Thought

Cats, ‘Texts From Jane Eyre’ And Men Being Very Quiet Online: A Chat With The Toast’s Mallory Ortberg

This is wholly delightful.

You may know Mallory Ortberg as the co-creator (with Nicole Cliffe) of The Toast, a hilarious and extremely intelligent site aimed at women who enjoy a literary bent. Or you might know her from her New York Times bestseller that arose from a popular feature on The Toast, Texts from Jane Eyre: And Other Conversations with Your Favorite Literary Characters. You also might know her from her latest job, the ‘Dear Prudence’ advice column at Slate. Or you might simply know her from her incredible Twitter account, where she is effortlessly funny and irreverent in the best possible way.

But what you should know is that Mallory Ortberg is one of my favourite people. When I was given the opportunity to ask her a few questions over the phone ahead of her upcoming March visit to Australia, where she will be appearing at the All About Women festival, I was extremely nervous. The reoccurring tip I got from friends who know about interviewing and who also know my personality was “please don’t try too hard to be funny: you are interviewing her, not trying to win her over”.

I’ll let you be the judge of how that went.

Junkee: Thanks so much for talking to us! How is your day going?

Mallory Ortberg: So far, so good. I have both of the animals sitting up on the couch with me, and that’s always a good sign.

I cannot think of a better situation.

They are each essentially keeping one of my feet warm, and it’s all I’ve ever wanted out of pet ownership.

I’ve just had to leave my cat behind in another state, so I’m very jealous.

Aw well, I’ll try to smuggle this one when I come down and you can hang out.

Please do, we have very loose laws about bringing wildlife in, as you probably know.

Yeah! I’ve been warned a couple of times like, bring whatever fruits and plants you guys feel like, we’re super chill.

Totally, insects, whatever you want. Alright, I’m going to ask you some questions now, as is done in an interview.

Ask me whatever questions you want, tell me anything cool that’s going on that I should know about. Let’s chat. Also I also just looked you guys (Junkee) up and according to Wikipedia your target is 18-29 year olds, which means this is my last year of being part of your target demographic.

Well I’m actually quite a bit older than the target demographic and they let me read and write for it, so it’s fine don’t worry about it.

You and me man.

So, I wanted to talk about the concept of the panel that you’re doing at All About Women, called ‘The Happy Feminist’. Do you think that humour itself is an effective tool of change, or do you think it’s more useful as a release for the people who are trying to effect change?

Hmm, well that is a good question. I think I should start my answer by saying that I did not choose the topic. While I’m going to be happy to talk about it, it was definitely not like “I’m coming to Australia and damn it I’m going to talk about happy feminists if it kills me!” I think it’s totally a conversation worth having. I feel at a bit of a loss explaining something that, when I do it, I try to think about as little as possible. By that I don’t mean that I’m thoughtless, but I mean the point is always cracking the joke and not thinking about why or how it’s funny.

The fact that I do comedy and the fact that I’m a feminist — it’s not like I sit down and think “time to marry these two twin traditions!” so much as just I am a feminist, so it’s just something that will pop up in my work.

So, The Toast has this great feeling where men just seem to be just so quiet, and even the male fans who want to be involved quietly participate and don’t force their way in. How do you think that’s come about, and how do we make the rest of the Internet exactly like that?

[laughs] I mean, this is a great question. “How can we make men quieter in general?” is always a worthwhile thing to ask. They have a really hard time with it. They struggle. They are sweethearts, but it doesn’t come naturally. We just make it super clear that men aren’t the point. There’s not going to be a lot of patience for a straight white guy coming in and saying ‘have you thought about my experience?’ because odds are…we’ve heard it, and odds are your experience is actually a little silly and nobody ever told you your experience is a little bit silly, they always told you it was very very serious and important.

I just think in general that straight white men can be great, but they should be told slightly more often that they are being silly. It’s just not something we worry about, or give a lot of thought to, and that’s sort of worked out for us. So I would say: just pat more men on the head, don’t think about them very much, laugh at them instead of answering their questions, but laugh gently and with good humour. I don’t know, give them something to do — hand them a farm or whatever.

It’s kind of like Jon Hamm in 30 Rock where he’s so handsome that he doesn’t realise what life is like, but that’s kind of what it’s like for all men.

Oh my gosh, he’s so handsome. But yeah, we’re not a site for men. Some men happen to show up and that’s neat, but whatever.

One of the golden rules of the Internet is ‘never read the comments’, but I’ve written for The Toast a couple of times and I think an addendum is ‘absolutely always read The Toast comments because they’re incredible’ – it’s not as catchy, and won’t fit on a necklace, but do you think that’s due to the way you’ve set up that space?

[laughs] I think a lot of it comes from the fact that both Nicole (Cliffe) and I sprang out from The Hairpin, and The Hairpin and The Awl network have always had excellent comments. So I think part of it was we’d already started with a really great pool, and then once the community gets the certain house style I think people will moderate themselves pretty well. When they show up and they see that most of the comments are joking, thoughtful, respectful, interesting, goofy, generally that’s what they’ll do too.

Also, you can’t leave an anonymous comment, so when you can’t just do a drive-by, when you see an article float across the internet and you are mad about something and you want to say something jerky, it’s a lot harder. You have to sign in and create an account and by then someone who’s going to be an asshole is already too tired and is like “ugh I’m gonna go somewhere else where I can be an asshole with more expediency”.

My favourite people are the ones who go through that whole process just to say “who cares about this story?”

Yeah! Obviously there are some things worth not caring about, but sometimes it feels like people think that maybe there’s an award for having the least amount of empathy, and that’s really interesting to me because I don’t think there is an award for that. Someone will say “well I don’t really care about this, and I don’t really care about this person’s problem” in the way that’s designed to try and make the reader say “oh that’s so interesting that you don’t care about something. Man, this was a really bold stand.” No, you just lack empathy, that’s not very interesting. There’s not a trophy for that, you just didn’t care about something that happened to someone else.

A lot of people go into writing as a solitary activity, without quite realising how much of a public face may be necessary down the track. Did you feel like that, and how do you feel about doing things like panels and performing now?

This is all kind of new for me. I gave my first public talk in September 2015. I have done some readings for my book, but being on panels and speaking at events is really a new part of my career. This is really new for me, so I’m kind of figuring it out. If you have any advice, please feel free to send some my way.

I definitely do not have advice, I’m currently in a similar boat and I have just acquired beta blockers for my public speaking anxiety, so that’s where that question came from. [laughs]

My first talk was at XOXO, which is a tech and media festival in Portland, and backstage they have this really great, super stocked fridge. And they had these big things of chocolate milk and I suddenly, five minutes before I was meant to go on to talk, thought “oh my god I’m so thirsty”, so I chugged two pretty sizeable containers of chocolate milk.

Then when I walked out on stage I thought the only way past it was to acknowledge it. Your two options when you are really nervous are to try to hide it and act really together, and the other way is just to acknowledge – “I feel really goofy right now, I’m really nervous and I don’t know what I’m doing”. And so I just went with “hey, I just chugged a lot of chocolate milk and I don’t think it was a good idea, and my new goal is just to not throw up on stage”. And I didn’t throw up on stage and it really helped to say that.

Have you considered what the future platforms will look like that you’ll evolve to? You’re obviously successful on the Internet, and also publishing, with Texts From Jane Eyre — have you ever thought about doing standup?

I feel like Twitter has ruined me for standup. The big barrier to doing standup is the fear of standing up in front of strangers and trying your best to be funny, and getting heckled or ignored. You do all of that on Twitter, and barring the abuse that some people experience, if a joke doesn’t land — nothing happens. And you can do it your jammies in your bed, so I feel like I’ve already found the coward’s standup.

Now there’s no reason for me to go do it, which is great, because I was always really scared of doing it and I felt like I was going to have to in order to get the career that I wanted. So it’s too late. I’ll never be able to be a standup now; I’m too lazy and comfy.

I know that personally I really have no idea what I would be doing now if it weren’t for the internet, and probably even specifically Twitter. What do you think would have happened to you if you came up through the ‘80s, for example?

I have no idea, I truly have no idea. I would probably be the funny coworker who worked in marketing. I’d be the guy who is always putting jokes in his work emails, they’d be like “why does she always have to be on? I really wish she’d just answer my question.”

I feel there are a lot of ways in which I was born for the internet and I’m very much created for the exact era into which I was born. I have no idea if I would have had the drive or ambition or courage to make this happen for myself if there hadn’t been the lower barrier to entry that the internet provided me with. I might have very well just been a frustrated would-be comic who periodically sent off weird short stories to literary magazines and just never heard back. I’m glad that’s not my life because I don’t think I would have handled that very well.

Sometimes I think if like, Scarlett Johansson had never become an actress, there’s no possible way that she was ever going to work in an office. Someone saying “send it down to Scarlett in accounts” was never going to happen.

Yeah, I mean she’s inhumanly beautiful, she was never going to work at Verizon. It’s a much more appropriate question to ask someone who’s not a beautiful celebrity. It’s very comical asking “Bradley Cooper, what would you do if you weren’t a super handsome matinee idol?” and he’s always like “oh I don’t know, fix computers…cars?” They don’t even know what other jobs there are!

It’s an unfair, unkind question to ask a beautiful celebrity. But you can definitely ask someone who makes jokes online; this could go away at any minute. Let’s be honest, I might one day have to be the funny guy in the marketing department – and I’ll survive, there’s worse things in the world than having a job in marketing and making jokes with your friends.

I must admit when people talk about the demise of Twitter I do have kind of an intense brief fear that overcomes me.

Yeah, I get that! There’s a lot of ways in which this sort of ‘new media’ world is a little bit made up and we all kind of feel like “are we all really going to be doing this in ten years, is this really going to be around, are we really going to have jobs?” It’s something you either really worry about a lot or laugh at and say “who knows!” and just go for it. I’m very much in the camp of “who knows!”

Who do you think is the most obviously queer character in fiction that was never acknowledged as queer? People always say Kristy from The Baby-Sitters Club was obviously going to grow up to be a lesbian, but I also have a sneaky theory that Claudia Kishi was going to be a cool queer artist dating someone like Glenn Close.

Oh yeah. I mean…frankly, everyone. I’m a little convinced that heterosexuality doesn’t exist. I hear a lot of reports but I’m not quite buying it, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

So many names are whirling through my head right now. Obviously Charles and Sebastian from Brideshead Revisited. Every time I read it I take a minute and I just stop in the middle and I pretend that it’s the end. Nobody meets Julia, nobody runs away to Greece and loses their mind, everybody just opens a bed and breakfast together somewhere discreetly and they just get together.

Every character from every Shirley Jackson short story or novel ever. That’s a given. Theo in The Haunting of Hill House – that’s pretty clear. She’s putting down something and we’re picking it up. I don’t even know if that one counts. Everyone in The Outsiders.

Do you have any preconceived notions of Australia, for example, what creature you would most like to be murdered by?

I mean definitely, everyone jokes about all the poison and what have you, but honestly the only thing I really think of when I think of Australia is that Fry and Laurie sketch where they are both wearing the Hawaiian shirts and they are just saying increasingly absurd names.

Now that you do ‘Dear Prudence’ for Slate, I was wondering if I could ask your advice. I’m in constant competition with Ruby Rose to become Australia’s Favourite Lesbian, and I was wondering if you had any tips as to how to take her down?

I mean…good luck. If that’s who you’re going after, man, I don’t envy you at all. I think you should fight her for sure. You should definitely challenge her to a fight. Try to knock her off her balance, she seems like she has a low centre of gravity so maybe go for the knees. The important thing is that you’re in competition with each other.

It’s a competition that she doesn’t know about, and she doesn’t know who I am.

Yeah, just take her out any way that you can.

Like on a date?

Yes, she and her fiancée split up right? So you should be set.

One final question, now that you have The Toast and you had (spinoff sister site) The Butter, do you think that maybe it’s time for Vegemite On Toast?

Oh my gosh I mean, if you’re volunteering?

I’m volunteering, I’ll do it.

[laughs] All right, I’ll see what we can do — we should be branching out to a lot of spreads anyway.

Mallory Ortberg’s ‘The Happy Feminist’ talk at Sydney’s All About Women festival on Sunday, March 6. Tickets and details here.

Rebecca Shaw is a Brisbane-based freelance writer and co-host of the comedy podcast Bring A Plate. She tweets @brocklesnitch

Feature image via LA Review of Books.