Getting paid to sit around in your pajamas and write mean things about strangers on the Internet — sounds easy, right? But as Jessica Grose proves in her new novel, professional blogging is much more grueling (and even less glamorous) than it seems.
For Sad Desk Salad protagonist Alex Lyons, working for a popular women’s website is one third dream job, two thirds nightmare. She spends 12 hours a day writing posts that hit a nerve — at the cost of rarely seeing daylight, constantly being insulted by anonymous commenters, and never quite knowing how secure her job is. Things get more complicated when Alex receives a salacious video from an unnamed source. Posting it could make her career — or destroy her last shred of integrity.
Though the book is fiction, it contains more than a kernel of truth: Grose has worked as an editor at both Jezebel and Slate’s DoubleX vertical. (I interned at Slate when Grose worked there, though we rarely interacted.) Shortly after Sad Desk Salad hit shelves, I called Grose to chat about working online, the perils of privacy in the Internet age, and the best way for a blogger to keep her sanity. Hint: It involves avoiding Google.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why did you decide to write a novel?
JESSICA GROSE: Well, I had been seeing the issues that I deal with in the novel — privacy, and how journalists are navigating new media — for at least the past five years. I really wanted to talk about those issues, but I didn’t want to do it in a serious way — if I did it as nonfiction, I’d have to take a stand. And I think it’s such an ambiguous, complicated issue; it would be much more interesting to weave those conflicts into a fictional narrative. Also, I wanted to have a little fun. [laughs] I actually started writing it just to entertain myself, which sounds goofy.
How did you come up with the title?
There’s actually a very new media explanation.
It was raining in November, I think probably 2010. I tweeted that I was eating a “sad desk salad,” and the novelist Lily Burana tweeted back at me, and was like, “That’s the perfect title for a book.” And I was like, “It actually is a really good title for a book.” Because I’m paranoid, I promptly deleted that tweet because I didn’t want anyone to steal the title.
What in the book was taken from your life, and what was invented?
Almost all the characters are totally fictional. And the situation — I tried to be really faithful to the emotional experience of working online. But some of the details are exaggerated. Honestly, if you were writing about the day to day for most bloggers, it would just be incredibly boring. I did, in fact — not every day, but many days — in the summer of 2008 when I was working from home wear the same dress [over and over]. And I definitely did not shower until 6 p.m. most days.
So your experience at Jezebel was better than Alex’s experience at Chick Habit. Have your friends who work at other websites told you any horror stories?
The people I know who have had the worst experiences in journalism — it’s not necessarily blogs. The boss in Sad Desk Salad is based on the boss of a friend of mine that she had when she worked at one of the New York City tabloids. I don’t know anyone who’s had an experience quite as dramatic or destructive as Alex’s. It’s sort of like any other high-intensity job — I don’t think it’s necessarily specific to new media.
Is that the biggest misconception people have about blogging — that it’s easy?
Yeah. There’s a lot of people, especially [those] who don’t work in the industry, who think of blogging as uninformed opinion writing about meaningless drivel. But I think anyone who is at all media savvy knows that blogs are just shorter reported pieces. The lines between a blog and newspaper article, or a magazine article, have just completely disintegrated. You sound pretty ignorant if you’re just pretending that all blogs are terrible.
What do you think is harder — blogging 10-12 hours a day or writing a novel?
They’re really different. The easier thing about blogging is that you’re getting paid to do it, it’s your job — you have to produce that much all the time. There’s no way around it. And there’s constant feedback, which is good and bad. Whereas with a novel, a lot more self-doubt can creep in. There’s so much more time to second-guess yourself and wonder if you’re devoting all this time to something that maybe no one will read, and maybe is the worst.
Is there anything from your blogging days that you wish you hadn’t written?
It’s not the pieces themselves — it’s the tone that I sometimes regret. When you’re producing [at] that volume, you are bound to be more flippant and less thoughtful. There was an article when I was at Jezebel about women who had post-traumatic stress disorder after they gave birth. And I wrote something totally snide and obnoxious about that study. I’m sure I wrote it in 15 minutes, and I didn’t really think about it. And then a couple years later, a woman who had had post-traumatic stress disorder after she gave birth was writing an article about the reaction to her experience, and she emailed me for a comment. And I really didn’t know what to tell her. I felt terrible. To be perfectly honest, I hadn’t remembered writing it. I didn’t murder anybody’s puppies, but it still feels bad to have unnecessarily injured a reader for no good reason.
If you had been in the same position as Alex, would you have posted that video?
I don’t think so. [laughs] I’m sure if it had been on another website, I would have written about the phenomenon, but I probably wouldn’t have linked to it. I think lots of media outlets are still trying to figure out where you draw the line in terms of what’s newsworthy, because we have so changed the notion of public and private space.
If Alex had written this novel, she’d be obsessively refreshing Amazon and Goodreads, looking for reviews. Are you doing that?
I’m pretty much staying away from it. I am actually 32 weeks pregnant, so I’m sort of mentally preoccupied — it’s sort of nicely distracting. And I don’t as a rule Google myself, because I got burnt when I was just starting out in my career — I graduated from college in 2004. And I remember Googling myself around that time, and people were already saying nasty things! So in the interest of self-preservation, I haven’t Googled myself in years.
Do you consider this book to be chick lit?
It’s a complicated question. I’m certainly not insulted by the term — [I’m] super proud to be mentioned in the same breath as many quote-unquote chick lit writers whom I admire. I think it’s unfortunate that, when you hear the term “chick lit,” some people have the assumption that that means it’s a book that’s primarily about romance. And my book is really about work.
I guess you could paint it as a book about a girl breaking up with her computer.
[laughs] That is a great way to frame it.
I loved the book, but I also feel like it was tailor made for me. Are you worried at all about it appealing to people beyond 20-something New Yorkers who work at websites?
Not really. I think anyone can relate to questions of ambition. How one defines oneself in relation to their career, and what that means, and the pressures of trying to advance — I think that’s something that’s fairly universal, especially now. When I wrote the book I wasn’t really thinking about the audience. I think that will cripple any writer, to think too much about [that]. If you try to appeal to everyone, you will appeal to no one.
And finally: What would you recommend readers eat while reading the book, besides sad desk salad?
Hmm… Booze. At the end of your workday, a nice glass of wine or beer and relaxing with the book — I would like to envision that for my readers.
Especially if you can’t drink along with us.
Exactly! I hope that everyone can take up my slack.