Every Email is Illuminated: On Writing in a World of Privileged Literary Men
When the New York Times Style Magazine published the ‘email correspondence’ of Jonathan Safran Foer and Natalie Portman last week, I was ready to read some amazing Twitter jokes. What crosshairs! Aesthetics and gender relations and the opportunity to laugh at who are way richer than me!
There’s a lot of obvious fun to be poked here. From the ‘mysterious disappearance of their epistolary archive’ (read: *Stars are just like us, Their Email Archives Disappear Too!*) to Jonathan Safran Foer referring to himself in the third person in the opening paragraph, to “When The Times suggested this piece, and it became clear we weren’t going to be in the same place for long enough to allow for a traditional profile — me observing you at the farmer’s market, etc., which would have felt ridiculous, anyway” — implying that this profile-in-email form is somehow not ridiculous.
I met JSF several years ago. I had just graduated from college and was working at an IHOP in San Diego. When I heard that he was coming to my alma mater to speak, I got in touch with an old professor homie who was also the head of convocations and she said I was welcome to come to the speech and reception.
I went to IHOP that morning, all blue polyester apron and sticky fake maple syrup and dos panquques, por favor! After work I got in my beloved ’92 Buick LeSabre (may he rest in peace) and drove the hundred miles back to Redlands. Traffic between San Diego County and the Inland Empire is killer during commute hours, so I spent a lot of time in the standstill listening to college nostalgia songs and thinking waxed poetic thoughts about undergrad.
I always got emotional going back to visit college that year because I was still living in this half limbo where so many things were similar, and yet my life no longer held the daily auras of joy that had characterized four years of living two steps from the greatest humans I know / making art / learning about dope shit / drinking outside / becoming the person who I will presumably live the rest of this life as. I did not hate working at IHOP (ask anyone who knew me then, I actually loved it — daily routine was something I needed) and I still lived in lovely Southern California near many of my friends, but I didn’t know how to move the thing I’d realized I wanted to dedicate my life to — writing, from the dreamlike state where I’d existed in college to the reality of, you know, paying rent and IHOP.
I parked Desmond (the Buick) in one of the familiar lots, changed out of my IHOP uniform and into one of the floral dresses that had been my college uniform, and sidled into the lecture hall where I’d attended a hundred Greek Council meetings and ominous university announcements and banquets catered by Bon Appetit.
And there was Jonathan Safran Foer, standing at the front of the room talking to my old professor homie. At the time I’d just read his book Eating Animals, and I was like “yeah I could totally be a vegetarian!” and I loved Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close when I read it during an emotional pre study abroad summer. I gave some side eye to Everything is Illuminated, but whatever, 2 for 3 seemed like a good enough ratio to be excited.
My professor waved me over and excitedly introduced me to JSF as a recent graduate writer, and I said,
“Well, writer and IHOP waitress.” She went away to go do some convocations related task and the famous author and I had a short conversation about IHOP.
“Wow. I don’t know the last time I’ve been to an IHOP.” he said.
“Yeah, you’ve gotta be careful. They use fake eggs and put pancake batter in the omelettes.”
“Really?!” He seemed legitimately interested in this bit of IHOP trivia — and then asked me for directions to the bathroom. I tucked this moment away for future anecdotal storytelling. I wasn’t annoyed by his blasé response, I knew already at that point in my life that people are not usually stoked to meet the absurd energetic girl who someone introduces as a writer. And you know, it’s good training to learn early that famous people don’t care about you.
During the actual speech an hour later, though, I began to retract my stance of forgiveness. He gave a clearly repurposed commencement speech from previously visited universities. It was October! The kids had been in school for two months! I get that you reuse material, but must you make it so blatant?
I began to wonder how much the school paid him for this event. I later did some snooping and learned that it was upwards of sixty thousand dollars. So like sure, famous man, you’re tired, giving speeches probably gets just as boring as answering questions about the different pancake combos, but one of us is getting paid sixty thousand dollars and one of us is getting paid sixty dollars. Try and pretend to give a little bit of a shit?
The student body of Redlands was not known for being super into cultural figures, but the room was packed that night. These weren’t people who see celebrities all the time or have connections to successful people. The school does not have a large endowment. When they pay someone to come speak, it’s not a drop in a bucket.
It gave me a bad taste in my mouth to watch this guy go to a distinctly unprestigious college and be so lackluster, as if the people there were never going to matter. I subsequently Googled and found out that he himself attended Princeton, where Joyce Carol Oates picked him out like a fluffy dandelion and blew his precious words into the wind of literary privilege. I wondered if he’d have put in more effort if he were down the road at Pomona or someplace else fancy, instead of a school that people always confuse with a national forest.
A few weeks later, some friends and I went to see David Sedaris speak and when he signed my book he told me that I should get a job at Hooters. I would like to thank the male literati of America for their quick and dirty lessons in how to stop being easily impressed by men who have published things.
A few weeks ago, I went on a couple dates with a guy who went to Harvard for undergrad. Spare the fancy educational background, we had a shit ton in common. We ordered all the same weird melon saisons, read all the same books, we made many jokes about n + 1. Sure, he actually knew people involved with n + 1 while my involvement was a rejected internship application, but still, good inside baseball literary times. He spoke more than me which is nearly impossible but entirely refreshing amidst the herds of men I go on dates with who do not know how to conduct a conversation.
When he sent the ‘it’s been fun but no thanks’ text, I was crushed. Aside from my continual confusion at how people can be so into you in person and then be like “nah I was kidding I’m an actor in dating and life,” I was honestly really chagrined that someone who I had so much in common with could so easily be like, “ur gross get out.” Normally the guys who reject me are random enough that I can chalk it up to not liking the same weird ass shit, but when someone does like the same weird ass shit, you start to feel deficient as a human. I got really down on myself — my insecurities, my anxiety, what have you, anything my brain could come up with.
Then one of my friends said — maybe he was just pretentious. Men have this image of the woman they want to fill the role as girlfriend in their life. And a guy who went to Harvard and talks about it probably has an image that isn’t ‘part time waitress,’ even if that waitress reads all the hip books and writes lyric essays and can joke about n + 1. I may be funny and quirky, but I certainly don’t hold enough prestige to validate a man’s existence.
Speaking of men needing actresses to validate their existence.
If you want to get super meta, I suppose, you could view this Rarefied Email Correspondence as a public exercise in a man admitting his total vulnerability at the hands of a woman he’s obsessed with. The desperation to recover the emails is such a plaintive desire to have a factual record that this infatuation was even one percent reciprocated. And upon the eve of their disappearance he got the opportunity for an even more visible record of the fact that a renowned lady likes speaking to him: an article in the New York Times Style Magazine! Your existence is not only validated, but also stylish!
But honestly I doubt JSF saw himself as admitting that vulnerability at all. I think he’s probably totally incognizant of that reading of the situation and instead is so wrapped up in the precious headspace it took to build this fantasy that it’s becoming public record represents nothing but a sigh of relief. It’s real. I didn’t make this up. Natalie Portman actually speaks to me.
His waxing poetic on how young both of them were when they got famous wants so badly to be a clarion call: here we are, two cultural geniuses, worship away! Rather, to me, those sections read as this: maybe you peaked a little early. Maybe you spent too little time striving, and were delivered too many goods too quickly — and now instead of being grateful that you’re a fucking billionaire off two novels you wrote in your twenties, you showcase your email correspondence with Natalie Portman in an effort to feel legitimate.
There are days that I dream of being rich, but today is a day that makes me wonder at what point it sends you into a land beyond repair, a land where you divorce your talented novelist wife because you’ve convinced yourself that your correspondence with an Intelligent Famous Actress is in fact the beginning of a love affair.
The nice thing about going to a not prestigious college was that we got really good at making fun of ourselves. We got degrees in the art of taking your work seriously while acknowledging that you are indeed a hippie liberal arts caricature. Occasionally we cheersed to our professors thinking we were brilliant, most times we cheersed while playing games of how much would you have to be paid to fuck last year’s community director.
I too have a deep and abiding love for email, it’s like longform texting. But was the point of this ‘profile’ that these Public Intellectuals write eloquent emails? In my limited experience, most people who think can also write eloquent emails. I’m starting to think that it’s more interesting/impressive to flow in and out of eloquence and pure unfiltered thought and laughter and absurdity than to only write the well formed sentences.
In the words of that article, JSF is almost making fun of himself, but he’s also not. He’s also trying to be serious. On the one hand it’s funny to say that the hard part of being a writer is taking care of guinea pigs, but on the other hand it is vile. The hard part of being a writer is never knowing if the thing that makes you heart beat is going to fund staying alive. The hard part of being a writer is failing at other professions so miserably that you have panic attacks on streets in the West Village, spending thousands of hours on cover letters that go unanswered, it’s the unpaid time that you spend on words no one may ever read and then go to bed hungry because you bought coffee to help productivity instead of dinner to feed yourself. The hardest part about Jonathan Safran Foer’s writing life may be guinea pigs, but he cannot speak to what is hard about being a writer for the majority of the population.
Also — he just sounds fucking insufferable. Making your children pass a Wonder Line? Really? Tell me, is it your express purpose to make your spawn into leeches unsatisfied with daily life? I think there’s value in realizing the point at which being cool and artistic ventures into the completely absurd. I worked with horses for all of my childhood and teen years, and I can’t even get behind the ‘wonder’ of Natalie Portman’s kid having eye contact with a horse. They’re a mammal. They have eyes. So do we. Get over it!
I no longer live in San Diego, I now live in Brooklyn where I am eating a frozen pizza for one with a fork and knife. I am closer to the dream that I could not name when I was working at IHOP, the dream of a life centered around interpreting the world through my own strange lens. Closer, but still pretty fucking far. Some days it feels near enough to touch, others I think it’s so impossible that I should just cash out now, I could probably still get hired on a ranch.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned since living in New York, it’s that there are a lot of talented writers, and many of them will never be rich. It isn’t because their words are worth less than Jonathan Safran Foer’s, it is because we live in a world dictated by circumstantial luck, and because although many people write beautiful sentences, not very many people pay to read them. I find myself caring less and less about the dream of literary acclaim and more about the dream of literary conversation and connecting with fellow humans whose neuroses express themselves on paper. I hope that I never view these other humans as objects that fit into my personal museum of Elegant Intelligence, and value them instead as whatever manifestation of the grand emotional circus they hope to become.