When I first caught wind of New York Magazine‘s account of pill-popping beauty blogger Cat Marnell’s “last night out before rehab,” I was prepared to write some high-snobiety condemnation of our descent into Lilo culture, bloggers’ bizarre sense of entitlement, and where it all crashed together into some sort of Kardashian-esque embarrassment of what the fashion industry once was. I then spent two-plus hours of what should’ve been a much more productive workday reading everything Marnell has ever published–like seriously, ever. Which speaks volumes when I can count the other fashion writers whose work I enjoy on one hand. The problem is a lot of it is just fucking boring, while, in the words of Jezebel, Marnell is “fucked up and fascinating.”
But not for the reasons most people think. It’s not the salacious, train-wreck details of less-than-lucid orgies, cocaine encounters, and almost-smuggling ecstasy that Marnell always somehow manages to morph into a sensible beauty product recommendation. It’s her honesty not just in an industry of lies, appearances, and appeasements, but also in a society that devalues — even condemns – the ring of truth when it comes from a young, female voice (please go read Alexandra Molotkow’s piece on HBO’s Girls).
One of my greatest struggles as a twenty-something fashion writer, who happens to be a good three years younger than most of the other twenty-something fashion writers, is finding an authentic, honest voice. I’m told time and time again by various sources to avoid criticism–to say my properly-punctuated piece until a larger publication, with larger advertisers picks me up. I obsessively write, re-write, then make my boyfriend, friends, whoever read and approve pieces that I fear might be a critique or f-bomb too many for potential employers. I hear rumours of EIC’s with mental blacklists of young writers they deem ‘too mean’ to fill future job openings. It’s not uncommon for PR reps, who always seem one step ahead of journos, to complain about positive coverage that doesn’t completely and utterly toe the party line. Don’t even ask about the negative. And then there’s designers like Amanada Lew Kee — barely two years out of school — who find it appropriate to blacklist writers for their (potential) honest opinions. Worse yet, most of Toronto’s fashion community let her get away with it because the adage seems to be that soul-crushing BS or, at worst, crickets, is infinitely more civilized than critique.
“A year ago I had a nervous breakdown… It happens all the time in publishing– a plucky young editor can’t decide if she wants to be her boss or be Lindsay Lohan, so she tries squishing two high-intensity personas into one life,” writes Marnell in a post about hair conditioner. God, I feel her.
Except I think it’s less about a choice between two paths and more about having to deep throat both simultaneously in order to stand a chance in this always shrinking, yet ever more competitive industry. Unless you win the intern lottery and happen to get hired by a print publication right out of school (OK– let’s be real. Not even school; more like two years of unpaid internships), you’re going to compete for page views, shares, and comments in an oversaturated online world. So one must juggle being different/authentic/interesting enough to read with not being so different/authentic/interesting that one alienates older editors who built their success in a different time, with different rules. And then there’s the inherent value in not being bored to death by your own posts. Or, I don’t know, habouring some crazy belief that readers deserve more than ‘readable’ blurbs about how great everything is.
A lot of writers (myself included) straddle the line with a healthy dose of snark, which is often a way to hint at honest commentary while still retaining plausible deniability–you didn’t really mean it, that’s just your ‘tone.’ But I often wonder if leaving that escape hatch open also cheapens the critique… and the craft.
It really is enough to drive a young writer mad.
According to Say Media, Marnell is xoJane‘s most read and commented-on contributor; but it’s too easy, too tempting to dismiss her success as the result of sex, drugs, and a rock & roll lifestyle. Marnell’s writing presents us with something even scarier than hard-drug overdoses and self-destructive behaviour: the truth. If only we could all be so brave.
Sabrina Maddeaux is Toronto Standard’s style editor. Follow her on Twitter at @sabrinamaddeaux.