Turning essays into #longreads isn't just about the future viability of the form; it's changing the reasons we read and write
When I read “My Gucci Addiction,” Buzz Bissinger’s unexpected shopaholic leather-daddy confession in GQ, the first thing I thought of was a smiling, spritely man on a computer screen, masturbating with a pair of spotless white tennis shoes. I was at a college party, huddled drinks in hand with a bunch of friends around a laptop open to the Chat Roulette. We talked to an on-duty German military officer about the Red Army Faction and watched an insistent 14-year-old prove his joint-rolling skills before we hit upon the shoe masturbator. His mic was off, but he communicated nonverbally that he wanted us to watch him jerk off using a pair of sneakers on his hands. Requests like these were blamed for the swift death of Chat Roulette, but in the obituaries we rarely heard about the exhibitionists who were successful, who found curious and willing audiences. We told him to go for it, and boy did he.
Those of us who read Bissinger’s GQ piece were giving the same go-ahead. It’s as if Bissinger invited readers to watch him try on his 41 pairs of leather pants one by one and tell him what a bad, bad boy he was for buying them. Many on the Internet who read popular long essays (often hashtagged #longform) were happy enough to join in. “My Gucci Addiction” spawned a whole ecosystem of response pieces that variously suggest he is mentally ill, trolling all of America, or a role model and spokesman for male shopaholics everywhere. He may be one or all three, but his essay is better explained as a large-scale work of exhibitionism. Instead of sneakers, he’s using expensive apparel, but it’s the same principle.
In the article, Bissinger — previously most famous for the high-school-football book Friday Night Lights, which spawned a movie and TV series — writes of his experiments with cross-dressing: “Thigh-high boots add to any wardrobe, although walking on six-inch stilettos for hours is just a bitch and therefore confined to the privacy of my house, seen only by the UPS man, who at this point could not possibly be surprised by anything.” But it’s no longer confined to the privacy of his house; it’s all over the Internet. We are now all his UPS man, lingering in the doorway, eyebrows raised, watching the sportswriter strut through his living room in fishnets. It’s not exactly a sex tape — though at this point readers who deny the existence of a Bissinger tape somewhere are probably kidding themselves — but it’s close.
With this essay, Bissinger got a sexual experience that he couldn’t buy at any club in Macao: He got to see his crotch bulging in pastel-colored skin-tight pants splashed all over the local affiliates. He got to see us seeing him. They call this kind of coverage "earned media" because, unlike advertising, you can't (technically) purchase it.
Some people want celebrity for the money, some want it for the affirmation, but some just want to be watched. It’s clear from this essay that he — already part of a very small tier of commercially successful non-fiction writers who aren’t obvious frauds — doesn’t just want to be critically acclaimed or best-selling. He wants to be Us Weekly famous. You know, real famous. “My Gucci Addiction” obviously draws inspiration from the MTV show Cribs, which always includes a tour of the closet and the bedroom. Like a rock star or Hollywood leading man, Bissinger inventories his wardrobe: “I own eighty-one leather jackets, seventy-five pairs of boots, forty-one pairs of leather pants, thirty-two pairs of haute couture jeans, ten evening jackets, and 115 pairs of leather gloves.”
If you watch Cribs, it’s easy to see how Bissinger might think being a best-selling author entitled him to a pile of fantastically expensive clothing — what’s the point of being famous if it doesn’t come with Persian lamb’s wool and an audience to see you wear it? He’s not coming out of the closet so much as pulling us in to look at what he has inside, as we’ve seen the celebrity-industrial complex do for years with reality shows, sex tapes, Oprah interviews, and rehab absolution.
In the wake of his article, Bissinger predictably entered the unspecified rehabilitative treatment celebrity men avail themselves of when they’re caught being awful in public and need to perform image-redeeming penance. But usually these men don’t literally author the conditions of their own public disgrace. As Bissinger put it: “It is safe to assume that when someone buys more than half a million dollars of clothing in three years, it isn't simply beautiful clothing that he seeks.” And when a writer issues a 6000 word compendium — 50 of which were repetitions of “leather” — sensationalizing his own depravity before checking himself into rehab with a statement to NBC, he isn’t just trying to “help others struggling with addiction.” After all, he didn’t get help once he filed the piece and reflected on what he was about to reveal to the world; he only checked into rehab after it was published.
So “My Gucci Addiction,” hardly serves as a modified step five of the AA regimen, in which the addict must confess the exact nature of his wrongs to God, himself, and another human being (or the Internet). Instead, it seems like the next move in Bissinger’s prodigious sexual experimentation. With this essay, he converted the electronic infrastructure dedicated to reading and sharing essays into a giant sex apparatus, a flasher’s trenchcoat attached to a digital Rube Goldberg machine.
Not that writerly exhibitionism — or a paraphilic attachment to leather gloves, for that matter — is as new as online shopping. Long after all his writing was lost to history, the Greek cynic Diogenes remained famous in philosophy classes for masturbating in public. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in addition to his work on the social contract, published stories about masturbating, had a habit of exposing himself to maidens in alleys, and enjoyed a good spanking. Indecent exposure is a fetish older than leather pants or the printed word, but its modes of expression have changed: The ability to reach millions of potential viewers with the click of a mouse have made this the golden age of showing your junk to other people.
It would be virtually impossible to prove exhibitionists are using the Internet to find willing viewers instead of exposing themselves to unwilling passers-by. There’s some suggestive evidence — a Czech study drew a correlation between the legalization of online sexually explicit material and a decrease in indecent-exposure incidents, and a Google ngram search shows a significant drop in the use of the word flasher in English-language books from the mid-1980s onward — but it is tenuous and circumstantial. None of it points to the conclusion that Bissinger would be hanging around parks looking to show off his thigh-high boots if it weren’t for the Internet. But there’s also no way he would have written the same piece for the web-hostile Harper’s or the oft-paywalled New Yorker. It’s a #longread, even in print.
Exhibitionists have found ways to use and even structure the development of online platforms like Tumblr, Vine, and Snapchat, but the assumption has been that their domain would stay limited to visual media. But when you hook anything up the Internet — including non-fiction — you change its nature in a way that makes it particularly attractive to show-offs of all kinds. The #longreads hashtag was supposed to be about the viability of the proud and enduring essay on the web, not the name for a new form of writing, yet “My Gucci Addiction” is a #longread through and through: The piece contains a call for its audience, a call for the reaction pieces and the controversy and the gossip. Bissinger isn’t navel-gazing; he's talking about himself, but looking right at us.
Even though we mostly discuss online virality of pictures of cats and funny Youtube videos, the huge potential audience for long-form writing has profoundly altered the essayist’s incentive structure. For the first time, a single piece of writing can find an audience far larger than the readership of the publication in which it appears. As longform nonfiction has found a home on the Internet, an echo-chamber effect has developed by which a piece that breaks through is guaranteed a few signal boosts from aggregators like Longreads and Byliner, both of which picked up “My Gucci Addiction” within the day. If nothing else, Bissinger’s performance marks the maturity of the #longreads form. Since no one has yet taken a hard look at Mike Daisey’s sex life, Buzz heads into rehab as the first #longreads rockstar. Just the way he wanted it.
Unlike the relationships between actors, musicians, and their audiences, the implied contract between writer and reader doesn’t typically include erotic play. Pop stars are expected not just to make music but to be worthy investments of libidinal energy. Jon Hamm is bothered that people keep looking at his dick but on some level he knows it’s part of his job. Even athletes — especially female athletes — are expected to perform a second shift as societal fluffer.
Instead, writers in general and male nonfiction writers in particular ostensibly offer a desexualized trade of information and insight for the reader’s time and attention. The problem is that engaging an audience, no matter the media, has an erotic element. Like anyone who commands attention, a writer controls and manipulates bodies, but as this new form of online writing — so far defined more by its readers than innovations in construction — develops, both sides are still clumsy with the steps. On one end of the spectrum you’ve got the personification of soon-to-be-replaced-by-robots Nate Silver; on the other end women can hardly write a sentence online without confronting sexually violent misogynist hate speech. Too often writers are stuck using “the personal is political” as the singular excuse for so-called confessional work, as if the pronoun 'I' always needed justification outside of first-person novels. In trying to wedge all nonfiction into the journalist or scholar’s bargain, we end up writers and readers alike stepping on each other’s toes.
No one wants to be the fool. Readers don’t want to be used for career-boosting traffic, and in this media environment (and economy), writers would by and large rather be read and shared for what they perceive as the “wrong” reasons than misunderstood or ignored for the right ones.
An investigation into the true identity of a guy who takes pictures of his gaping asshole asks for something different from its readers than a foreign correspondent’s account of using rough sex to cope with work-related post-traumatic stress, which asks for something different than “My Gucci Addiction,” even if they’re aggregated together as longreads. We’re blessed with heterogeneity;