When blogging first exploded in the early 2000s, the great promise was that it would level the literary playing field. Unknown writers would suddenly have the reach of John Grisham or Janet Evanovich. Agents and publishers would be surfing the Web instead of sifting through the slush pile to find new talent.
For the most part, though, the medium’s crossover success stories have been more novelty than literary: Justin Halpern’s Twitter feed-turned-quasi-memoir, S— My Dad Says, or the erotic Fifty Shades trilogy by E.L. James, which originated as Twilight fan fiction.
Now there is the unexpected triumph of Jenny Lawson, and she provides hope for those still tapping away on laptops that the Internet can be a breeding ground for serious (or at least seriously funny) writing. In 2010, after more than a decade of blogging, first for the Houston Chronicle, and then as author of The Bloggess, Lawson ended up at the center of a two-day auction among twelve publishing houses for the rights to her debut memoir, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened. The book, which was published in April, debuted on the New York Times hardcover non-fiction best-seller list last week at No. 2.
“I very much own the fact that I’m a misfit,” Lawson said during a telephone interview last month, explaining why she thinks her work struck a chord online. “The Internet makes everyone realize they’re screwed up.”
Lawson, whose memoir presents a skewering, but deeply affectionate portrait of her family, very much in the vein of David Sedaris’s Naked, grew up in the tiny town of Wall. Her father was a taxidermist prone to keeping bobcats and wild turkeys as pets. Her neighbors regularly invited the family over to swim in a pool created by water from an open-air cistern that was used to clean pigs. (“Right here is when people begin to say, ‘I don’t believe any of this,’ and I have to show them pictures or get my mom on the phone to confirm it, and then they get very quiet,” Lawson writes, of the pig pool excursions.)
Elsewhere in the memoir, she blends surprising honesty with acerbic wit, discussing her struggles with anorexia as well as a series of miscarriages.
Lawson said she first thought her eccentric life might make an interesting book more than a decade ago, well before the blogging craze. After struggling with the manuscript, though, she began blogging for the Houston Chronicle to get into the regular habit of writing.
“Something about the combination of ‘I’ll do it’ and ‘for free’ convinced them,” recalled Lawson, who lives with her husband and 7-year-old daughter in a small town between Austin and San Antonio (she prefers not to disclose the location). She currently writes the “Good Mom/Bad Mom” blog for the Houston Chronicle and said she is now paid “enough to buy a Coke a day.”
Lawson said she launched The Bloggess in 2008, mainly because she wanted a venue where she could use foul language. According to the author, the site now averages two million page views per month. Her literary agent, Neeti Madan, discovered her at a blogging conference, after Lawson got into an awkward public dispute with Heather Armstrong, the Dooce blogger, during one of the sessions. Madan then went online to read her work and reached out to Lawson to suggest she write a book.
“She embodied that sweet spot between literary and commercial,” said Amy Einhorn, whose eponymous imprint at Putnam is best known for publishing The Help, and who won the auction for Let’s Pretend This Never Happened. “She’s funny and accessible, but I also think she’s a real writer.”
Lawson said she spends four to five hours each day writing, and much of what she writes remains unpublished in her Drafts folder. At the same time, she has been especially successful at using the democratizing power of the Internet to build an audience and to make high-profile connections. She befriended the fantasy writer Neil Gaiman — who provided one of the blurbs for her book — after writing a blog post about “strange-looking guys I’d totally do if I wasn’t married.”
Via Twitter, she convinced the actor Wil Wheaton (Stand by Me) to send her a picture of himself collating paper — a goof on a series of e-mail pitches Lawson had been receiving featuring celebrities posed next to consumer products.
“Clever is my Kryptonite, and Jenny is one of the most clever people on the Internet,” said Wheaton, who also agreed to appear in the book trailer (again, collating paper) for Let’s Pretend This Never Happened.
Lawson has not yet started another book, though she expects there will eventually be a follow-up. As for the question of whether newfound success might make her lose touch with her roots in the blogging community, Lawson said she is too aware of her own good fortune—a kind of digital-age Cinderella story—to ever allow her ego to get inflated.
“It is kind of the American Dream” she said. “Except I don’t know if anyone would have this strange of a dream.”