The Art of the Confession

Photo: Nadya Wasylko; Hair by Shinichi Arima; Makeup by Misuzu Miyake for Nars Cosmetics/Vivian Artists

On May 4, two juicy nonfiction books will be released: Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House, a reflection on the thrills and torments of real-estate obsession, by Meghan Daum; and And the Heart Says Whatever, an essay collection about being young and hungry in New York, by Emily Gould. The two writers are equally acquainted with buzz and controversy: Daum, now 40, and a columnist at the Los Angeles Times, has tackled hot-button topics on everything from AIDS to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference to being broke in New York and deciding to move to Nebraska (that 1999 New Yorker piece morphed into Daum’s hilarious first novel, The Quality of Life Report). Detractors find Daum’s writing self-indulgent; fans, like myself, love her dedication to honesty over likability, her sharp intelligence, and the mocking self-awareness with which she narrates her misadventures. Those same qualities show up in the work of the Brooklyn-based Gould, 28, who got considerable flak for a May 2008 New York Times Magazine cover story about her trial by fire as a writer for Gawker (she now blogs at Emily Magazine, and hosts an online author cooking show, Cooking the Books). Daum and Gould’s brand of confessional literature isn’t new, but their unsentimental, unapologetically female tone is powerfully of-the-moment—they speak, in our often phony and cheesy culture, to the truths of women’s lives.

Full disclosure: I “blurbed” both of their books, and have crossed paths professionally with both women, though I’ve never met Gould in person. But I suspected that, despite their twelve-year age difference, they would share opinions about writing, gender, and the blogosphere. So early this month, Daum and Gould let me pick their brains.

The backlash the two of you have experienced has been vitriolic and personal, which I suspect comes, weirdly enough, from both of you making good writing look so easy. People then assume it is easy and think there’s no reason except luck that you’re the ones getting published instead of them. Has backlash made either of you regret writing an article?
Meghan Daum: When I saw Emily’s piece in the Times, it took my breath away because I had a similar experience when I was 25 and had an incendiary piece in the Times Magazine. In my M.F.A. program at Columbia, I had written about the chaos and fear and paranoia around AIDS in the early nineties. Originally my piece was 4,000 words, and the Times cut it to 1,900. They removed all the nuance and made it sound like I’d had sex with about 500 people, although admittedly it wasn’t fabulously written to begin with and I didn’t have my feet under me as a logician. The piece came out with the headline “Safe-Sex Lies” and an illustration of a blonde girl sitting in bed.
Emily Gould: People don’t understand that you as the writer have no control over the art or the headline.
M.D.: Thank God this was before the blogosphere, but still, it was on every talk show, the Times got 600 pieces of mail in a week …
E.G.: And every letter represents five online comments!
M.D.: I had people calling me at home to say, “You’re a slut.” I went on Tom Brokaw to try and smooth it over, and it only made it worse. It was a terrible decision to have it published. I’ve tried to erase it from the records, but it’s in textbooks.

Emily, was that similar to your experience with your Times Magazine story?
E.G.: I gasped when I saw the cover photograph and headline [“Blog-Post Confidential”]. My editor, who was this lovely person, said, “Oh, you look tough, you look so empowered,” and I thought, “In my jammies?” It was not an image I would have chosen. People seemed to think that I explicitly set out to write that piece, that I had an ax to grind with Gawker, but the truth was I had an opportunity and I didn’t have a [writing] job. An editor e-mailed me after reading something I wrote on my blog, and I assumed it would be a “Lives” piece. And after a few more conversations, he said they were thinking 7,000 to 8,000 words. There were tone problems—I was trying to be funny, and people read it as earnest. But I think the more time that passes, the more it will become clear that I wasn’t writing about my love life. It was about how the Internet forms people’s lives and social lives.

How many of the 1,200-plus comments on the Times’ website did you read?
E.G.: Zero. No, actually, the Times gave me the chance to respond, so my ex-boss from Gawker, Choire Sicha, went through all of them and picked a handful. And they’d say things like, “You’re morally reprehensible, why don’t you go do missionary work in Uganda?” Gawker is a crazy pulpit. It’s horrible that someone’s first Google [result for their name] might be a piece I took ten minutes to write four years ago. No one should have the power to be someone’s first Google.

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.

The Art of the Confession