They say everybody's got a story to tell; as a writer, I believe this to be true. That doesn't mean everybody's got a story people want to hear, unfortunately -- and the criteria we use to decide which stories are worth reading and which are not is fast becoming a source of great concern.
I make my living as a blogger for a popular entertainment and lifestyle website, which means I spend my days sifting through an endless stream of "breaking news" stories and "exclusive" interviews, trying to judge which online tales which are worth re-telling.
My choices are far from arbitrary: Crazy celebrity antics are a no-brainer -- the words "Miley Cyrus" and "shocking" in a headline guarantee thousands upon thousands of thoughtless, gossip-hungry clicks. But when it comes to health or human interest -- when it comes to anything about actual people -- my job becomes harder, if less hollow-hearted and glib.
I find myself, time and again, passing over stories with the slightest hint of depth or meaning in favor of the jaw dropping, the sensational. I operate on the assumption that my readers are incapable, or simply unwilling, to appreciate subtleties. Except it's not an assumption, the numbers back this theory's validity time and again.
This is nothing new, of course. Back in 1982, Don Henley sang, “It’s interesting when people die/Give us dirty laundry.”
It is interesting when people die. It’s more interesting, apparently, when people die horrifically violent deaths (preferably caught on video). It’s deeply disturbing, but I have no right to complain about our society’s increasingly dark voyeuristic streak or our addiction to trivial distractions: I am, technically, part of the problem.
I once wrote a post suggesting 37-year-old “True Blood” stud Alexander Skarsgard and 64-year-old Oscar-winner Meryl Streep were romantically involved, just to see if the rumor would catch on. Guess what? It did. The experience both amused and terrified me. Exactly what sort of warped, mind-controlling matrix am I feeding on a daily basis? And why?
The short answer: It’s a job. Paying gigs for writers are few and far between, and I have two children to feed.
Still, I’m acutely aware of the fact that most people who come across my commissioned online snark –- or anyone’s commissioned online snark, for that matter –- don’t seem to realize that I only “care” about pop culture because I’m paid to do so. Again, this is not an assumption on my part -– countless comments prove the majority of my readers think I have nothing better to do with my time than to churn out bitter, anti-celebrity drivel.
“What’s it to you if (insert hot male celeb name here) is dating (insert hot female celeb name here)? Are you jealous?” “Why do you care? It’s not like you know these people.” I don’t care. Not a bit. But pretending I care pays the bills (barely).
There is a longer, more complicated answer, as you might have guessed. Beyond the paltry monetary compensation, why do I continue to write about Hollywood stars and screw-ups and events that don’t interest me personally? Why do I continue to contribute to that warped, mind-controlling matrix?
Like most writers, I didn’t get into this business to tell other people’s stories -– I got into this business to tell my own. I got into this business to write books, not blog about Jennifer Aniston’s hair and get hate mail from people who think I deserve to “die in a fire” for my opinions.
I was, as so many of us are, derailed by the need for gainful employment. Somewhere between then and now, I’ve become paralyzed, creatively. When only the “craziest” celebrity “antics” get the public’s attention, do my own stories stand a chance?
It’s not that I don’t have any filthy clothes-filled hampers of my own to air –- on the contrary, I have an overabundance of sordid life experiences to choose from. But examining my personal history with the discerning eye of a bottom line-focused blogger is both overwhelming and sickening.
I almost died from anorexia at the age of 9, should I write about that? Nah, the market is already saturated with eating disorder memoirs. I almost died again, years later, from botched breast implant surgery, should I write about that? Nah, too many people have already cashed in on plastic surgery nightmares. I actually did die from a heroin overdose, but was shocked back to life on a cold steel emergency room table. Do I write about that? There's no point. It’s been done a million times over.
I've had sex with women, on occasion. I've been sexually assaulted. I'm divorced. None of these experiences are unique, none of them extreme enough to ever trend on Google. Does that mean nothing I’ve been through matters?
I would like to believe that what one writes about is less important than how one writes about it. That any tale, artfully told, will find an appreciative audience. But I know that’s not the case, even beyond the virtual realm. Tell-all books “penned” by reality stars like Snooki outsell masterfully written memoirs and novels again and again.
This recycled epiphany is no more revelatory than the dirty laundry observation, I realize. Still, it contributes to the overwhelming sense of futility I feel, professionally.
To exploit ridiculously overpaid celebrities who become celebrities knowing exploitation is part of the job is depressing, but easily justifiable when a paycheck is involved. To exploit oneself is more depressing, but, again, easily justifiable when a paycheck is involved. To fail at exploiting oneself, however, is too intensely depressing to even contemplate.
And so I return, day after day, to the strange science of deciphering which grand scale natural disasters, bizarre crimes and outrageous PR stunts are grand scale, bizarre and outrageous enough to get the average Internet user’s attention. My own stories remain shelved, for the most part, a pile of dirty laundry no more or less dirty than anyone else’s pile. I'm afraid I've lost the ability to judge their relevance by any other means.