December 23rd, 2011 / 9:05 am
Web Hype

The Price of Revelation


This week, I read an article in the New York Observer that baffled, bothered and bewildered me. The article tells a story about Marie Calloway, a “part feminist, part fame whore,” young woman writer (pseudonymous) who e-mailed a much older Internet writer in New York she admired, told him she was coming to the city and wanted to sleep with him, slept with him, and wrote a 15,000 word “story, “Adrien Brody,” about the experience. None of that is necessarily shocking though some of the details (his relationship status, for example), make the assignation a bit sordid.

We are in the age of Internet confession. Have blog, will reveal, memoir, pixilated for a hundred random strangers to read. Or more. I wonder about the cost of confession these days, and the reach.

“Adrien Brody” held my interest in a prurient way. I wanted to know how the “story” would end. Anyone, and particular a woman, who has been that age can find something to relate to—admiring an older man (or woman), wanting to have a perfect, connected encounter, dealing with insecurity and anxiety, the inevitable disappointment. The story is definitely written in the “Tao Lin aesthetic,” the near obsessive chronicling of one’s (or a character’s) thoughts, emotions, motivations, and actions in a highly detached manner. I’m probably a decade too old to appreciate this literary style but it is a style and one that seems to have gained purchase with a certain audience. There’s an interesting vulnerability to this writing at times, but on the whole, it doesn’t feel like writing. It feels like a writer confessing to a mirror, transcribed e-mails included. I suppose that might be the point.

Mostly, I found “Adrien Brody” sad because people (all of us) are awkward. I cringe whenever I see young people doing things they will probably regret in 20 years. When you’re in your late thirties, you will too. It’s kind of inevitable. I was also uncomfortable. I now know there is man out there who will talk about Gramsci during sex and say ridiculous things to sleep with a much younger girl and who doesn’t read the books he says he reads. I know he has a girlfriend who keeps nail polish at his house and that he’s insecure. I know he disappointed Calloway and, in the end, treated her the way the other men she has slept with treated her. That feels like knowing too much. But I want to know! But I don’t! I do! I don’t!

The vulnerability of the writer sharing how she felt about the affair was readily apparent. There’s something to be said for the honesty in the “story.” But is the story honest? Or is it a deliberate performance in service of the “story”? It’s hard to say.  In the Observer article, Calloway said, “I wrote to express my worldview/subjectivity because it felt then that no one had any idea. I guess ultimately I wanted to connect with others in order to feel less alone.” I have no issue with that. Writers, and women writers in particular, have long written in deeply personal, explicit ways for any number of reasons from wanting connecting, to wanting to achieve some kind of fame to wanting to explore a certain aesthetic.

I don’t need to deliberate the literary merits of “Adrien Brody.” I don’t need to get into whether this is a feminist expression of a woman’s sexual experience. This story is what it is and we’re all going to take different things away from it. I do, however, think it would be interesting to have a conversation about the ethics of “Adrien Brody.” Calloway working through her “expression of subjectivity” affects people. There are consequences.

When you write personally and intimately, difficult questions arise. Whose stories do we, as writers, have the right to tell? To what extent do we have the right to write about the people in our lives? What are the limits of good taste? Do we have to consider good taste and ethics when it comes to writing from our lives? These are not new questions. I don’t know if they have answers but “Adrien Brody” certainly makes me think such questions are still worth discussing.

And there’s the pseudonym. Writing pseudonymously is seductive. You can say whatever you want without consequence because no one knows who you really are. That freedom makes it easy to be daring, to write openly or even transgressively. Some of my favorite writers do so pseudonymously. Marie Calloway wrote about her life and her desires and her attraction to this “Adrien Brody” writer as is her right but she did so behind the safety of a persona and did not afford the same courtesy to the man she writes about so intimately. His identity is thinly veiled, at best.  However flawed he may be, did he consent to being written about in this manner? And so publicly?  Would Calloway have written “Adrien Brody” if she had to use her given name?

More than that, I keep thinking about the girlfriend of this writer. His relationship is certainly not Calloway’s problem. If he doesn’t value the relationship enough to respect it’s boundaries that’s his failing. But. The girlfriend is still affected. Did Calloway consider that? This story is all over the Internet. The people who know this writer and his girlfriend, who also read this “story” know he cheated and how he cheated. Relationships overcome infidelity all the time but it seems like a vastly more uphill battle when the explicit details of an infidelity have been left in the hands of a narcissistic, exhibitionistic writer who doesn’t display the maturity to consider consequences, particularly those consequences for the people in her story without the shelter of a pseudonym.

Calloway recently deleted her blog, said she doesn’t like being watched. That’s not quite the impression she gives, though, through her confessional writing. She wants to be watched so long as she is in control of how she is watched. Unfortunately, she doesn’t seem to extend that courtesy to the other people she writes about or who might be affected by what she writes. That is revealing, too.

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  1. mimi

      of the four books i’ve read by Tao Lin (Bed, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Richard Yates & SFAA) (i ‘liked them’ in the order listed there) i really like Bed, short stories, & CBT was charming i thought  
      maybe you could start there  BSG’s During My Nervous Breakdown I Want To Have A Biographer Present was ok   & Sometimes My Heart Pushes My Ribs by Ellen Kennedy was ok  i could not finish the ‘Calloway’ story – totally weak, i felt embarrassed for her

  2. Lilzed

      Finished the story. 70 percent sure the girl is a sociopath.

  3. Antonia Crane Rants » Blog Archive » Licking the Faces of 2011

      […]      I don’t know if Marie Calloway is a twinkling voice. Time will tell. Stephen recently interviewed her about her text message story. If you don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about, skip everything and just read this essay by Roxanne Gay about it: […]

  4. Mark Folse

      I not only finished it but PDFed it off and will read it again today, but I don’t expect it to improve on a second reading. I will check out Bed.

  5. Cvan

      Of course she does (get the interview).  Rumpus has a soft soft spot for shallow people writing about sex.  It gets tiresome.  There can be some silliness on htmlgiant, but generally speaking, I learn more and learn about more books on this site in any given week than on Rumpus in any given cluster of months.  Frankly the hullabaloo about Rumpus is bewildering.

  6. Cvan

      As literature, muumuu is television.  All surface, all the time.

  7. Cvan

      I’m pretty sure this is going to be on the next season of Portlandia.

  8. Rae Bryant

      As always, well done, Roxane. I’m not sure I have an issue with Calloway writing about doing things she’ll regret in twenty years. Honestly, I think those are often the most interesting elements of a life to write, when the voice is there. A twenty-one-year-old could potentially have a developed voice and craft worthy of a story. I’m not saying that’s what we have here…

      I definitely see an issue with sharing every last embarrassing detail of one’s life and others’ lives online for everyone to see while withholding your own identity. That’s easy for a no-name or new-name, pseudonymous author to do, whereas the “famously outed” author would be far more easily recognizable in the details shared. So, the famously outed gave his permission. So be it. The quality of the story makes no difference to the potential the story might offer for the famously outed’s marketing purposes. He did what any slightly savvy, famously outed author would have done. Bad press is good press and good press is good press and all that…

      I’ve read a few comments here that do not reflect the reasoned tone of the original article written (by Roxane). Some comments digress and take interesting asides, as expected on html and that’s why we love it, but shall I risk being another voice?

      Marie Calloway has responded to an essay of fairly strong critique here: There is an element of grace and potential something in her response. Dare I say, I find this interesting, and I applaud her for it.

  9. postitbreakup

      thank you

  10. Who We Talk About When We Talk About Ourselves | The Portrait of a Would-Be Artist as a Young Woman

      […] people have written excellent essays on why Calloway’s story is problematic (I recommend Roxane Gay’s essay at HTMLGiant and Alana Noel Voth’s essay at PANK) and I really don’t have much to add to the […]

  11. Un-poetic review #7 | Corrina Bain

      […] Rumpus contributor Roxane Gay considers the implications of Adrien Brody on HTMLGIANT. […]

  12. Sweet Marie | Bark: A Blog of Literature, Culture, and Art

      […]  Roxane Gay wrote a piece for HTMLGIANT, raising some questions about the ethics around disseminating such intimate details when Marie Calloway and “Adrien Brody” weren’t the only ones involved—his girlfriend stumbled across and read the very graphic account of them having sex, and had to deal with the fallout from everyone knowing that “Adrien Brody” was really her boyfriend. Kate Zambreno argued pretty vehemently that the story does have literary merit, that Calloway was aware of all the choices she was making in the piece, and that culturally we’re so dismissive of girls and young women’s experiences that everyone wasn’t taking the piece seriously simply because it involved a young female writing frankly about sex.* Zoe Zolbrod said “I was completely drawn into the story. It nakedly addresses so many issues I’m perennially interested in and currently writing about or around: Gender, youth, age difference, sexuality, power, honesty, attraction, ethics, transaction, responsibility.” Here is Tao Lin’s response to someone insulting Calloway and the story, in which Tao Lin defends the story and also Marie Calloway herself, and he does so by calling the person stupid, but he also asserts that the story has “relatively little sex and, I feel, no ‘shock value.’” (Which I disagree with, but that’s fine.) […]

  13. Public Sex of Feminine | The Lantern Daily

      […] here). There has been a lot of back and forth about it, including a piece in The New York Observer, a response by Roxanne Gay on html giant and another response by Kate Zambreno on her blog, francesfarmerismysister (from which I gleaned […]

  14. Muumuu House at St. Marks Bookshop | The Outlet: the Blog of Electric Literature

      […] read from her Muumuu story, “Adrien Brody,” which was recently the topic of many a bloggers’ attention. She read from the end of the piece, where her and Adrien Brody initiate in the most awkward act of […]

  15. A Story With Marie Calloway But Without Adrien Brody | Marcus Speh — Nothing To Flawnt

      […] read in a few blog posts. I’ve looked at the orig­i­nal text at Muumuu House and I’ve read Rox­ane Gay’s post at HTML­giant which is emi­nently sen­si­ble as is most of her what she writes. The debate inter­ests me as a […]

  16. Marcus Speh

      I’ve been inspired to write something involving Marie Calloway. It’s called “Meeting Marie Calloway Without Adrien Brody“. It is a comment on these literary events though the commenting aspect is not in the foreground but the story is. Cheers from Berlin, folks.

  17. Meeting Marie Calloway Without Adrien Brody « Marcus Speh

      […] in a few blog posts. I’ve looked at the original text at Muumuu House and I’ve read Roxane Gay’s post at HTMLgiant which is eminently sensible as is most of her what she writes. The debate interests me as a […]

  18. The best HTMLGIANT posts as chosen by you the readers of HTMLGIANT or at least some of you | HTMLGIANT

      […] Roxane Gay: The Price of Revelation […]

  19. 25 Points: what purpose did i serve in your life | HTMLGIANT

      […] Some old links [TRIGGER WARNING: "journalism"]: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, […]

  20. 25 Points: what purpose did i serve in your life | GIANT READER

      […] 4. Some old links [TRIGGER WARNING: "journalism"]: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 […]

  21. Rae Bryant | "Adrien Brody," Adrien Brody, and Adrien Brody's Nose: A Response to Tao Lin's Response to "Tumblr 'Shit-Talking'" | The Nervous Breakdown

      […] in reading Tao Lin’s take here.  Or Roxane Gay’s take on the matter, which you can read here. And Stephen Elliott interviewed Marie Calloway here.  —TNB […]

  22. Report from the Beseiged Poets: Defending the indecent // André Babynthe Town Crier

      […] literary blog of the future” founded by Blake Butler (and a blog no stranger to kerfuffles, controversies, and “shitstorms”). As catalogued here by Rauan Klassnik, disgruntled poet Philip Hopkins (and […]

  23. Marie Calloway: This Internet Sensation Is Brought To You By Tao Lin

      […] Roxane Gay wrote about NY Observer and Marie Calloway here. […]

  24. The Performativity of Marie Calloway, a review of ‘what purpose did i serve in your life’ | Abstract Modem

      […] been wont to do, irresistible evil sirens that they are. Even Roxane Gay stated in her piece on HTMLgiant: that “She wants to be watched so long as she is in control of how she is watched. […]