The Un-Romantic Editor of “Modern Love”: Q&A with Daniel Jones

You might expect Daniel Jones to be a hopeless romantic. The man certainly specializes in stories of love, loss, and heartbreak: he’s the author of After Lucy, a novel about a husband dealing with the death of his wife, the editor of Bastard on the Couch, an anthology of essays by male writers about love, and the founding editor of “Modern Love,” the hugely popular weekly New York Times column that publishes personal essays on relationships. But it’s not mere romance that interests him. Rather, Jones cares about the “hard stuff,” all the trials and transformations that go into making – and keeping – real emotional connections. There are few limits on the relationship topics he’ll publish; just, please, he begs, don’t write one more story about cancer.

What is your criteria for a great “Modern Love” essay?

We wanted the term “Modern Love” to be broad — so it doesn’t have to be about romantic relationships. It can be about caring for children, or people in mid-life dealing with their own parents. It can be about friendship. But it would be too narrow to do just romantic relationships. It has to be meaningful – very meaningful – to the person. And beyond that, just the writing. A very small moment can be made into a very good essay just because of the writing, and, by the same token, a very powerful experience, a compelling story, doesn’t have to be that well-written for it to grab you.

What essay has sparked the most controversy or reader response?

“What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage” came out a few years ago and, I believe, is still the most emailed Times article ever. It was sold as a movie, and sold as a book, and it stayed at the top of the “most emailed” list for a month straight.

That was the piece by the woman who used animal training techniques – basically positive reinforcement – to get her husband to do things like put his dirty clothes in the hamper, rather than on the floor. What was the response?

It was mixed. A lot of people thought it was just funny, and they wanted to try it right away. Other people found it insulting and demeaning to them – demeaning in general – that you would treat someone as you would treat an exotic animal.

It seems that people get very attached to the characters they’re reading about in these essays, these real individuals.

It’s an interesting context to have a very personal voice speaking to you, as if you’re sitting at a coffee shop with your best friend. It’s intimate, in an odd way.

Do you think you lean more towards tearjerkers?

That’s more of what I get. Readers definitely respond to stories that are sort of “tearjerk-y” in a happy or sad way. When people are writing about powerful moments in their lives, they tend towards the more emotional.

What is the one relationship theme or essay topic that you see over and over?

I see a lot about Facebook.

Really?

That’s got to be the single most written-about topic. It’s just invaded modern life so much that people can’t get away from it. The more surprising thing I see a lot of for a column called “Modern Love” is people being diagnosed with and dying of cancer. It’s gotten to the point where it becomes a red flag, something to avoid. When I’m reading, where I get to that line of “and then he was diagnosed,” or “and she was stage 4,” whatever… It sounds horrible to say it, but, really, there’s just way too much of it.

Have you seen a shift in the trends of the topics you see, from when you first started the column?

In the past year, I got a bunch of stories about people dealing with siblings – or friends, or lovers – who were dealing with going through gender changes and surgeries – like, people whose daughters became sons. That’s not something I saw any of for years. I think the public acceptance of that has shifted, at least in what I see in what people are willing to talk about publicly.

Would you describe yourself as a romantic?

I’m not sure what that means.

Do you consider yourself a romantic person?

Umm… I don’t think I’m all that romantic. I think I have romantic dreams about what my life should be, but I’m not getting all excited about Valentine’s Day or anything.

Then, do you think it’s at all ironic that you’re the editor of a column about love?

I think it’s just more about how complicated human relationships are. I pretty much equate romance with naiveté, you know, before “the hard stuff.” And I’m more interested in the hard stuff.

Why do you think the column is so popular?

I think the fact that it has this confessional, telling-a-secret kind of provocation makes it very tempting, but I think the variety of subject matter helps a lot. I think it’s so broadly relatable to have people talking about their different relationship dilemmas. One thing that’s surprised me is that a lot of the readership is men.

Do you think your gender plays a role in the stories you choose for publication?

That’s hard to answer. I used to say to my boss that I thought it would be good to have a woman reading the submissions, too, once in a while, and he said, “There is no gender bias in what you’re running. I don’t see a need for that.” What I publish is representative of what is submitted. So, if it’s 75% essays by women that get published, then that’s about what I received.

What’s the weirdest story you’ve ever received?

Oh, there are so many. One that always pops into my mind was about someone who – and this is one of those ones where you couldn’t believe they wanted it public – where he had only one testicle, and his whole dilemma was: “When is the right time to tell the woman I’m going out with that this is what my situation is?” I mean, reading it was just hilarious. And, there are a lot where people have some sort of bizarre sexual fantasy.

I heard a rumor that “sex” is always at the top of the NYTimes.com search terms. Does that surprise you?

Yeah, I don’t know what to make of that. And that’s been a trend for years now; it’s been in the top three search terms, with China and… oh, Obama.

You’ve been married for quite some time now. Do you have any insights into what it takes to maintain a successful relationship?

I don’t know… We are very good friends to each other, and we do similar work, and we’ve gone through the tough times. I don’t know that we’ve always had some exemplary marriage. But we worked through the problems and stuck it through. Neither of us are very romantic in like, gift-giving, but we love to make each other laugh. It works for us.

What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned about relationships from your time with “Modern Love”?

People who have love in their life… it’s not so much determined by being healthy, or having healthy kids, or a big family, or something like that, but by taking risks and being open to other people. I see it over and over in people who write in: people who have been hurt or suffered a loss will sort of close up, and you really feel for them. But other people experience the same thing, the same kind of loss, yet they remain optimistic and open and excited. And that seems to be the difference. It’s powerful.

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