My interview with Daniel Jones, editor of the ‘Modern Love’ column in the Sunday Styles section of the New York Times since its inception in 2004.
Illustration by Livia Fălcaru
Jones landed ‘Modern Love’ through his wife, the journalist and novelist Cathi Hanauer, who back in 2002 edited an anthology of women’s essays delving into marriage and feminism, titled ‘The Bitch In The House’. Jones’ response followed soon after, penning ‘The Bastard On The Couch’. It was then when the New York Times offered the couple a column that shed light on the intricacies of modern romance through the means of a journalistic formula that was to become a hit: the personal essay.
One month later, Hanauer left the publication to focus on a novel, making Jones the master in charge of reading, curating and editing the very best of thousands of stories on love he received.
As I meet Jones on a rainy morning for an interview in the silent, empty conference hall where he held a tour de force just the evening before with his speech on vulnerability, I am overwhelmed by both anxiety and gratitude. After all, this man who has been sometimes referred to as the male version of a Carrie Bradshaw, has released into the world some of the most valid and persuasive contemplations on love, marriage, loss and empowerment, making ‘Modern Love’ one of the most popular and endeared outlets for cathartic self expression. His work connects, amasses the voices of multiple generations and gratifies through universal stories that speak for people from all walks of life.
A lot of young women ask themselves whether we can still find that loved one in this modern setting, with apps and online outlets for finding your next significant other. Love and heartbreak and loss aren’t new, though, to human beings. Why do we keep going back for more? Why do we feel the need to analyze that emotion under these modern setting?
I see this in the stories people send me – especially younger people. You learn about people being so much on their phones and having online relationships, but who are so unwilling to show that they care about each other. Not everybody’s doing it, by any means, but it seems especially common amongst college students and people in their twenties to have this reluctance to say “I care about you” or “I want to be with you”, and if they say it there’s this fear that they’re going to be rejected. It’s not really that surprising how people, before they want a committed relationship and before they want love to be one of the central things in their lives, will just want tiny pieces of relationships here and there instead of the whole, full thing. That leads to really disappointing encounters where people are close physically but as soon as they want more than that, they get shut down. Then there’s the case when people get really close emotionally – like in these online relationships – and when they finally meet the whole thing becomes a huge disappointment. It’s hard; I mean love has always been hard, but we have so many tools now to put up walls and it’s ironic because while the tools are about being able to communicate, they can also serve as this sort of shield between you and your true self.
The media has classified this type of ‘ambiguous’ love, coining terms such as ‘the almost relationship’, ‘the almost date’ or ‘ghosting’. How much has the Internet contributed to this state of facts?
The Internet is a real opportunity to connect, but it offers a different kind of connection. I always thought the Internet and phones are great for introverts who ordinarily could be very isolated but thanks to the Internet they can become bolder and can really find their way into relationships that otherwise would not be able to find at all. We shouldn’t discard those connections, they are still meaningful relationships, it’s just that the Internet can serve as a substitute for actual human contact.
I’ve seen a bunch of stories that make me think how we’re actually animals and we’re physical and what we need most is to touch other people. I received an awful lot of essays where people are concerned that they never touch another human being if they’re not in a relationship. We can certainly go through our lives without physical contact and I think the Internet makes that worse in a way because it allows us to be in touch with people and have connection but without the actual physical touch. You go to your job and you don’t touch anybody there, you hop in your car and you don’t touch anybody there, or you go home in your apartment and you don’t touch anybody there either.
There is simply something about this virtual world that is worrisome to a lot of people in the way that it feels like a false connection. At least when it comes to physical touch.
Has the idea of love really changed so much throughout history?
I think love doesn’t change in certain ways – it’s still about the feeling of attachment and responsibility towards another person and family life. But I do think there’s been progress around different kinds of relationships to become acceptable and different kinds of sexual persuasion to become acceptable.
The younger generation has become more accepting in terms of interracial marriages and interreligious marriages, in terms of surrogacy and adoptions, and all those sorts of traditional restrictions have become less important for these people.
I think that’s all good. There are always ways that you can create a family, and I think these families totally celebrate love and all of that seems like progress.
What have you learned about the resilience of the human heart, after reading all these stories of heartbreak, or surviving loss etc?
I’ve been most impressed by people who don’t consider themselves extraordinary in any way.
What it feels like to be you – Bruce Almighty of the Modern Love, trialling stories back and forth, seeing so explicitly into people’s lives?
I somehow worried that it weighs down on me. You see, what’s being published is not necessarily representative of what comes in. Some material can be very dark and very heavy and then there’s other material that is very light, but most of the stories coming in are heavy and I’m used to saying ‘No, no, no’ and I won’t even have to go past the first paragraph because I know it’s another story about someone dying and I know can’t go there right now, so I try not to act like it’s the weight of the world – but I think it over time it’s taking its toll.
When you choose a piece for publication, how much do you base your decision on intuition and how much on trends?
When I first started the column I had no idea what worked. I didn’t know what people would respond to so it was all based on intuition. Now that I’ve had the job for as long as I have, I developed a much better sense of what works – maybe something that doesn’t resonate with me so much personally would still be good for the audience. Certain stories – especially those that implicitly offer advice on how to find love or how to be married – those are such broad topics, and people are so hungry for the kind of information those essays provide. If they are well done they can just become viral sensations and that’s something that I specifically look for. It’s not really about my personal taste or about literary quality – it’s just about a well done piece that I sense will do really well.
Do you alter the headlines? Is there a certain science behind good headline writing?
The writers never write the headlines – up until two and a half years ago the headlines were written by the copy editors but afterwards some of their responsibilities shifted to frontline editors so I started writing headlines. Now I probably write 90% of them. It’s been easy sometimes, but other times it’s been really hard – it took me hours to come up with something, but it’s a really good exercise because it forces you to think about what’s most important in the essay.
How do you keep a good measure to avoid compromising the quality of the story and still generate readership and social media interaction?
If the story has integrity, then it won’t be a compromise. The first headline I ever wrote was ‘To fall in love with anyone do this’, for a story penned by Mandy Len Catron based on this experiment. It attracted 20 million readers – a lot of it was coming from the headline and that was the kind of situation where the author used the same kind of language in the story and it turned out to be irresistible.
I remember the controversy that story created. Do you think it’s actually possible to fall in love with someone in 4 minutes after both responding to all the 36 questions?
It makes sense, because you’re just accelerating the process of knowing someone deeply. I think the most effective part in each segment of these questions is that they are specifically aimed for each person to list several things they have in common, then several things they like about the other person and then there’s a lot of flattery coming out of it. If we were to do this right now I would say ‘I admire how you’re so good at asking questions’ and we would feel good. It’s so simple in a way but it’s so hard to do it with someone you just met. Otherwise it’s not a natural thing to have an absolutely equal exchange of flattery and vulnerability and to also share such deep personal history. Then towards the end there are really probing questions, such as ‘What’s the worst thing that ever happened to you?’ and ‘What’s the best thing that happened to you?’ and ‘What are you most proud of?’ and ‘What’s the relationship you have with your mother?’.
What’s one particular line you’ve read that’s stuck with you?
I’ll tell you a very funny story. There’s this novelist named Paula Mclain, who wrote a book about Hemingway that became a big bestseller. Before that she appeared in the Modern Love column with an essay which talked about growing up poor and being so used up by this wealthy boy and his friends and being made to feel like trash. She had really loved him and he disregarded her and after that experience she said ‘I’m never gonna want things again!’ because she got this childhood where she always wanted gifts and she could never afford anything so she shut herself off from wanting things, and from wanting love, because she couldn’t take the disappointment of not getting them. It’s a beautiful essay and at the end she’s a married mother with children and finally, the thing she wants to teach her children is to allow themselves to want things. The last line reads “Desire is never the mistake”, because she says earlier in the piece ‘it was a mistake to desire.’ I thought that was such a perfect last line. Later on, I did an event with her when I was on a book tour in Cleveland and I introduced her and said ‘Paula McLain has one of the best last lines the Modern Love column ever ran’, and she gets up there and she says ‘You wrote that line’. It was so embarrassing and I realised that it was true and I was flattering myself by saying that I took it from her it – but was the obvious last line that I sort of created because I saw how it would blend so well in the piece.
Why are we so obsessed with finding the “right” person instead of accepting that the “wrong” person is who we’ve chosen to be with?
I think we are obsessed with finding the right person because we have too much choice. We used to be limited by geography in a way that we aren’t any more. Dating apps and online dating are great for meeting people but they give you the sense that there’s always someone better out there, because it’s so much easier to look appealing on a dating app compared to when you meet the real person. So that’s where temptation fills people’s minds.
We idealise romantic love in a way that can be damaging, it creates this fantasy that can’t really be lived up to.
I don’t know if that comes from people first and that’s how it winds up in Hollywood movies or it comes from Hollywood first and winds up in people (laughs).
In the same time, we can’t get away from it. There’s an idealisation that seems permanent – I always think that the best way to find love is to limit the number of people that you’re around.
How can we learn to grow and change along with someone else?
So much of long term relationships is practical. It’s like the opposite of love, it’s being able to make decisions together and being able to fight successfully. One piece that had a really big audience and was successful was this essay about a couple whose idea of love was a safe harbour from childhoods that have been difficult for both of them and they associated love with the safe harbour and because it was the safe harbour they didn’t fight, which meant they didn’t air their resentments and they just kept all that bottled up, because love couldn’t take that. I’ve seen that theme again and again that love is supposed to be peaceful, but in reality, love should be this rough and tumbling thing that can take regular fights and negotiation, because just the idea love is maybe not enough.
Modern Love was one of the first user generated editorial projects that I know of. How do you foresee the future of user generated storytelling when it has already become so accessible?
I don’t feel it was a pioneer but maybe it became the best known. It does seem like people want that sort of material. I just recently read a piece in the New Yorker that proclaimed the personal essay boom was over and it ended last year (laughs) so maybe we’re going in the opposite direction – I don’t know.
Give me one realistic piece of advice for editors striving to leave their mark in the publishing industry.
I don’t know (laughs). I got this job by accident, you know. I just worked really hard and I thought it was important to establish trust with the people who were submitting. I was a struggling writer for 10 years and I’d send my stories to magazines and the lot of them didn’t respond at all, especially at the upper level. So I would never submit again to a place that wouldn’t respond – it’s like asking someone to slap you. I thought I was a good enough writer and that I wouldn’t want people like me to keep submitting so I worked really hard at establishing a system that writers can trust and I really put the time in it with editing, working hard to get the pieces in shape and making sure I learnt a lot from all the good people at the Times who could teach me what problems surfaced. There’s legal stuff – the hard things end up in a newspaper for public consumption so there’s a lot to learn and you have to be careful not to exploit writers and their stories.
People are eager to get published so you have to worry and say ‘Do you really want to go public with this’? Be a professional, work hard and take yourself seriously.