Anna David on Reality T.V. and Editing an Anthology

Founding Deb Anna David returns to the Debutante Ball to guest-blog about the anthology Reality Matters, which she edited. HarperCollins released Anna David’s novel Party Girl in 2007. The book has been translated into Russian and Italian and Sony Television has purchased the film rights. HarperCollins released Anna’s second novel, Bought, in May of 2009. She’s currently writing What I Say I Want, a memoir documenting her life from June, 2009 to June, 2010, also for Harper.

Welcome back, Anna, and thanks for this funny, fascinating glimpse of what it takes to put an anthology together.

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From the moment I contributed a piece to an anthology, I’d been trying to think of one I could edit myself. Writing for Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys had been a thrilling experience: my essay was bought by The New York Times and ran as a “Modern Love,” and the anthology readings introduced me to a slew of new writer friends. For a couple thousand words, I’d essentially been allowed entree into a writers community. As a result, I was determined to create an anthology of my own.

I discarded a few ideas (women writing about how they feel about their breasts? pieces about adolescent celebrity crushes?) before stumbling on the concept of essays about reality television. My initial attraction to the idea wasn’t just rooted in my passion for The Real Housewives of New York and any show that involves Dr. Drew and airs on VH1. It was that, over the past decade or so that reality television has become the most ubiquitous form of entertainment, I’ve noticed that some of the more interesting conversations I have with people are about it. Not the content of these shows, mind you — that tends to be irrelevant — but how we feel about what happens and why. I personally love watching shows featuring people who tend to be manufacturers of their own misery because (embarrassing confession alert) I relate to them. I’ve had my feelings hurt by a friend and, rather than sharing that with the person, gone and dissected it with another friend to make myself feel better about it — seemingly unaware of the fact that it’s actually making things worse. (For the uninitiated, that is essentially the plot of every single episode of The Real Housewives of New York.) I relate to the self-destructive antics of the 20-something Real World-ers because I was that self-destructive 20-something. I wanted to know what appealed to other writers and why.

Once I’d sold HarperCollins on the idea, I began approaching my dream list of writers. On my first outing, I struck gold. Toby Young and Jancee Dunn, writers I’d long admired but didn’t know, responded to my initial email enthusiastically; Toby actually already had a piece written that worked perfectly! I soon learned that this initial ease had been a case of serious beginners’ luck. I assigned pieces to writers who signed contracts but who never turned anything in. No pieces, no apologetic emails. Just silence. I had a writer who missed three deadlines but ultimately claimed — and still may be claiming — that she emailed her piece in to me. One writer heard about the anthology and begged me to contribute. We had an hour-long conversation about what he would write but then he never responded to repeated emails I sent him asking when I could expect his essay. His agent got involved and eventually I received an email from the writer saying that he was so insulted by the amount of money I was offering him (money I was, alas, paying out of my advance) that my email hadn’t deserved a response.

But the rewards did ultimately outweigh the frustrations. I was able to work with writers like Neal Pollack, Jerry Stahl, James Frey and Neil Strauss. I helped publish some of the funniest writing that I’d ever read from people like Stacey Grenrock Woods and Mark Lisanti. I was able to include the most interesting analysis of the relevance of reality television I’ve ever seen from a writer named Rex Sorgatz (his take: the genre reflects back to us just how fake society is today). And participating in the readings — seeing these inarguably talented, ridiculously funny and incredibly insightful people show up and read snippets of their essays and watching the audience respond to them — has perhaps been the greatest reward of my career so far. As writers, we toil in dark rooms, isolated as can be as we crank out words that we hope people will love or at the very least understand. To be in the center of a well-lit room, hearing and seeing the impact these writers’ words were having on an audience, made all the chasing down and cajoling I had to do in order to put the collection together feel completely worthwhile. When I’m reading my own work, I’m usually too caught up in how I’m reading (am I going too fast? too slow? should I be more dramatic?), whether or not I’m looking up enough (should I catch a random person’s eye? what if I lose my place?) and whether or not people are laughing when they’re supposed to for me to have any kind of perspective about the nearly impossible journey these words have made from the brain to the page to the book to the room. But this time I could feel the impact — and it was profound.

~Anna David

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4 thoughts on “Anna David on Reality T.V. and Editing an Anthology

  1. They signed contracts but didn’t turn anything in?? I’m shocked! I can imagine convoluted circumstances that lead that happening once, but with several writers???

    *speechless*

  2. Anna,
    I’m overseas with very limited internet or I would have commented earlier but I so enjoyed reading this! I’ve been known to watch a bit of reality tv (just,um, between perusing the history channel) and I was just asked to contribute an anthology for a book out in 2011. I loved reading about the behind-the-scenes workings! Congrats on modern love and the book.

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