Happy Thanksgiving, readers. While my turkey roasts, I will post.
And now, as a reader service, I will unveil the Great Secret to getting your essay published in Modern Love:
Question: What are the Modern Love editors looking for in an essay?
Facebook is sexy. Facebook is the element that takes a regular juicy emotional story and elevates it to Modern Love material. It is the hot topic that gives a good essay the necessary boost into publication status. This is not as crazy as it sounds. Newspaper editors are always looking for the thing that is trendy, hot, talked about, to get into their pages. These days, that’s Facebook
This is not lost on the writers, trust me. Back when I interviewed my friend and classmate Kerry Herlihy about her Modern Love essay, she shared with me her a-ha moment about the Facebook element. Because Kerry is a talented writer of many, many great essays. So what made this one Modern Love material? Facebook. And she knew it even as she conceived the essay topic in her head. She’s a smart writer, and she leveraged the sexy, hot element of the moment to get her essay into Modern Love.
So too, did our essayist of the week, Charles H. Antin, author of The Boundaries of a Breakup. In Antin’s essay, Facebook is a main character. It is the way by which he somewhat creepily spies on his ex-girlfriend. And it is the way by which he has an unnecessary conflict with his grandfather. These are two love stories and their common bond is the Facebook connection.
Does this work? Mostly. Here’s the problem: there are two stories here and in my opinion, they don’t pack equal emotional punch. The story of the author with his grandfather is wonderfully nuanced. There are several great details that enhance this tale – the way his grandfather clearly does not “get” the way language is used online (he writes his emails in traditional letter format) he misses the social etiquette of the virtual world and when it creates tension in the family, he simply puts it down. This action horrifies the author, but you can sort of see it from Grandpa’s perspective: Whatever. It’s just a toy, right? No great loss if I never touch it again. Grandpa, obviously, is not all that concerned with creating a virtual brand for himself. I found the sections involving the author and his grandfather funny and touching and illuminating of the way technology has insinuated itself into our lives and relationships.
Therefore, I am disappointed with the other relationship in the story – that of the ex girlfriend. I get nothing of the detail in the grandfather section – no dialogue, no detail, no sense of why our author liked her at all, much less still carries a torch for her after the break up. There may be reasons the author has failed to flesh out this relationship for us. Maybe they are legal reasons? Perhaps Grandpa is not going to complain that his relationship with the author is appearing in the New York Times, but the ex-girlfriend (not to mention Charlie 2.0 with the unusual, Google-able name) might not be so generous. By making them unidentifiable, the author (and the Times) avoid any lawyer calls. But they also avoid the emotion needed to make this section as strong as the other.
Still, if you’ve got Facebook, even a vague breakup story can feel fresh and modern. So anyone with an essay out there with a Facebook theme polish it up and hit send. That window won’t stay open forever. Any minute now, the Times will discover Twitter.