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Episode XIX: Virality & gender

Published 6/23/15
In this installment, I speak with Michele Filgate. Topics include the effect of virality on writing, Twitter, Salon, the effect of gender on writing, gendered covers & more.

I’m here with Michele Filgate, an essayist, critic and writer. Her work has appeared broadly (including The Paris Review, Salon, Tin House, Slice, The Millions, Literary Hub, The Boston Globe and BuzzFeed Books) and has focused on topics I find this series converging towards (Amazon, social media, independent bookstores).

We could talk about a billion subjects; I’m going to try dearly to stay on track. First things first: we’re far away—to bridge the digital divide, would you describe where you are and what you see?

I'm in my living room, sitting next to the window and gazing at a tree.

A tree? You must be in Brooklyn.

Indeed. I was about to make a bad joke about A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, but there's no need for that. (God, I loved that book when I was a kid. I need to reread it!)

I think that joke is the most often thought of and 86'ed, at least among writers.


You wrote two articles for Salon that struck a chord with me: 'Will social media kill writers’ diaries?' and 'Dave Eggers made me quit Twitter'. I try to disconnect as much as possible, and often find that doing work (the constant checking and production and proliferation of data) runs perfectly counter to the reason I fell in love with books to begin with (the undivided concentration and reality-creation that good reading deserves and affords). There was also something about your Twitter bio (if one has any control over their identity, isn’t that it?): the first word is ‘essayist’. To me, this almost seems defiant (not that it isn’t accurate), making clear the primary purpose of your writing is to be read, not to become, well, an instrument of virality. Do you ever feel like each of your feet is on a different platform—writing longform and writing in the digital age—each one moving further away from the other?

That's such a great question.


Yes, I absolutely feel like there's a constant pull between being read, and you know, writing and engaging on social media as a writer. The three things don't always complement each other. It's funny; I wrote those Salon articles because I struggle with balancing who I am as a writer, a reader, and a person. Social media is wonderful and has done all kinds of things for my career, and it's also where I find some of my readers. But it's also the first place I go to when I want to escape; when I don't want to confront my innermost thoughts and deal with what needs to be written.

And I'm not sure what the answer is, because I find that if I take time away from social media, it's useful for a while but I feel like I'm going kind of nuts not having the opportunity to engage with other writers.

A lot of people refer to Twitter as a water cooler for writers, and it really is, in a sense.

Spending so much time in your own head gets boring after a while, but I need to spend a lot of time there in order to get the words on the page.

The Twitter-as-community to me is interesting, because it's like someone has performed surgery on 'writers' as a social group, and removed any vestigial romance. There's nothing sexy about Twitter; writing digitally, even without penmanship, is absent of any tonal nuance. All there are, are characters. Do you think that's me being a luddite?

No, not at all. I feel like Twitter has changed over the past couple of years. I don't find myself engaging in as many conversations as I used to--but I still hang out there because I'm addicted. I spend a ton of time on Facebook, though. (Too much time.)

Oh god. I want to find the person that says 'I should really spend more time on Facebook'.

Ha! Me too.

It feels common to acknowledge the internet affecting writing on an abstract level. As someone who has openly grappled with the issue, I want to know your take on the micro of it. As you’re writing, what do you think you’re doing differently (on a word by word level), knowing the success of a piece will rely on sharing on social media?

Hmmm...I'm not sure I think about that as I'm writing. If I did, I'd paralyze myself. I find that I'm able to write when I pretend that no one is going to read my work. After the fact, it's nice if I can find a few quotes that I can share on social media when I link to the piece.

So you're saying its effect on the piece is marginal at best?


Salon, to me, is singular because its a website that feels like it has a physical component. I can't think of another online-only media company that has the same texture. Is this baked into the editorial process?

Do elaborate! I'm curious what you mean by that.

Sorry—everything from the length of the articles to the creative direction makes the site feel as though a Salon magazine exists on news shelves.

You go on Slate, a comparable company in some regards, and it feels online first. This could just be me, but I do think the layout says a lot about the writing.

I like that idea! Is it terrible that I don't really pay attention to the format of things, though? To me, it's all about the quality of the writing. And Salon is one of the best websites for personal essays, in my opinion.

Why's that? Excuse the directness.

I'm guessing it's because of good editors. A website is nothing without editorial taste. Salon consistently publishes essays that I want to read; ones that examine difficult topics. Two in particular come to mind: Laura Bogart's essay "I can't forgive my mother," and Meredith Maran's essay about taking a break from drinking.

Can we have a quick walkthrough of the editorial process there? Do you pitch an editor on a piece and then write it? Is a lot written on spec?

I pitch ideas and then work with the editor on turning it into an essay. Sometimes that involves a couple of emails and some revisions; sometimes it's clear right away what the piece needs to be about and the direction I should go in.

I will say that a few of my essays on Salon started out as venting on social media.

My most recent essay about pop culture not being kind to the childfree came out of a bunch of tweets after I saw Noah Baumbach's latest film. So sometimes I use social media as a place to discover what it is I want to write about.

How much of the satisfaction of writing a piece is seeing the reaction instantaneously?

It's wonderful to know that something you wrote resonates with people, so I will admit that I get a sort of thrill out of seeing any piece I write shared on social media. But that can get unhealthy, too.

In the way of negative comments or lack of comments or?

Both. Basing your self-esteem on how many likes or retweets a piece gets is a stupid thing to do, and letting a negative comment ruin your day is pretty silly, too. But who am I kidding? We all do it. I always find it hard to believe when writers say they don't read reviews of their books. How do they have that kind of self-control? Because I'd like to be like them. I really would.

Very, very true. That's like a politician saying they don't look at the polls. I want to shift focus a bit now. From a previous discussion, I know one of your interests are women writers. At the risk of invoking identity politics where it won't do any good, I'll ask: where does the emphasis lie (and how) when you call yourself a "woman writer".

I like to think of myself as a writer first, a woman writer second. I'm proud to be a writer and I'm proud to be a woman, and I'm particularly interested in reading and writing about books by other women. But that doesn't mean that I'm disparaging male writers. Many of my favorite writers are dudes.

Is it possible to be a woman writer (or a man writer) first, and a writer second, without your key issue being gender? That is, does it even mean anything today to "write like a woman" or "write like a man"? ("Man writer" sounds so much more ridiculous than "male writer".)

It really does.

I can't get the image of the Hulk with a tiny pen out of my head.

LOL! I'm so sick of hearing about false gender differences between male and female writers. Someone recently told me that men don't like to read women writers because they are so emotional and men want PLOT. I wanted to say to them: "Have you read Fernando Pessoa? Gabriel Garcia Marquez? Karl Ove Knausgaard? Cormac McCarthy? Read those books and tell me that male writers don't care about emotion. I dare you."

I agree that men who say they just won't read women writers probably haven't been exposed to the right writing. But to play devil's advocate, don't Marquez and Knausgaard 'write like men'? (I'm not as familiar with Pessoa.) Knausgaard's inner world, I'd say, is overwhelmingly masculine, whether that's in an expressive, emotional way older norms would associate with the other sex.

They do write like men, whatever the hell that means, but they also write about emotions. You should definitely read Pessoa. The Book of Disquiet is one of my favorite books. He was all about melancholia.

I will definitely check it out.

Yes, Knausgaard is all I AM A MAN AND HERE ARE MY THOUGHTS, but he also really evokes emotions. Especially in the second half of the first volume of MY STRUGGLE, in which he deals with the tremendous amount of stress involved with finding his grandmother in an awful state, living in a house his alcoholic father ruined.

Do you think the problem, then, is in our definition of gender associations, and not associating in itself?

Perhaps so. One thing we really have a problem with (still, in 2015) is women writers being taken seriously. It pisses me off.

How's that?

We still see a lot of crappy clichéd covers on works of literary fiction by women. Men often get a different aesthetic.

That's very interesting. Elaborate.

And there are many esteemed publications that still fail to strive for any kind of gender balance. Thank god for VIDA, a great organization that takes the time every year to count the bylines in literary journals, magazines, and newspapers.

One of the best examples of awful covers I can think of is Gail Caldwell's LET'S TAKE THE LONG WAY HOME, one of the most haunting memoirs I've ever read--a truly intense book about female friendship. The hardcover image made it look like a Sophie Kinsella novel. I realize these are marketing decisions, but it still annoys me.

I'm going to again play devil's advocate and try to cleave what VIDA does from book cover design discrepancy. I'll say byline balance is an objective virtue (journalists should match their readership). The cover for LET'S TAKE THE LONG WAY HOME is, in a certain way, dictated by its readers.

Fair enough. But I'm willing to bet a lot of men didn't pick that book up because of its cover.

True. But that might be a calculation made by the marketing department. Lose one male reader, gain one and a half female.

Oh, I agree. And it's a known fact that more women buy books than men.

And I think that's being reflected in books. Out of the 15 'most read this week' literary fiction books on Goodreads, all but 3 are by women.

Definitely. And look at some of the biggest books of the last couple of years: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, and Elena Ferrante's novels.

The Girl on the Train

Yup. Gone Girl.

To sort of reverse my first devil's advocate, Patricia Highsmith is a wonderful example of a non-gendered view of authorship. Except for The Price of Salt, all of her books, I think, are neutered of gender. But perhaps that brings up the question of genre.

I'm embarrassed to admit that I've never read her books.

She did the Ripley books, and a few movies are coming out adapted from books she wrote, like The Two Faces of January. She also wrote Strangers on a Train.

Oh, I know! She's in my (massive) to-be-read pile.

When someone passes away, we should read snippets all of the books they never got to at their funeral. Why? I have no idea, and in retrospect that might be a very painful, pointless exercise.

Oh god. My idea of heaven (if such a thing exists) is a giant library. Yes, I'm a cliché.

I hope heaven brings something better than reading.

It's a bit depressing to know that you'll die never having read all of the books that you wanted to read--but there's also something wonderful about the fact that you'll NEVER run out of good books. Maybe we can live in some of our favorite books. Wait, that would be a terrible idea, seeing as a lot of my favorite books are dark and depressing as hell.

Ha! Most of the best books are the best because you only temporarily have to live in them. Well, I think we've run sufficiently off track to safely end it here.

Excellent point. Okay, thanks for interviewing me!

Thanks for your words Michele, they were very much appreciated.

Thanks for your brilliant questions.