Taking Your Ball And Going Home

We recently discussed the curious case of star Esquire/ESPN writer Chris Jones, a talented writer who comes across as a massive dink when he blogs or tweets or otherwise expresses his personal thoughts. Now Jones has decided to shutter his blog and delete much of the content, partly due to time constraints but mostly because people on the Internet were mean to him.

Jones specifically cites this post by Deadspin’s Jack Dickey as “the deciding blow,” because the headline of Dickey’s post references the time Jones whined about not being nominated for a National Magazine Award. Here’s Jones’s response, which should be nominated for an Ellie next year:

“I mean, seriously?”

(It is worth noting that Dickey’s headline references Jones’s whining, but his actual post compares a paragraph Jones wrote about Robert Caro with a paragraph written by Charles McGrath on the same subject. McGrath and Jones both wrote long stories about Caro because Caro’s fourth LBJ book is coming out next month, and both stories happened to hit the web at around the same time, and Dickey used this occasion to compare two very different writing styles. But the headline is what Jones says set him off.)

Jones writes that during his time as a blogger, “nothing has haunted me more” than the time he whined about not being nominated for the award. (Jones has since taken down the offending post, along with most of his other posts, but the cached version remains online.) He goes on to say:

All because I wrote a story I was proud of, and I thought it might get nominated for an award that I care about, and I was honest about my disappointment, because every writer I know suffers disappointments, and we’re supposed to be honest, and we’re all in this together.

Emphasis added because…I mean, seriously? The notion that all writers are kindred spirits and that “we’re all in this together” is sort of preposterous, if only because some writers are invariably going to be competitors. (Many are not competing, of course, but some are.) Jones himself wrote “I’ve always kept score” in the very same post where he expressed his disappointment at not being nominated for an award. Either “we’re all in this together,” or it’s a competition and you’re keeping score, because it cannot be both.

Jones is an acclaimed, hugely successful writer with a visibly high amount of self-regard, so maybe he forgot that many writers wind up competing with other writers for jobs and assignments. After all, writers pitch stories and vie for the dwindling number of staff writing jobs and they do this knowing that if they get something, that means somebody else didn’t get it. That’s not brotherhood. That’s just the nature of competition. (The same is also true for other fields, obviously.) That is not the way it is all of the time for all writers, and you can apply for the same job or pitch the same place as a friend and still be their friend, but some competitive moments do occur.

But Jones does know this, because after his initial post about not getting nominated for an Ellie sparked a lot of criticism, he responded in this post (again, it has been deleted, but here is the cached version):

Because journalism is a business based, almost exclusively, on competition. There’s a reason they call it a beat. It is a game in which some people win, and a lot more people lose.

If you view journalism as a game (which, by the way, is an appalling way to view it, because it could and should be viewed as a profession or a worthwhile craft or even a calling or basically anything other than a game where people are winners and losers according to whatever subjective criteria you’ve laid out), you do not believe “we are all in this together,” and you shouldn’t hide behind that as an excuse for why you said something people criticized.

And, by the way, Jones clearly wasn’t thinking “we’re all in this together” when he was whining about not being nominated for an Ellie. Because if his story was nominated, that meant somebody else’s story would not be nominated, and invariably, you know Jones had to look at the list of nominated stories and determine which story or stories he would have bumped to make room for his (admittedly stellar) profile of Roger Ebert. That’s not solidarity. Jones has won two National Magazine Awards and couldn’t be happy for the other nominees. That was him being honest, which is great! It’s nice that he was honest. But that is nowhere near “we’re all in this together.”

Jones also didn’t seem to have a particularly high regard for writerly bonhomie when he was dismissing Michelle Dean (who criticized his post here) as “a dabbling writer and graduate student” (cached version) or when he was freaking out (cached version) because another writer wrote critically about Jones. (Dean’s reaction to Jones is here, and it is a lovely response to Jones’s patronizing “dabbling writer and graduate student” shtick.)

So, now, back to Jones’s farewell post. He follows his “we’re all in this together” thoughts with “Instead, it has become what it’s become, because this is the age in which we live.” Which, yes, is the point: we live in an era where writers who don’t win the most prestigious award in their field for the third time get to write blog posts complaining about it. We also live in an era where something stupid you once said can follow you around for a while, and where anyone can offer criticism of anyone, because there’s a great big Internet out there. Same era.

In fact, a smart and talented writer once wrote that it’s important to be open and honest on the Internet, even when engaging in an Internet feud:

The Internet is our most real version of life, because it’s the only place where people will write what they really think about you. That means you, too, should write what you really think about them.

That writer was, of course, Chris Jones. He apparently believed in writing what you really think about people, and the importance of responding to criticism, right up until a post on Tumblr pushed him over the edge.

In his farewell post, Jones also preempts (or attempts to, anyway) criticism of what he’s doing:

And I’m sure I’ll get torched for this last post, too, because someone will see it as whiny or self-pitying or overly emotional or poorly written or defeated. It might be all of those things. But it’s also honest. These are the facts.

Some of that is true. It is whiny and self-pitying and, I’m assuming, honest; but it’s not particularly emotional or poorly written or defeated. (Especially not defeated, because to read Jones’s words, you would not get the impression he has been beaten or in any way proven wrong.)

And he says:

But this is the end of Son of Bold Venture, at least in this form, just as I decided recently to stop writing about my wife and especially about my kids. The ground rules have changed. From now on, I’ll be picking my spots, and they’ll be my spots alone, and more and more they’ll be confined to paper, because paper is the reason I got into this business in the first place, and I’ve forgotten that too often lately.

While he doesn’t specifically mention it, it sure sounds like this was at least in part caused by the criticism of Jones’s recent Esquire story about women who are bad at sex. (Gawker brought his wife into it, although you could argue that Jones opened himself up to such commentary by being a long-married man writing a story about women who are bad at sex.) So it’s somewhat funny when he says his thoughts will be “confined to paper,” because (A) Chris, pretty sure you’re marching in the wrong direction! and (B) his justifiably reviled Esquire story was written for a print magazine. (Tip for Chris Jones: People who want to criticize you will do it regardless of your chosen medium.)

Anyway, I know this is already a much longer post than the one that inspired it, but I think this is worthy of attention. Chris Jones certainly isn’t the first person to achieve great professional success in a field only to come across as an unlikable derp when expressing his personal thoughts, nor will he be the last. (When does Jason Reitman’s next movie come out again?) The reason this is noteworthy is because Jones is a writer, and he’s someone who seems to revel in his chosen craft, and he’s someone who thinks it is important to discuss writers and writing and he is also someone who teaches writing (which was a big part of why he launched his blog, I believe). He must know the importance of accepting and understanding critiques, yet he also seems like someone who is unwilling or unable to accept criticism, particularly when it comes from a source or sources he deems unworthy of his attention.

Maybe he just doesn’t think the snark and venom sent his way via the Internet is the same thing as the constructive criticism and feedback he has offered students. He clearly reads this online criticism, but perhaps he’s successful enough that he doesn’t think he has to listen to any of it. That seems to be a big part of the problem: In his tweets and blog posts (right up through and after his farewell post), he doesn’t show the slightest hint of remorse, nor does he acknowledge his faults in his online interactions. He does not think what he said was wrong and he does not think his methods of self-expression were ill-conceived.

The problem doesn’t seem to be that Jones learned nothing from his stint at blogging. The problem is that he learned the wrong lessons. He seems to have only learned that if you write things online, people will be mean, and haters gon’ hate, so who cares? They’re just “a dabbling writer and graduate student” or nameless people expressing rage on the Internet. He does not seem to understand that criticism can be valid no matter the source. But he does seem to understand that if he shuts down his blog and stops expressing so many of his personal thoughts, people will have less ammunition to mock him, because all that will remain will be his stories, and his stories are (mostly) very good. (There is still his Twitter account.)

That’s the great shame of it. Chris Jones is a phenomenally talented writer who wrote some dumb or ill-conceived things. People mocked, belittled or attacked him for this. He could have sifted through the criticisms and taken things to heart, perhaps learning how to express himself online without coming across as a huge wad. He could have participated in a dialogue, even if it was just with the people he felt were being nicest to him. Instead, he opted to pack up his toys and go home.

This is probably for the best. As I said earlier, the more I read his blog and tweets, the less I liked him. (It got to the point where I was rereading an old story of his and gritting my teeth at some of the writerly flourishes, not because they really bothered me but because I could practically see the self-satisfied smugness oozing off of the page. I am hoping that with time, I will be able to read something under his byline and simply enjoy him as a writer again.) It’s just a shame he couldn’t learn anything from this experience.

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