This past winter, Paul Tough, a story editor at The New York Times Magazine, brought Emily Gould, a recently retired editor of Gawker.com, to the sixth floor of the paper’s skyscraper on Eighth Avenue. Sometimes, writers meet with the magazine’s editor in chief, Gerry Marzorati, and this was one of those times.
Mr. Marzorati had never before heard of Ms. Gould, he told Off the Record. They talked for around an hour about her “wanting to write some memoirish piece about having lived a fair amount of her life on the Internet in her first years in New York; I was interested.”
The assignment was made. The piece arrived in Mr. Marzorati’s in-box around six weeks ago. “It was a lot better written and more ‘thinky’ than I could have imagined,” he said. “I think she’s really a good writer, it turns out.” The task of illustrating fell to Elinor Carucci, a freelance photographer who said she does mostly fine arts work and spent several hours over two days in a one-on-one photo shoot at Ms. Gould’s apartment in Brooklyn.
“I got some direction: ‘We want it to be personal,’” Ms. Carucci said. “‘What’s her day like? Does she type on the bed? At the desk?’ They wanted her clothes, or maybe something that will be more intimate.”
Mr. Marzorati said his instructions were “to try to convey this sort of intimacy and dreaminess and sort of intimate detachment—if that’s a meaningful oxymoron—that is in the piece. They worked that out together.”
And this is how an image of Ms. Gould, poured upside-down onto a rumpled bed wearing a camisole, no bra and a come-hither look, landed on New Yorkers’ laptops and brunch tables over Memorial Day weekend. The writer was involved in winnowing the photos to a dozen, Ms. Carucci said. Still, “when I saw the cover, I was shocked,” Ms. Gould said on the phone from Bryant Park on May 27. Did she feel a tad exploited? Ms. Gould paused. “Yeah, I really don’t want to talk about it.”
She referred Off the Record to an online Q&A she gave for the Times Web site, in which she describes the photos as “vaguely cheesecakey.” “I am starting to wish the Magazine had chosen to illustrate the piece some other way, though,” she wrote.
“I don’t think it was terribly complicated,” Mr. Marzorati said of his cover calculus. “You’re always trying to entice people with a cover, whether it’s a story like this or it’s a story about Afghanistan. I mean, this just happened to be an intimate story written by a young person who happened to be attractive.”
“The photos speak for themselves,” said Kathy Ryan, the magazine’s photo editor, before ending a conversation with Off the Record.
Sex sells, of course—but this was not Maxim. And women writers in Manhattan could be forgiven for a slightly sickly feeling as they regarded the images. This again?
Photographing the young, attractive female writer of first-person narratives has become something of a tradition in New York media. There was Katie Roiphe writing about her divorce in New York magazine a few years ago, posing in a tight trench coat, with her baby and her designer purse hanging off each arm (there were no such images for Philip Weiss’ discussion of adultery on May 26). Ms. Roiphe’s visage also graced her Times Magazine cover story about date rape back in 1993. Then there was the one-two punch of Lucinda Rosenfeld and Nell Freudenberger, young fiction writers discovered by The New Yorker (Ms. Freudenberger was then fiction editor Bill Buford’s assistant), and photographed, both in — wouldn’t ya know it?– camisoles.
Where are they all now?
Ms. Freudenberger has published a book of short stories and a novel, and married an architect in 2006, according to The Times’s Styles section. Her agent, Amanda Urban, said she recently had a baby and was unable to comment.
Ms. Rosenfeld also recently had a baby, her second, and is married to New Yorker writer John Cassidy. “I remember some creepy guy at Connecticut Muffin in Park Slope asking me if I was the ‘girl on the stoop,’” she e-mailed, when asked about the photo shoot. She added that long term, she didn’t think it had affected her career one way or another. “Magazines come and go—every seven days. In the end, it’s the quality of the book that counts.” She said she’d had no time to read Ms. Gould’s cover story.
Joyce Maynard, who appeared on the cover of The New York Times Magazine back in 1972, at age 18, wearing dungarees and a crew neck sweater, was more voluble.
“I felt a motherly concern for that young woman, who is clearly a talented writer who now can’t quietly develop and will not have the opportunity to develop,” she told Off the Record by phone from California. “I would say now there are many better and few worse ways to launch one’s career and to develop as a writer than to plunge onto the cover of The New York Times Magazine.
“She’s the age of one of my sons,” she continued, considering Ms. Gould. “And I think a young artist is going to make all sorts of embarrassing mistakes. It’s best to make them a little less publicly.”
Did she think the younger woman was exploited? “Twenty-six is a little old to be exploited,” Ms. Maynard clucked. “I think she may have exploited herself.
“A serious writer should take her growth and development seriously,” she said. “Wait, that’s a bad sentence. A serious writer should put in the time to locate her own voice before she goes singing to the balcony. And that’s all very good advice given to me by J. D. Salinger in 1972 in somewhat different language in how I stated it, but that was pretty much the gist of the letter he sent to me.” (Mr. Salinger famously wrote to Ms. Maynard after seeing her story, and they had a relationship that she wrote about in a 1998 memoir, At Home in the World. In 1999, she auctioned off his letters for $156,000 at Sotheby’s.)
Ms. Maynard recalled that she got the story in the magazine after writing a letter to the paper’s Sunday editor, Max Frankel. (Mr. Frankel, now retired, said he hadn’t read the Gould piece. When asked about the cover, he said, “I’ll never judge a story by its cover!”) A few years later, Ms. Maynard got a reporting job at The Times.
“That was the beginning of my serious development as a writer, to begin to look outside myself and look at the world,” said Ms. Maynard. “So I got a job, and that’s a very good thing to do.”