“What is my life for and what am I going to do with it? I don’t know and I’m afraid. I can never read all the books I want; I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want." — Sylvia Plath
Essayist Alana Massey’s writing about women and pop culture has been making me laugh, think, and throw things (only at boys) for years in places like Elle, New York Magazine, and the Guardian. Earlier this year, she released her first book, a collection of essays about female celebrities and our culture’s reactions to them. All the Lives I Want: Essays About My Best Friends Who Happen to Be Famous Strangers opens with a piece discussing the (eventually proven false) dichotomy between two modern female archetypes (Winona Ryder and Gwyneth Paltrow), and goes on to explore her fan relationship with other pop culture icons including the Olsen twins, Joan Didion, and Courtney Love. Funny at times and moving at others (the Anna Nicole Smith and Amber Rose essays both made me cry), the pieces left me overall with a sense of feeling understood navigating the world as a woman. I described it to Alana as a book that made me feel less at odds with my own gender, which she said was her intention: to “cover a lot of the spaces in which femininity is punished and reconcile it to people's interior lives and understandings of their worth and meaning to the world.” We caught up recently to discuss her upcoming book, female genius, and the impersonality of the personal essay.
Have you had any feedback on the book as a whole, or particular essays, that really stuck out to you?
Well, the stuff that has stuck out to me has been reviews that say women like Joan Didion and Sylvia Plath don’t belong in there, which I think is a bit silly because they are absolutely pop culture indicators, in both their physical images and the work they do that has reached a critical mass of people. I think people who say that have this...sense that literature is inherently elevated about other kinds of art. And they're really screwing themselves over in not finding profundity in mainstream art forms. Sometimes TV and magazines and pop music are where the secrets of our zeitgeist are found. [But] they think [authors are] different and more thoughtful in this way that is just so intellectually dishonest to me. Like, writing a book and writing an album are not creatively different; if anything, the latter is more difficult, and can reach more people at a deep level.
I wonder if that perception is particular to female actors and pop artists.
Probably. Because no one flinches when we say, “Michael Jackson was a genius,” but when you say, “Beyoncé is a genius,” people want to be like, "Now hold on there.” As if they aren’t communicating profound social truths through pop hooks. I think that's definitely part of it, that male genius is more easily assigned than female genius. Female genius is only identified if men like something. Like, literally every woman in the world could have a book resonate with her and if some men were wary of if, the critics would call it “niche.”
What about feedback on a more personal level, from readers rather than critics? I found so much of your book really touching.
Well, reader response has been really grown, and I think that is to some extent self-selecting. Like, I don’t go out of my way to tell an author their book was “meh” but I have had a lot of women, mostly young and navigating their own identities and femininity as they are young adults, tell me that they were moved by it, or reassured by it, or made to feel less alone by it. And that was what I really cared about doing in it. I wanted to take that feeling of “Am I crazy to feel like...” and answer with, “No! What you are feeling is real! What happens to women is real and terrible and we can overcome it and heal from it and be who we are meant to be after all.”
Is there an essay that you feel most proud of?
One I am really proud of is the essay about the Virgin Suicides, because I’ve been wanting to read about sisterhood for so long. I feel like there's been this influx of writing about female friendship lately, and I wanted to do an extension of that that covers what it means and feels like to be a sister among sisters. The feedback I’ve gotten about that piece has been less voluminous than say, the Winona essay or the Anna Nicole essay, but I can tell that the appreciation is a bit more raw in the sense that like, people don’t talk about being a sister this way. And the readers who relate are glad that someone is finally giving voice to this experience which is so profound in our early lives and to how we relate to the world.
Did you consider interviewing any of the women you were writing about, or did you want to make it more about your relationship to them and their work than the person herself?
I very intentionally avoided them in the writing process. I wanted to be sure that I wrote entirely as a fan rather than as someone who might be privy to their realities. Like it’s not like I kept running into Courtney Love at parties, or anything but I did date Lana Del Rey's former publicist briefly, who was like, “Why not just ask her?” and I was like, no, I can’t. It will ruin everything.
So I was reading in another article about how your first published personal essay was this XOJane orgasms piece. Have you struggled with deciding how much you want to reveal about yourself over the years? Or if you want a public persona to be different than your personal self?
I don’t think it’s very personal at all. It’s an opaque representation of experiences, nothing is raw or truly personal about it. I think we make women feel self-conscious for the wrong things. Whereas like, I’ve never seen a woman who is especially cruel or mean-spirited online be taken to task for it. It’s always like: Why were you so personal? As opposed to like, why are you so comfortable doing harm? which I think is a more humiliating thing to do than to speak your peace as a woman navigating the world under patriarchy and capitalism.
Well for me, I like being able to write about personal experiences and believe that it’s just something I'm doing as a profession. But then when people — guys — I know casually read it and feel really embolden to ask me things about my sex life or whatever, I regret it.
Yes, men love to push you past your limit. Especially because they see like, “Oh she wrote about X, it must mean she is fair game to talk about anything,” and they don’t respect the boundaries you’ve set up with your own silence.
Can you tell me about the next book you have coming out?
It’s about language and pop culture and the workplace... I’m not sure where it will go entirely, but it is also an attempt to say to women, “You aren’t crazy, you have had these experiences that make you feel less than. You did not imagine it. It is part of a bigger problem of the way we value and speak about work, even to the people doing the work.”
Can you tell me what you've been reading lately?
I’ve been reading Maggie Nelson, Elena Ferrante, Toni Morrison, the Manjula Martin book on writing, and I’m doing a second read of Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You. Always women, all the time.
This post was published on June 2, 2016
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Catherine Plato is a freelance writer and editor from Oakland, California. Follow her on Twitter @catherineplato.