What makes a Molly?
While that name brings to mind certain female protagonists of canonical works (the archetypal confessional blogger Molly Bloom, the cutie-pie Molly Ringwald), you don’t have to be a Molly to write like one. Remember those photos of former Gawker writer Emily Gould sprawled upside down in bed, tattoos on glorious display? Sure you do! It was for her Times Magazine cover story, “Exposed” (the jumping-off point for her memoir, And the Heart Says Whatever), in which she detailed her experiences in blogging and in love. The piece appears to have set the tone for a generation of female writers, and the self-presentation even influenced striver-y men.
I Gchatted a friend who works in finance to tell her I’d been assigned to write a piece on “the Mollys.” She replied “write it in the p.o.v. of edith z.” The Hairpin blogger Edith Zimmerman may be the Molliest of Mollys. She wrote bizarre and fantastical fake letters from women’s magazines for The Awl and ghost stories on her personal blog. She brought that brand of flustered, wacky pixieishness first to The Hairpin, the women’s interest site she edits, then to a GQ cover profile of Chris Evans. The piece, which was controversial even among the magazine’s editors, was more revelatory of Ms. Zimmerman’s half-self-deprecating exultation of her L.A. exploits than of anything Captain America had to say, in the same way that Molly Young’s New York articles sneak in turns of phrase like “weenie-tuggers” and “girl crush,” and Molly Lambert smuggles fan-fic footnotes about how Kate Moss is like “the cool best friend who knows all the good shows and parties to go to and brings you” onto Grantland. Another freelance writer, Marisa Meltzer, posted a photo of herself doing the “hand-heart” gesture on her Tumblr after publishing a piece on the phenomenon in the New York Times Styles section; she also posted a picture of her bedroom, suggesting that she considered submitting it to a blog of teenage bedrooms though she is “aged way the fuck out” now. Mollyish writing hinges on a cute mashup of ingratiating cuteness (hand-heart! Weenie-tuggers!) and hard ambition (the Times! New York!), starring a narrator in on the joke.
Such is the appeal of Mollyism—especially to straight, male dude-itors—that the literary eye-lash batting generally manages to survive the delicate transition from personal blog to print. (Whether Ms. McAleer’s voice will make the trickier leap to TV remains to be seen, but examples like that of Ms. Zimmerman and Ms. Meltzer indicates that the blog voice can thrive in print.)
According to Wired editor Bill Wasik, the Mollys are doing what writers have always done. “It’s pretty common and always been common that you start with voicier writing in less established organs,” said “and you move to better- established organs that pay better and you bring the writing, but you show that you can report out and structure and bulletproof a magazine feature.”
But voicey is one thing. The Mollys have taken it to a whole other level. The intimacies of Tumblr have vastly amplified the confessional mode. As Maud Newton noted in a recent essay in the Times Magazine (which briefly employed Ms. Zimmerman as a web columnist), there’s a frantically conversational tone on social media: “‘Oh, hi,’ people say at the start of sentences on blogs, Twitter and Tumblr these days, both acknowledging and jokily feigning surprise at the presence of the readers who have turned up there.” Ms. Newton phrased this as a universal concern–perhaps we’re all a little bit Molly.
Tumblr happens to be a nearly perfect platform for showcasing a writer’s wry take or sharp attitude while requiring minimal effort. “Sometimes, you see a blogger where they’ve only written two sentences, but they’re really witty,” said Jezebel editor Jessica Coen. “Tumblr’s really easy to read and you can go through 100 entries in ten minutes.”
The coquettish particularities of Tumblr as a platform—which encourages a sort of literary fan dance, in which a writer’s identity remains largely hidden even as she’s laying bare her interior monologue—invite a certain amount of projection from readers. Choire Sicha, proprietor of The Awl and a keen observer of the Molly phenomenon, noted over Gchat that “my problem is that digital presence is weirdly so obscuring? it’s like, you look at someone’s tumblr and you’re like, what the fuck is your name? what’s your email? where DO YOU WORK, HOW OLD ARE YOU?”
Near instant reader feedback also encourages a certain style of writing. “I remember the days of Tumblarity,” said Maura Johnston, music editor of the Village Voice, recalling an early feature of the platform that ranked users based on their readers’ devotion. “If I write something, I do hit the reload button to see if people have responded to it… it’s the blogger’s dilemma: you can work really hard on something that’s thought out and reasoned or you can post about ‘I fell in love today and this is why’—and that greeting card-ready stuff will triumph.”
“One of the things that’s been lost in this new, fast publishing age,” Ms. Johnston added, “is this grooming period for a lot of young writers thrown into the deep end after school. You see things like Thought Catalog”—the website full of glum young boys and girls curating confessions about themselves in a super-breezy tone—“and you don’t have people thinking about things. There are a lot of lazy constructions or lazy ideas.”
Which is not to say that there’s not considerable drive behind the cozy bed-head tics—just that the ambition is tempered by an appealingly easygoing quality. “Mollys just want to have fun,” Mr. Sicha pointed out. “That’s why they’re so endearing, even when they’re glum or emo or sincere… But they’re full of kicks.”
Mr. Wasik said that the kicks are hardly going to damage the writers’ credibility: “We’re entering an era where it’s not as if, if you want to write an essay for The New Yorker, they’re going to be freaked out by the fact that you have this Tumblr devoted to being funny or being silly. People get that writers have different sides to their personality.”
That presumes people can tell the Mollys apart. Ms. McAleer, the 2 Broke Girls writer, said: “It happens to me all the time—people say, ‘I read your stuff on Grantland every day.’” Molly is a memorable name, so people will assume that it’s all the same person.” She and Ms. Lambert, both of whom live in Los Angeles, are friends.
“We’ve all gotten emails for the other Mollys,” said Ms. Lambert. “It’ll go back and forth a few times before you realize it’s meant for someone else.”
Ms. Young, who lives in New York, stands apart, and declined an interview request. She told The Observer via email: “I just don’t think that anyone gives a shit about me, even if I share a name with these cool people.” Super Mollyish thing to say.
And there’s always an up-and-comer. “No molly list now is complete with[out] molly oswaks,” Mr. Sicha told us via Gchat, of a writer whose work (“Mad Men’s Betty Draper Is A Real Bummer,” “The Melodrama of Miley Cyrus”) has been featured on Thought Catalog and in The Believer. “THERE’S A NEW MOLLY,” he told us. “MOVE OVER MOLLIES.”
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