Jessica Grose has been an editor at Jezebel and at Slate, and she's now the author of the recently-released novel Sad Desk Salad. The book tells the story of Alex, a young blogger for the women's website Chick Habit, who gets embroiled in a scandal she can't control. (Full disclosure: Grose and I overlapped briefly at Jezebel.)
How do you feel about the state of women's media right now — what's good about it, and what does it need more of?
What I think is good is that there is so much of it, so many voices having really impressive intellectual discussions on a daily basis about all sorts of issues. I have to laugh because you still sometimes read someone who's 30 years older than we are saying feminism is dead, and I'm like, are you kidding me? There's evidence all over the internet, how can you even say that? I wouldn't call it a resurgence, because I don't think feminism ever died, but I love seeing the fact that there's so much excitement around it.
The downside is a lot of times it can be a real echo chamber. If you don't have the "right" view on something, you can be pilloried in a way that is not productive, and is ultimately bad for dialogue and anyone really thinking through their own beliefs. Having some pushback to your thoughts and political stances is good, and I think sometimes the tone of a lot of websites can dissuade people from voicing unpopular opinions. I think everyone would benefit from being able to see the other side a little more.
Sometimes people can really get piled on. For instance, I totally think Naomi Wolf's new book [Vagina] is absurd, and I tweeted goofy things about it, and gleefully read a lot of negative reviews, but I'm grossed out at the pile-on she got — like, she has the unpopular view, let's shame her.
A hate blog plays a big role in the book — how do you deal with online hate?
I know a lot of people think this is a copout, but for my own self-preservation I try to stay away from comments on things I've written. I don't have a Google alert on my name, and I haven't Googled myself since 2006. If people are tweeting mean things about you, you can't avoid that, and to people who can take ad hominem attacks against them and not get upset, more power to them. I'm impressed at their thick skin.
I will say anytime anyone has emailed me or written a blog post that was critical of something I said but in a respectful way, I've always tried to respond. I'm certainly not infallible, I've said things that are wrong, and as much as that's still painful to read, I'm happy to get that kind of feedback. Also, I will read the comments on things I've written that are more kind of straightforwardly reported and not opinion-based. But if you're a woman telling any kind of personal story on the internet, best of luck to you with the horrible trolls you're going to get.
Do you think women get it worse than men?
Yes. I think men get a ton of horrible hate, but I think it's different. The mean things that people say to men and women are different and gendered, and it's hard to quantify, because there's so much free-floating hate on the internet. Anytime a woman is writing something personal that talks about feelings, it can just be open season. Honestly I did not read any of the comments on the series that I wrote for Slate about prenatal depression, but my husband made the mistake of reading some of them, and they were apparently really, really awful. And if people are going to be that awful to a depressed pregnant lady, then it's like, what can you say to them? I don't know how to respond to that.
Was it hard to write about your prenatal depression?
It was. Not to be too Pollyanna, but it was hard because it was so painful and deeply personal, but the act of writing it really flowed, and what was so motivating was it actually was important to let women know that this is something that exists. I worked in women's media for five years and I'd never even heard the term prenatal depression. I'd heard 40,000 arguments about breastfeeding, but nothing about prenatal depression which happens to between 10 and 15 percent of women. I thought it was really important to raise awareness, and even though I didn't read the comments, I was nervous. And people are such cowards — I published my email address along with the piece, and not a single email to that address was anything but supportive and sharing and smart. It was the opposite of the comment section — I don't know if it's just a disconnect from thinking that someone is there, or what. But i was really heartened by the feedback. It was hard but it was ultimately really worth it.
You've been a nonfiction writer for years — what made you decide to write a novel about blogging, rather than, say, a memoir?
My experiences working at Jezebel and then at Slate were pretty exclusively lovely. There's a lot of complexity around women's websites and they can be good and bad, but if I'd done the book as nonfiction, it would've been pretty boring. In my real experiences, there wasn't the tension that was necessary to explore the ideas I saw appearing in internet discourse. I wanted to use the backdrop of what I knew. I hadn't read anything that adequately explored what it's like to have an entry-level new-media job, at least in a detailed, granular way. So I wanted to bring in aspects of how it really was, but also tell a fictional story.
The book is pretty frank about a lot of the difficult aspects of blogging — how did you decide how much of real life to draw on?
When I started, it was much more moored in reality, but as the plot grew a lot of the things the heroine faces are certainly things that I never dealt with in that kind of way, or were really extremely heightened version of anything that I encountered. A lot of the inspiration, like the kernel of it, was based on things that actually happened. Like all the hoopla around Karen Owen, the Duke "fuck list" girl [whose PowerPoint presentation about men she'd slept with was posted on Jezebel and went viral]. A lot of people disagreed about whether she wanted that PowerPoint to get out — I think she didn't. She wrote what she thought was a funny thing just for her friends, and it became this viral sensation, it was on the Today show, her parents were getting calls. Even if she wanted a few more people to see it, I was pretty sure she didn't intend for that whole thing to happen.
And I was really fascinated by that — what does it mean to have this thing, all this personal information she didn't want to be public, suddenly on the biggest morning news program, and her parents getting calls about it. It was this really fascinating, bizarre, way-we-live-now kind of moment, and I wanted to find a way to talk about it that wasn't didactic. A lot of times when you write about something in an argued piece or blog post, you're forced into making an argument — this is good, this is bad. Fictionalizing it allows you so much more ambiguity, and readers make their own decisions.
As someone who's worked on the internet too, I found the book kind of stressful!
When I first started writing it, I wanted to write a female version of And Then We Came to the End [Joshua Ferris's novel about workplace anxiety]. I was feeling incredibly claustrophobic at work and trapped by the internet, and I wanted to write about that. So I'm not glad that it stressed you out, but that was kind of intentional.
Another big issue in the book is when it's justified for a blogger to trash someone — in the book it's a semi-public figure — in front of a giant online audience. How do you make that decision?
Every person needs to draw their own line about what they feel is ethical and what they feel is right, and ultimately no matter what one individual journalist decides, it's ultimately futile. Anyone with internet access can disseminate private information about people, and once it's out of the box it's hard to shove it back in. All the same, so I can live with myself, there are lines that I've drawn. There's been times where I didn't write about something because I felt like my opinion was probably really harsh, and the person didn't need that.
The book talks a lot about the conflict between courting page views and reporting on things that are really important. What's the solution to that for you? How do you balance those?
I think the book exaggerates how unpopular real issues are on the internet. I think real issues do get a lot of pageviews. Look at any of the stuff surrounding Susan Komen and Planned Parenthood [the cancer foundation took flak for pulling funding from Planned Parenthood] — that got real, grassroots, viral, awesome attention, and it started on women's blogs. For the sake of the fiction I had to sort of downplay that.
But it's true that for the most part writing about Taylor Swift's romance with a Kennedy will get more pageviews. And a lot of it is structural — if you're at a place where there's not as much pressure to meet certain quotas, you're going to feel less pressure to write only the things that get pageviews. I found the longer I worked on the web, the better I became at packaging things so that they could become popular even if they weren't linkbait or had "sex" in the headline. But everyone, even at the most erudite publication, has to deal with it because we just have so much data. Everyone at every website knows how many people are reading, even who is reading, and even if your job isn't judged on that it's hard to ignore. Anyone who's writing for a living wants to be read.