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More books making the journey from online to bestseller

When writers with cult followings online get book deals, and those books become New York Times bestsellers, you can always expect some possessive humble-bragging from the clique of early adopters.  It goes a little something like this:

“OMG! That’s so great! I have been reading (x) for years, it’s fantastic to see the rest of the world catching on. Really, everyone should be reading (x), every day.”

The unspoken end to that final sentence is “… like I do, because I am smart and cool and PLUGGED IN”.

We clique-members hasten to the online forums “our” writers frequent, to congratulate them on their success, and they often (thrillingly) respond to us. In turn, they kindly and wisely honor us as a vital part of their marketing arm, happily boosting their signal and boosting their sales.

Over the past five years, a clutch of writers who regularly “publish” online to a devoted readership have published bound, “real” books that have helped shape the current face of non-fiction. The proof is in that New York Times best-seller list, on which they now regularly appear.

These writers are (often) women, and the books are collections of (often) personal essays. These essays use the personal to illuminate sociopolitical issues, and help give voice to the voiceless who are voracious consumers of books.

What is a little new here is that this generation travels between media so seamlessly, and that as they respond to the culture online, they impact the culture offline. Like minds more regularly first find each other in specialized corners of the internet, including writers and readers. They fall into constant dialogue, reaffirming one other’s experiences and worldviews, and now more frequently make their way into street politics and onto your TV screens. This is how balances of power eventually tip, and the landscape of who is heard and seen begins to change.

No one in any profit-driven industry would be wise to ignore a large, loyal and enthusiastic demographic of consumers. And so, wisely, publishers have not.

A woefully incomplete timeline of writers within this genre (including only those books this reporter has personally actually read) might begin thusly:

2012: Penguin’s “Putnam Adult” imprint publishes “Let's Pretend This Never Happened: (A Mostly True Memoir) by Jenny Lawson (aka “The Bloggess”).

Lawson’s huge online popularity translated to book sales, as hoped.  “Let's Pretend” was not only ON the NY Times best-seller list, but sat briefly in the #1 spot.  It was honest, profane, angry, desperate, and extremely funny: qualities that marked a lot of very popular women’s writing online at the time, and many of the books to come.

2013: Chicago indie house “Curbside Splendor Publishing” releases Samantha Irby’s “Meaty”. 

Many of the essays within appeared previously on her popular blog, “b---ches gotta eat.” This book contrasted screamingly funny rants about her bowels and love life (focusing often on how disastrously the two intersect) with gorgeous essays about her early years as a poor black kid in a rich white world, and her relationships with her sick mother and abusive father.

2014: Roxane Gay’s “Bad Feminist” is released by Harper Perennial.

Gay, child of Haitian immigrants, raised in Nebraska and educated by Phillips Exter Academy, holder of a phD, had been writing online for The Rumpus, examining her personal relationships with cultural phenomena from sexual violence to “Sweet Valley High”.   Gay’s voice perfectly balances intellect and emotion, expertly deployed in pieces like the one describing her experience of watching the film “The Help”. Every word she writes has indisputable power and authority, often softened by an inclusive, self-implicating humor.  “Bad Feminist” came at you like the blast from a long-stoked furnace, and was widely and glowingly reviewed.

May, 2016: Lindy West, formerly of Seattle’s “The Stranger” and the culture site “Jezebel”, publishes “Shrill”.  It is hilarious and clear and moving.  Her social vulnerability as a fat woman is a platform from which she passionately, com-passionately, and relentlessly questions those who treat others as less than human.  Her light, agile essays don’t pull punches or let anyone off the hook, from the vicious online trolls who savage her daily, to theoretical allies in her own small communities (comedy clubs, as well as within the ranks at “The Stranger”).

June, 2016: William Morrow’s “Dey Street” imprint publishes Jessica Valenti’s “Sex Object”.

This was certainly not the first non-fiction from the founder of the “Feministing” blog, but it was Valenti’s first memoir, unflinchingly examining how her personal story informed her life and her politics.  “Sex Object” is blunt and bare and at times anguished and angry, and it doesn’t end with a chirpy call to arms or vision for a better future.  It’s just a compelling record of her experience of being female in a world that traumatized her for it.

In 2017, they books have come fast and furious.

A few include:

March: Scaachi Koul’s “One Day We'll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter: Essays” (from Doubleday Canada).  Koul is Indian, Canadian, and a thoroughly modern woman living in sin with her Very White Older Boyfriend.  She also lives out loud on Twitter, both defying the expectations of her immigrant parents’ culture and fervently embracing the family into which she is still deeply burrowed.  The book is insightful and melancholic and awkward, describing the view from a terminally liminal space (it’s also, of course, funny: peppered by email exchanges with her loving, protective, but furiously eccentric father.)

May: Samantha Irby returns with “We Are Never Meeting In Real Life” (from Penguin/Random House’s “Vintage”).

More updates from Sam’s nether regions (front and back) that I promise you DO want to read, though you might not know it.  She displays acrobatic honesty as she describes transitioning from urban straight-ish singledom into a wholesome rural marriage to a kind, white, kale-eating lesbian mom.

June: Roxane Gay’s “Hunger” (Harper).

In a way, “Hunger” is the pièce de resistance and natural end-game of this style of socially-aware literary memoir.  Gay’s humor has largely dropped away, but what we’re left with is a gripping, page-turning, bone-shaking trip through how it actually feels to be Roxane Gay: a fat, queer, black, female, wildly respected public American intellectual.  The story of how Gay became who she is today, told through the tale of her body, is uncomfortable and thrilling and impossible to turn away from.  It’s both precise and ponderous, and uniquely satisfying as a result.

So, why again do these books mark a trend, or shift in non-fiction publishing?  Well for one thing, these women know each other.  Like The Bloomsbury Group in early 20th-century England, the “Lost generation” of American expatriates in WWI-era Europe, or the Beats of the American 1950’s…they inform and support one another’s art. They promote each other online, share pictures taken together “in real life”, blurb each other’s books, interview one another, share the podiums at readings.

And for another thing, reading their work in aggregate is one of the best (and easiest) possible ways to listen.  We’re all being loudly encouraged these days to listen to people we might otherwise not.  These authors are successful, brilliant women who have been variously marginalized: they are fat women, women of color, disabled women, mentally ill women, or all of the above.  Women who have survived sexual assault and vicious online harassment.

They dissect cultural phenomena and report their own stories with the wisdom born of combining lived experience with critical analysis. Reading them forces you to see them for what they are: thinking, feeling human beings who live and love and work while struggling to the center from the edges to which they’ve been consigned.  They’re funny because it helps them connect to others and protect their mental health, and this mix of qualities makes them compulsively readable and relatable.

All of these women have experienced some kind of trauma simply by existing in their bodies, in the world.  They have turned pain into joyful art, by writing the truth down, consistently, and exceptionally well. The resulting books make for a satisfying, affecting, invigorating bedside stack with no downside: tastes good, good for you.

Thanks to the internet, you longer need to publish in a printed book or magazine to have your words read. But if your words are powerful and necessary, your audience will grow.  A large online audience can ripen a writer into attractive pickings for a book deal.  Printed books get their authors more online followers, while putting them on that NY Times Best-seller list, and the authors occasionally end up publishing essays in the NY Times (among other notable publications).   This cycle has inevitably increased the reach and resonance of this particular group of voices.

We don’t know what will happen to writing on the web…one day it may all be gone.  But the web got these women heard, and now print publishers have gotten them paid. When they’re gone, their lives will have been pressed into paper.  Here’s hoping that like Woolf, Fitzgerald, or Kerouac, future readers will be pulling their books from the library stacks for generations to come, feeling that thrill of reading old words that crackle with fresh truth.

Emily Simon is a Buffalo-raised freelance writer now living in California

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