On June 29, the New York Times published an essay entitled “I’ve Picked My Job Over My Kids,” in which lawyer and law professor Lara Bazelon wrote movingly about her professional life, how much personal satisfaction she derives from it, and how it gives meaning to her days. In fact, she likes her job so much that she often misses out on important milestones in her children’s lives—several birthday parties, two family vacations, three Halloweens, and so on. “I prioritize my work because I’m ambitious and because I believe it’s important,” Bazelon wrote. “If I didn’t write and teach and litigate, a part of me would feel empty.”
In January, Meghan Daum, a columnist for the L.A. Times and a teacher at Columbia University, told an interviewer, “Even now when I teach there’s just something about it. When I’m in the classrooms, I feel like this is where I’m meant to be.” Back in 2012, Jeff Bercovici wrote an article for his employer, Forbes magazine, entitled “Here’s Why Journalism Is The Best Job Ever,” in which he raved about the benefits of his profession: you get paid to read a lot; you get paid to meet interesting people, etc. Mainstream publications are full of essays by academics, doctors, lawyers, journalists, pastors, actors, musicians, and others in prestigious professions who want us to know how much they love their jobs. And the media love to report on how happy college-educated elites are with their professional lives. But for some reason they don’t much like to hear about non-professionals who are happy with their working lives.
On July 19, Quillette published an essay in which I wrote favorably about my job at an Amazon warehouse in West Sacramento, CA, where I spend my days unloading large trucks and helping to load delivery vans. I wrote that I enjoy the work and the atmosphere of the warehouse, like most of my co-workers, and am happy with the wage I am paid. Much of the reaction to that piece consisted of accusations that I was a sycophant, a corporate stooge, or that I was trying to impress Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon, a man I’ve never met and never expect to meet.
A few days after my essay appeared, New York magazine published a reply by staff writer Max Read sarcastically entitled: “America Should Thank Amazon For Giving Workers The Chance To ‘Chant Prime Day Slogans.’” Read didn’t bother to engage in a serious way with my points, and much of the negative feedback on social media was similarly long on haughty derision and short on substance. Amazon, presumably happy to be getting a bit of positive press for a change, posted a link to my article on its various social media platforms, but removed those links after they attracted a deluge of abuse. I have to say that I wasn’t entirely surprised by the reaction my essay provoked.
I’ve been writing personal essays for publications in my hometown for more than 30 years. For 12 years I wrote a column for a monthly magazine here in town. My pieces were mainly upbeat stories about my marriage, my kids, my grandchildren, my hobbies, my youth, and so on. I never had much trouble finding a local market for upbeat musings about my life as a working-class stiff. But finding a national market for such stories proved nearly impossible. I didn’t land a personal essay in a prominent national publication until 2007, when the New York Times published a story I wrote about my marriage in its Modern Love column.
The essay was a huge hit. The Times forwarded me requests from a couple of different Hollywood producers who had inquired about the film rights to the piece (alas, no film deal ever emerged). The Times also forwarded me numerous emails from people who had enjoyed it (this was before readers were allowed to comment on articles online). I enjoyed this attention so much that I began sending out personal essays to all sorts of large regional and national publications. None of these essays found a home until, finally, the San Francisco Chronicle accepted a piece I had written about shopping malls.
In an effort to figure out what had differentiated the Modern Love essay and the shopping mall essay from the vast majority of my writing, I finally hit upon the key to successfully placing an essay about working-class life in a prominent American publication. You’ve probably seen the acronym KISS, which stands for Keep It Simple, Stupid. It’s a useful mantra in numerous fields of endeavor, including engineering, product development, political debate, advertising, and strategic planning. Well, if you’re not a member of the professional class, the key to getting your personal essays published in prominent publications is KISSASS—Keep It Short, Sad, And Simple, Stupid.
Although my marriage has been an amazingly happy and successful one, my essay for the New York Times‘s Modern Love column was a wistful rumination on one of my few marital regrets—that I’ve never been the breadwinner in my family. My wife has always been the primary earner. My wife’s ex-husband is aware of this failing of mine, and for years he has seemed to be waiting for my wife to toss my low-earning butt out the door and take him back (he’s long regretted the divorce). Likewise, the piece about shopping malls dealt in part with the fact that my wife and I lived for a long time in scorching hot northern California in homes with no air-conditioning, and so we often sought out the comfort of shopping malls on hot evenings, sitting on sofas in the artificially cooled common areas, reading books and playing cards while waiting for the outside temperature to drop enough to make our living room at home slightly more bearable.
As soon as I embraced KISSASS as my motto, I began to sell personal essays to a variety of national venues. In 2008, during the economic collapse, I wrote an essay about my fear of losing my house to foreclosure that was broadcast on the American Public Radio program Marketplace. My wife and I managed to stave off foreclosure, but we did it by renting a space in an antiques collective and selling off much of what we owned. An essay I wrote about this was broadcast on NPR’s MorningEdition program. I found it was fairly easy to get prestigious venues to publish personal essays about the life of a working-class nobody so long as the tone was melancholy, or even depressing. Soon I was looking for the cloud inside of every silver lining. I began combing through my memories, looking for sad things to write about.
The problem is that sadness isn’t my natural setting. I grew tired of writing cheerless essays about my sorry lot in life. I went back to writing in my usual mode, and sold my pieces mainly to small local publications, which had fewer qualms with upbeat stories about Sacramento living.
It’s all right for successful, college-educated professionals like Lara Bazelon, Jeff Bercovici, Meghan Daum, and others to write about how much joy their working lives bring them. The people who edit the publications in which such articles appear are themselves college-educated professionals. They too probably enjoy their upper-middle-class lives. To my knowledge, when Bercovici wrote positively about his happy experience as a Forbes staff writer, no one accused him of sucking up to Steve Forbes, the magazine’s owner and publisher and a man whose net worth is estimated to be north of $400 million. When Meghan Daum enthuses about her work at Columbia University, no one accuses her of shilling for an institution with an endowment of more than $10 billion. Lara Bazelon has written for the Washington Post, which, like Amazon.com, is owned by Jeff Bezos. But as for as I know, no one has accused her of shilling for him.
But for working-class people, the rules are different. All those upper-middle-class professionals who edit the nation’s most prominent publications permit only one narrative when it comes to the toiling masses. Their lives are nasty, brutish, and short, and must always be portrayed as such. To publish a story about a person who enjoys working at Wal-Mart or Starbucks or Georgia Pacific or Amazon is considered tantamount to white-washing the horrific crimes (whatever those may be) of oligarchs such as the Walton family, Howard Schultz, the Koch brothers, or Bezos.
If you read about a working stiff in the pages of the New York Times, you’re almost certain to find it a downbeat experience. The working class in America are burdened with long hours of hard work for miserable pay. Which is why they are all so angry all the time. Or hooked on anti-anxiety medication. It’s why they are prime targets for populist nationalists like Trump. That, at least, is the conventional wisdom. This type of journalism becomes a self-replicating phenomenon. So that when a publication does run a rare story in which a working-class lunkhead claims to actually like working for Amazon, and claims to actually enjoy his life, the mainstream media treat it as a kind of betrayal. So, if you don’t have a professional degree and you hope to sell freelance personal essays to prestigious publications, take my advice and KISSASS.
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