Thursday, July 23, 2015

What punches up must punch down

When I started this blog, I was young. At 20, too old to be a runway model, but young all the same. Young, and in the grand scheme of things, a nobody. I had a column in my college paper, but no sense whatsoever of how to make it in the writing world off-campus, a world that, from what I could tell, seemed to require a mix of a trust fund to bolster unpaid internships and family connections to hire you into them. It just didn't seem worth the bother.

But I did enjoy writing, and would do so almost exclusively on WWPD. Whose audience, as best as I could guess, consisted of relatives; family friends curious about what someone they knew as a toddler was up to; ex-boyfriends curious about what someone they knew a few weeks/months/years ago was up to; and... that's about it. I remember being genuinely surprised when friends - friends! people I hung out with in real life! - would tell me they read my blog. It felt like writing into an abyss. I was very clear (note, again, the imagined audience) that I wasn't going to write anything all that confessional, so I wasn't opening myself up to the sort of thing where suddenly a future employer knows that you, I don't know, who even knows what I would have had to confess at 20, but it probably wouldn't have been all that interesting.

But here's where the abyss sense did enter into it: There are things I wrote earlier - and have sometimes found myself considering writing but deciding against more recently - that come pretty directly out of that sense I had that anything properly published was fair game for a wrong-on-the-internet. I remember mocking a NYT health column in a way that I can't see doing today. Not because I read the column any differently, and not because I've grown wary of criticizing lifestyle writing that I think is actually doing something harmful. (Such as, food writers advocating for unattainable locavore purity.) Just because I had no grievance with the column other than finding it smug.

Part of what's changed is that, having published articles myself, I've come to learn that those who do are not all-powerful entities immune to criticism, living it up on the cash their musings receive. I mean, some may be, but the fact that a thing has appeared in a place far from guarantees it. But the bigger issue is that I now have a different sense of where I fit into this system. That I'm not by definition - brace yourselves for the dreaded expression - punching up if I respond to something that's been published in a legit publication. Certainly not if I respond to it in a legit publication.

Which brings me to Mary Elizabeth Williams's Salon piece about Gawker, found via Noah Berlatsky. What Williams describes happening to her - Gawker repeatedly called her (published) writing hack-like, during a time when she was suffering from a serious form of cancer - is of a different nature than those other Gawker posts that involve revealing a random person's secrets, or teasing someone who put something hilarious on social media that they hadn't particularly meant for the world to see. Some of WIlliams's beef with Gawker - "They went full fury over a friend who wrote a lighthearted Styles piece" - seems a bit... I mean, that is so many miles away from, say, outing someone.

Hamilton Nolan, the Gawker writer in question, is standing his ground. Which... technically yes, published means fair game. If the line were simply set there - no more random "outings," no more combing social media for obliviousness - that would be progress, and putting a firm line anywhere beyond that does seem, as Nolan says, like a bad idea. But maybe the missing piece here isn't one of ethics, just one of good taste, or good sense.

No comments: