Crochety Curmudgeon Files: ‘Modern Love’

You know what, people?

I don’t like ‘Modern Love.’ You know, the column at the New York Times that everyone routinely goes gaga over and starts linking in a wildfire that spreads across the Internet as everyone talks about how ‘deep’ and ‘real’ it is? It bores me to tears, sometimes actively infuriates me, and most of all, just seems kind of patently ridiculous. I don’t get the love for ‘Modern Love’ and I don’t get why so many people whom I otherwise love and respect insist on fetishising it like it’s some kind of magical pony that dispenses gold nuggets if you read it enough times.

I will freely admit that I read the weddings/celebrations section of the Times, and sometimes even find it fascinating and delightful. It’s cool, crisp, evenly reported. There’s a consistent style and the section isn’t trying to make a statement or say anything special about the world. It’s reporting on an event in the lives of two people and, well, yeah, it’s doing so primarily for upper class people who have the kinds of stories with the necessary punch to make it through the hurdles that lie between submitting a wedding announcement and having it run in the Times, but it’s doing so in a way that I like.

While I enjoy complex and emotional journalism at times, I also love the clinical dryness of ‘just the facts’ journalism and what lies between the lines. In its own way, I think it can have a much more profound effect than attempts to drag the reader in with some sort of prancy fancy folderol that distracts from the real story, where the writer waves a bunch of scarves about like you’ll be so entranced by the flurry of colour that you’ll miss the fact that the story itself lacks heart, substance, a reason to exist.

I’m not sure why I love the weddings/celebrations section, which is often like wading through a bath of frothy upper class lives so far removed from my actual experience that I just sort of boggle at the page, and loathe “Modern Love.” You’d think, working for xoJane, that I’d be into the confessional format of “Modern Love,” but often I find the essays painfully self-involved and frightfully dull in a way that these measured third-person narratives of love and marriage aren’t; something about the reporting style in the weddings and celebrations section, with its crisp, clean, clearness excites me.

Love reported on matter-of-factly like any other sort of incident fascinates and delights me; there’s something more immediate and real about it for me in that format than in the overwrought, fraught, emotive essays that seem to litter “Modern Love.” Perhaps it’s my aromantic nature speaking when I say that I prefer love viewed through a more objective lens, and that I strangely find it more affective when I read about it in this format.

The sometimes peculiar and fascinating partnerships that come up in the weddings and celebrations section are interspersed among plenty of perfectly boring recitations of society weddings in expensive locales with guest lists featuring the bulk of the country’s net worth. Something about that pleases me, the idea that love can happen to people of all classes, genders, and other walks of life, that it is a tide that never stops and isn’t limited to a select few.

True modern love is writ in these pages, rather than in these overwrought personal essays that just leave me cold. And perhaps that’s where the problem lies, for me. We live in the age of the memoir, the confessional, the tell-all, where everyone feels the need to talk about everything and put it all out there. And on the one hand, I love seeing people tell their stories, and I love a world in which individual narratives (particularly those of women) are actually listened to and valued and considered an important part of society. But, on the other hand, I do not love a world in which personal stories seem to overwhelm larger institutional issues, and in which everything needs to be personalised to appeal to readers.

Because there is a place for objectivity and distance, and more than that, there is a place for writers who don’t want to put it all out on the line to get readers. People shouldn’t have to split themselves open for an audience to get people to care about them or to care about an issue; obviously narratives of love are themselves intensely personal, but the preference for individualised, me-me-me journalism means that straight reporting seems ever-harder to find, and it’s not taken as seriously and with as much respect as it once was.

Sometimes I don’t want to read a personal story, but a bigger narrative about larger issues. Or I want to read many personal stories wrapped into a larger one; I want to read Sarah Jaffe’s labour journalism, for example, where she interviews individual workers and organisers to talk with them, collating their stories and presenting them to the reader to highlight specific issues. Her stories aren’t about Sarah Jaffe the journalist, they’re about the people and communities they cover. She doesn’t need to make them immediate and personal by turning them into a maudlin journey of self-reflection—though she also produces amazing reflective personal essays—and her work should be taken seriously on its own right because of what it is and what it accomplishes.

‘Modern Love,’ for me, is emblematic of the things that are starting to go topsy-turvy and wrong in a world where suddenly every damn thing needs to be a personal essay and it must be emotive to attract attention. Screw that. An objective story can be just as powerful, and a story where the author isn’t front and centre can be amazing. In the Times, where both ‘Modern Love’ and the formal weddings section focus on the lives of the wealthy and powerful, the same basic subjects are covered in each section, but one is viewed as wildly successful and daring and innovative and emotional, while the other is considered somewhat antiquated. I know which I prefer, and I suspect that I’m in the minority.