
E.G.: Twenty-three-year-old girls who have Tumblr accounts.
How many people are in that demographic?
E.G.: Well, that’s where we run into a problem. But maybe some middle-aged women can find out why their daughters are always Googling themselves.