Daniel Jones doesn't feel that he's mastered love so much as marinated in it. As editor of The New York Times' hugely popular Modern Love personal-essay column, Jones has had 50,000 stories cross his desk, strangers divulging intimate details about infidelity, casual sex, singlehood, marital dissatisfaction and domesticity, to name a few themes. Just 500 submissions have been published in the coveted spot, with one in 13 landing a book deal.
The 2006 essay What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage – about a wife trying out exotic animal training methods on her husband – was the newspaper's most viewed and e-mailed article that entire year. More recently, a celebrity stepped into the fray: Maria Bello wrote about her bisexuality in the November, 2013 essay Coming Out as a Modern Family.
"There's a deceptive simplicity about the personal essay where it feels like someone is just talking to you from across a table at a coffee shop," says Jones. "Everyone thinks, 'I have a story like that,' and they sit down and write it."
Now, Jones has distilled the modern quandaries his column raises in a new book, Love Illuminated: Exploring Life's Most Mystifying Subject (With the Help of 50,000 Strangers). The book mines 10 stages of human relationships, starting with pursuit and "trust of new love" and turning inevitably to practicality, monotony and the "wisdom of love matured." The author spoke with The Globe from Northampton, Mass., about dating strangers, hyphenated last names and what love has in common with E.T.
You've said the submissions you get are a time capsule of what's happening in relationships. What are you seeing a lot of right now?
Finding love has of course been influenced by technology in recent years, but also by the idea that a lot of people are going out with nobody but total strangers now. Whether we're finding them through online dating, a social network online, a speed dating session, any commercialized way of finding love – it's strangers. People really used to go out with someone that they knew.
It's not the farmer's son that you grew up with down the road.
Right. People are getting together in serious relationships later and waiting into their work life. The networks aren't as available: if it's not at work then where is it? You've got to search through all these online profiles to find it. A lot of people therefore are struggling with trust and looking, often desperately, for some sign that this particular stranger is the person they're meant to be with.
The Times' Modern Love College Essay Contest seems like a good barometer of where relationships may be headed. Many of these essays centre on keeping your distance romantically.
The main puzzle that students were trying to solve in the first contest [in 2008] was what is hooking up and what does it mean. It was all about physical relationships where you try to suppress emotional connection. The prevailing theme by the next contest three years later was people trying to navigate relationships that were only online. Whether they'd met in person but now lived far away or never met the person but made some connection through Twitter or Reddit, it had snowballed into these deep, emotional relationships. It was the opposite of the hookup: it was all emotional and never physical.
There's this search for how we're going to improve upon how our parents did love and marriage. That seems to be accelerating, the ways in which we're grasping towards what will be the right way to get to know somebody.
Your chapter on "practicality" in long-term relationships includes some pretty out-there ideas. Like married couples taking up separate homes, or at least off-limits spaces like the yoga shed, which is a man cave for women.
Men and women are on more equal terms these days and this idea of maintaining individuality in marriage is something I hear a lot about. People feel that marriage is going to be this regression from who you are. When it comes to living together now, there are plans for dividing income and taking care of children and the house. It doesn't even feel like it's about love. It's more about a business arrangement: How it will be fair? How will they define themselves to the world? And what will they do about the last name? That part was particularly entertaining to me. People are splicing them into halves and stitching them back together again as a new name. Hyphenation wasn't very well thought out: where is this going to leave our children when they marry a hyphenated child? There are so many ways that people are trying to solve this problem but all of them have their frustrations.
Do you have a sense of why people feel compelled to spill their guts to The New York Times? Are they hoping for a jolt?
It's an individual need. They write the essays to figure them out and sharing them just feels like the next logical step. The column at this point fosters its own material and becomes a kind of community. A lot of people who read the column get the sense that it's people out there like them writing it.
Are people increasingly writing in hopes of a book deal?
There are certainly a lot of people who are aspiring writers and have a memoir boiling around inside of them who want to publish in Modern Love because it's read by agents and editors. It has a record with 37 or 38 book deals come from it so far, as well as TV options.
The essays have made you more compassionate, but surely some of the submissions have disappointed you too, as human folly?
I get submissions from readers who are trying to justify bad behaviour. One was from a businessman who was on a plane flying over the city where his mistress lived. He was musing about that. It was a big justification for why he needed to have this passion in his life. You see people's rationalization process in some essays that don't work. It's like a lawyer trying to win a case. People who are using it as a platform to lob bombs, you know they're not drilling down into themselves. When these essays are done well, it's not about justification or blame. It's very important for a personal essayist to be aware and to know themselves and their actions better than the reader does.
You end your book by envisioning love in "creature form." What you end up with is Steven Spielberg's E.T. Please explain.
That was one of my favourite movies. This idea, and I'm guilty of it in the book, of being able to put love on an operating table, pull it apart, figure out how it works, how human beings are attracted to each other based on chemicals – there's a self-defeating aspect to that. It feels diminishing to be able to explain the complications of love through science or mathematical algorithm and yet we try to do just that. For some reason, that led me to picture E.T., this magical creature that we tried to kill for the sake of science. He would tell the children to 'be good' and healed wounds with his finger. I was like, wow, is that what Steven Spielberg meant? To have an embodiment of love? It seemed like the right image to end the book with. Do we really want to kill this creature to understand it, or do we want to let it be the magical thing that it is?
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Follow me on Twitter: @ZosiaBielski