For weeks she had been exchanging e-mails with a writer she admired. Now she would make a frank proposal. He had expanded her world view, she told him, and she’d be in New York at the end of the month. Would he like to sleep with her?
He responded promptly.
Six months later, Ms. Calloway published a 15,000-word story about the brief affair. It couldn’t have surprised those familiar with her work. On Thought Catalog and her personal blog, Ms. Calloway published similar accounts of sexual encounters with Internet acquaintances. She even told the writer she was going to write about him; he gave her his blessing.
We laid side by side.
He asked me to help him get an erection. So I moaned, “I want you to fuck me.”
He laughed. I couldn’t believe it.
“I can’t do it if you’re going to laugh at me.”
I thought then how it’s really unfair how men want and expect you to be really slutty and wild in bed, but they then laugh at you for it. You’re either frigid and boring or you’re unintentionally funny and crazy.
“I’m laughing but it’s also making me hard.”
The piece was shocking for its explicitness—it included a photograph of Ms. Calloway that purported to show the writer’s semen on her face—and the fact that its title was the writer’s name, “Adrien Brody.”
Not really Adrien Brody. That is what we’ve agreed to call this much less famous person because anyone who wants to figure out who he is probably already has. Besides, Mr. Brody could not be reached for comment.
Neither is Marie Calloway really Marie Calloway. It’s a pseudonym inspired by Marie Antoinette, whom Ms. Calloway has sympathized with since the Sofia Coppola film.
Compared to Ms. Calloway’s other stories, “Adrien Brody” made bigger waves in literary New York because Mr. Brody was fairly well known here. He was affiliated with The New Inquiry, a brainy online journal that recently made its debut in a New York Times Styles profile. He also had a girlfriend, an ethical dilemma featured prominently in Ms. Calloway’s account.
And what good was a literary magazine without a little personal intrigue? The Partisan Review wasn’t the Partisan Review until founder Philip Rahv’s girl Mary McCarthy ran off with Edmund Wilson.
Ms. Calloway didn’t set out to be a writer. She grew up shy—essentially a hikikomori (a social recluse, in Japanese), she told The Observer—and blogging platforms LiveJournal and Tumblr became her diaries.
“I wrote to express my worldview/subjectivity because it felt then that no one had any idea,” she said. “I guess ultimately I wanted to connect with others in order to feel less alone.”
She coupled blog posts with photographs of herself, sometimes naked, always under a pseudonym.
In the photo gallery she emailed Mr. Brody, she lolls around in front of a web camera wearing a micro mini skirt and black thigh high stockings. Despite studiously unflattering poses, she looks very pretty and very young, Anna Karina meets Wednesday Addams.
As a writer, her influences were eclectic. Joyce Maynard’s memoirs about her time living with J.D. Salinger resonated with her but she was also fascinated by non-literary Internet it-girls like Cory Kennedy and Bebe Zeva—all of whom escaped their unremarkable youths through proximity to successful older men.
Ms. Kennedy was the jail bait muse of prominent Los Angeles nightlife photographer Mark Hunter. Now 21, she is a correspondent for NYLON TV.
Ms. Zeva (also a pseudonym) was a suburban teenager with a fashion blog until she became the tee-shirt model for Hipster Runoff, acquiring a following so large that Elle wondered if she was the next Tavi.
The poet/novelist/deadpan literary provocateur Tao Lin, once rumored to be the author of Hipster Runoff, made a documentary about Ms. Zeva early this year, in which Ms. Zeva, now 18, poignantly tells him about growing up without a father. Later, Mr. Lin sprays whipped cream on her face and rubs it in her hair.
In April, two weeks after Mr. Lin screened the documentary to a room of squirming journalists at Soho House, Ms. Calloway emailed him a link to a story she had written about losing her virginity, and a photo of herself.
“I liked her ability to describe a memory objectively and interestingly and without preconception or judgment,” Mr. Lin told The Observer in an e-mail.
Soon after, Ms. Calloway began corresponding with Mr. Brody, 40, a writer and editor who was a scholar of Internet micro-celebrity.
If Mr. Lin was the predominant ego of the “Internet writing subculture,” as Ms. Calloway called it, Mr. Brody was its superego.
“I’m glad you liked my writing,” Ms. Calloway wrote to Mr. Brody early in their correspondence. “I wondered if you would hate it since it could be seen as the self-absorbed narcissism you write about a lot.”
“Read your pieces as critiques of narcissism and self-absorption,” he replied, “which are hard to make without embodying them to the nth degree.”
Gawker media owner Nick Denton once said the same thing about his former employee Emily Gould, after “Exposed,” her memoir of writing about her personal life online, was published in The New York Times Magazine.
Not suprisingly, Ms. Gould was also intrigued by “Adrien Brody.” She published an essay on her blog Emily Magazine that sought to locate writing like Ms. Calloway’s—explicitly personal, borderline self-destructive first-person relationship stories—in a literary tradition that included Chris Kraus, Katha Pollitt and, well, Ms. Gould.
The same day, Muumuu House, Mr. Lin’s publishing company, republished Ms. Calloway’s essay as fiction, removing the photos and dubbing the writer “Adrien Brody.”
Whether “Adrien Brody” represented a feminist sub-genre ignored by male critics and academics or just a writerly strain of retribution, Ms. Gould was onto something.
The next week, coincidentally, The New York Post wrote a series of items about an affair between Salman Rushdie and Devorah Rose, the self-made socialite editor of Social Life magazine. When Mr. Rushdie abruptly cut off contact and publicly denied their relationship, Ms. Rose forwarded their Facebook correspondence to Page Six, revealing a less eloquent side of Mr. Rushdie. (“You look so gorgeous & hottt,” he had told her.)
Eventually, Ms. Calloway wrote to Ms. Gould looking for advice. Ms. Gould advised her to find the balance between self-exploitation and self-censorship. “Whenever you write about yourself you hover between those poles,” she wrote.
Three days later, Ms. Calloway deleted her Tumblr. “Dislike being ‘watched,’” she wrote.
Although Ms. Gould told The Observer she was ethically and aesthetically “horrified” by elements of “Adrien Brody,” she thinks that horror is worth investigating. “Why do women who aren’t afraid to humiliate themselves appall us so much, and why do we rush to find superficial reasons to dismiss them (‘she’s crazy’ ‘she’s a narcissist’ ‘she’s young’ ‘she’s a famewhore’)?” Ms. Gould wrote The Observer in an e-mail.
“I think in part because they pose a threat to the social order, which relies on women’s embarrassment to keep them either silent or writing in socially accepted modes.”
Ms. Calloway agreed. She said that she writes to give meaning and permanence to female subjectivity.
“I feel sad about the idea of events happening and having a big emotional impact on me, and then just passing by and having no significance,” she told The Observer.
Before they stopped talking, Mr. Brody was Ms. Calloway’s most sensitive critic. He believed there was more to Ms. Calloway than an insecure young woman desperate for attention. He called her ambivalence “an elaborate strategy of purification, to blend honesty and revulsion until they are no longer separable.”
Ten days after Ms. Gould wrote about “Adrien Brody,” a version of the story surfaced in The Hairpin’s anonymous advice column. The letter writer had recently learned that her boyfriend of four years had had a one-time encounter with another woman.
“In a digital-age twist,” she wrote, “I found out about this because the woman mentioned my boyfriend in her blog, and a blogger I follow happened to mention it.”
The letter writer’s problem was not her boyfriend’s infidelity, exactly. He had been honest when confronted. Nonetheless, she was “consumed” by “visions” of the other woman’s account. She thought young the woman was “unstable” and had written the story with the direct intent of her seeing it.
“Any tips on how I can get her out of my mind?” she asked.
It’s easy to understand why the girlfriend—reduced, in Ms. Calloway’s account, to a couple of nail polishes in Mr. Brody’s apartment—would want to have a say in all this. The letter exhibited one of the paradoxes of life online: Internet exhibitionism, painful as it can be, often begets more Internet exhibitionism.
Of course, there’s no proof that the anonymous letter had anything to do with “Adrien Brody.” But after a reporter placed calls about the letter, it was removed by The Hairpin.
With writing like Ms. Calloway’s, it’s tempting to believe that there is some sort of feminist impulse at work, that she derives power from humiliating men with her sexuality, the same tool they used to objectify her. But most of her subjects—she’s done it more than once—were complicit, willing, and even flattered. Adrien Brody knew he might be written about when and Ms. Calloway hopped in a cab back to his apartment, he just didn’t want it to be Google-able.
Not even Mr. Lin was totally immune to the glamour bestowed by the literary gaze of a mysterious young woman.
Soon after “Adrien Brody” was published, he emailed Ms. Calloway. If she could pay her way, she was welcome to stay with him in his hotel room in Paris from December 4 to December 6. She would cover the trip, and he’d reimburse her for half after the story was published. “I’ll help you find a venue,” he offered.
Nothing came of the idea. Mr. Lin soon changed his mind, according to Ms. Calloway, saying it would be too stressful. He was in a really social mood that day and generally isn’t like that.