Notes from 10 years on the Front Lines of love
In “Love Illuminated,” Daniel Jones, editor of The New York Times’ popular Modern Love column, takes a look at relationships through the prism of the essays he has edited over the last decade.
Seattle Times columnist
For almost a decade, Daniel Jones has been receiving dispatches from the battlegrounds of love.
As the editor of the widely read “Modern Love” column in The New York Times, Jones is like a general in America’s civil war, surveying the strategies and struggles, the victories and casualties in the fight for full hearts, warm beds and mated souls.
“When you’re immersed in so many lives that are surviving love or breaking up, you start to think, ‘This is it, this is what it is, it’s not about the grass is always greener,’ ” Jones said recently. “Stories like this, when you’re exposed to them regularly, well, it tends to undermine the fantasy of love in a good way.”
Jones has added perspective and research to 10 years of essays in his new book, “Love Illuminated.” He will read from it at 7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 10, at Seattle’s Richard Hugo House (www.hugohouse.org). Tickets are $5 and free to Hugo House members.
At the event, called “A Night of Modern Love,” Jones will be joined by Seattle writers Nicole Hardy, Theo Nestor and Wilson Diehl, who have each penned Modern Love columns. Hardy’s piece served as the start of her 2013 memoir, “Confessions of a Latter-Day Virgin”; Nestor penned the 2008 memoir “How to Sleep Alone in a King-Sized Bed,” and Diehl writes for Salon and teaches at Hugo House.
Jones, 51, started the column in October 2004 after his wife, Cathi Hanauer, published an anthology of relationship essays called “The Bitch in the House,” and he responded with a collection called “The Bastard on the Couch.”
The books got the attention of then-New York Times Style editor Trip Gabriel, who commissioned a story on the couple, and then asked them to edit a weekly column. Hanauer was working on a novel, so Jones took the job and thought up the title.
Response was quiet at the beginning, but then Nestor’s piece about leaving her marriage “really broke it open,” Jones said. Readers sent him some 400 emails — some wondering what such a piece was doing in the paper, but most happy to see something they could relate to.
“There is a really compelling intimacy about having this real, raw, emotional experience in a newspaper that potentially has millions of readers,” Jones said.
He now receives about 400 submissions a month for four spots.
After the first few years, Jones started writing an annual Valentine’s Day column, taking the pulse of American love based on the columns he had published in the last year — and the 5,000 submissions he had received.
His agent urged him to craft a book, which is broken into chapters with titles like “Pursuit,” “Destiny,” “Monotony,” “Infidelity,” “Loyalty” and “Wisdom.”
“The book is inspired by what I have read,” he said. “I am trying to make sense of trends in relationships and how love is the same and how it is different and what people are struggling with. My immersion in other people’s experiences; what does it amount to? What does it illuminate?
“Everyone assumes that I know a lot,” Jones said. “But I wrote the book to find out what I know.”
A good “Modern Love” column comes from a perspective that surprises Jones “Or feels like a window into a world that is unusual,” he said.
What he especially likes is how writers have mined the depths of midlife marriage.
“A specific angle on a common experience,” he said.
He cited author Jane Hamilton’s column about getting into a fight with her husband at the airport over the packing of a Ziploc bag full of plastic containers.
“It was just about some fidgety thing he was doing that revealed so much about the stressors of marriage,” Jones said. “A writer of her talents can take a small moment like that and turn it into an essay.”
“What made me blow? His need to control my baggage. The fact that I am always wrong. His laser beam on a Ziploc bag, his concern for a quart-size plastic container filled with three vials.
“But most of all, it was his fingers, his fiddling hands like a raccoon’s paws at a bottle cap, the way the animal obsessively turns the shiny thing over and over. That made me insane. Your Honor, I went insane. In the sanctuary that was airport security, I began to scream. “Stop it!” At the top of my lungs I shrieked, “Just stop it now! Stop it this minute!” I didn’t even quite know I was doing it, although I admit that in the instant, the blast felt, actually, pretty good.”
And yet, Jones pays no attention to writing credits or levels of celebrity when he is choosing an essay.
“Readers don’t want that,” he said of well-known writers. “I routinely receive emails that say that they appreciate the sense of voices from across the country, of average people. And if they think everyone is a professional writer, then that seems narrow to them, somehow.”
Still, the column has served as a showcase for hopefuls whose essays have caught the attention of New York literary types. So far, Modern love essays have resulted in 38 book deals. That’s one in 12 essays.
So where is his percentage?
“I know!” Jones said with a laugh. “Where’s my 20 percent? It’s a good platform if you have a story to tell.”
Because of the popularity of the column, Jones and his wife often find themselves serving as peoples’ confessors.
“Knowing how much we are exposed to these stories, people are not at all shy about unloading,” Jones said.
As a result, he sees Modern Love in a way few do.
“Cops walk down the street and look at everyone, thinking they’re a criminal,” he said. “I look at everyone I pass and wonder what’s going on behind closed doors.”
Nicole Brodeur: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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