As the cofounder of Nerve.com, Genevieve Field pushed the envelope of sexual culture, catapulting formerly taboo topics onto the lips of readers of their "literate smut" and loudly proclaiming the joys of erotic freedom. Nowadays, Field is Senior Editor at Glamour and has chosen to look at another side of this newfound freedom via the lives of single women. Her latest anthology is Sex and Sensibility: 28 True Romances from the Lives of Single Women (Atria), featuring writers from various fields including Lisa Carver, Lily Burana, Lynn Harris, Pam Houston, Precious Williams, Amy Sohn, Elissa Schappell, Jennifer Weiner, Susan Dominus and Meghan Daum.
Even though Field got married in 2002, she finds the drama of living single eminently fascinating. Divided into five sections (Strumpets and Rakes, Parlors and Ports, Allies and Enemies, Divisions and Disparities, and Ardor and Ache) which delve into varying aspects of women's lives, the anthology covers everything from a rapper's come-on to a journalist to jealous snooping, friends' weddings, and sex with a world-renowned healer. Taken as a whole, the essays in Sex and Sensibility do justice to the emotional ups and downs of modern single life with honesty and intelligence, using heartfelt emotion rather than cliched, idealized visions of femininity. While this may sound like yet another treatise on a tired topic, the authors transform their personal stories into novel, compelling tales that are by turns hilarious, heartbreaking, erotic and filled with love, desire, temptation, confusion, independence, and exploration.
These authors take the dating confessional and add new twists, creating narratives that are highly readable and will likely be recognizable to most any single (or formerly single) girl. Ex-Rollerderby editor Lisa Carver hovers over whether to disclose to a hot date that she has a kid, while Darcy Cosper stunningly shares the mistakes she made falling for the wrong guy, again and again, in "Everything I Need To Know About Romance I Learned From Jane Austen (I Just Wish I'd Taken Her Advice Sooner)." Of particular interest to New Yorkers are Mikki Halpin's Craigslist dating tale "My Year of Missed Connections," Jennifer Weiner's deliciously sexy "The Feast of San Gennaro" and Meghan Daum's "Herland, Revisited," about the paucity of men versus women within the five boroughs, using personal anecdote and census statistics.
Instead of offering prescriptions or cure-alls, these women, much like Field herself in the interview below, share their own personal tales of love found, lost, wanted, unwanted, friendship, flirtation, sex and self-discovery. There are no sappy happy endings, just continuous journeys through the maze of singledom and beyond.
Sex and Sensibility contains essays from some of today’s most prominent female writers, including Amy Sohn, Jennifer Weiner, Lily Burana, from a real cross section of genres, including chick lit authors, sex columnists and memoirists. How did you go about choosing the authors?
Many of them were writers I’d worked with in the past. I really like to work with people who I know are fun and easy to work with, as well as being really talented, so I thought of all the people who were fantastic writers but also had amazing personalities that I thought would come through in the essays.
What instructions did you give them about their pieces?
I asked them to write about either a single experience or a month or a year in their lives or anything from their single lives that most epitomized what it felt like to be single. Probably about half are no longer single but I wanted them to, when they thought back to when they were single women, figure out what experiences really captured the emotions that they felt at that time.
I talked to them and asked what those emotions were and from most of them I got that it was a very up and down time when you’re single and I think that’s the overriding theme of the book. That it’s this really thrilling experience of being this woman on your own, getting to experiment with love and sex, but it’s also a scary and vulnerable time when you open yourself up to new people constantly and have to kindof allow yourself to go through hurt and heartache and rejection in order to, in most of these women’s cases, find the one person that they want to be with that would be worth giving up single life for.
Were you worried about overlap in the topics they addressed?
I didn't want the essays to be too broad, I wanted it to be specifically about one time, one feeling, one lover, one moment. So I gave them that and I knew that once I gave them that guidance that no two stories would be the same. We’d talk about it before they went into it and some went through a couple of different ideas before we found the one. There was some massaging of ideas to make it a really cohesive anthology but mostly I think it was great luck.
The one that came in the day of my due date, and I had been waiting anxiously for it for six months, was from Merrill Markoe [“Medusa’s Sister”]. It was probably the one that was the most perfect and didn’t need anything from me and was the greatest surprise gift because it’s one of my favorite essays in the book. That’s always one of the great moments in editing an anthology when you get that essay that’s just there and you don’t have to do anything to bring it up.
You’re now married, so I’m curious about what it was like to edit a collection on single women, and what inspired you to do that.
My agent, Jenny Bent, inspired me. It was actually her idea. She called me one day and said she had this idea: Why wasn't there a Sex and the Single Girl about what it's really like today?Because when people talk about single women, they talk about Sex and the City or they refer back to Helen Gurley Brown, who wrote Sex and the Single Girl in the early sixties. So there didn't seem to be any recent nonfiction specifically devoted to this important period in women's lives. I knew that I had a roster of perfect writers for it and I just jumped right in. I called up five writer friends and asked if they’d write an essay on spec for the proposal, and that was an amazing thing that they did for me, pour their hearts out with no promise that anything would come of it. Based on those five essays, we got the deal.
I appreciated that you included several queer women’s stories in the book, from Jennifer Baumgardner’s bisexual adventures in “Whereya Headed?” to Rachel Mattson’s “girl times two minus one,” and also noticed that even in some of the other women’s essays, flirting with bisexuality or making out with friends just kindof slipped in there, without a need to make a big commotion. Do you think women’s ease with each other and acceptance of alternative sexualities has changed the playing field at all for single women?
I did purposefully think about who would write from a non-hetero perspective in this book and I didn’t want it to be totally straight. I think it could have been a more well-rounded book than it is, expressing more variations in sexuality and especially in location. A lot of it ended up being quite New York-centric and I was trying hard not to do that. I commissioned writers from all over the country, but no matter where they lived, the City often seemed to play an important role in their stories! As far as having a spectrum of sexual perspectives, I was excited that I managed to do it, even if I didn’t do it as much as I could have. I think that it is a more fluid time for women and I think that it’s a really exciting time in that way to be single. The storyline in The L Word about the straight girl who's seduced by a fascinating, confident lesbian woman is a romanticized version of the curiosity lots of women have about a sexuality that's still rarified, but no longer so culturally taboo. Sadly enough, in my own single days I was pretty by the book straight, but I like to live vicariously through my writers.
In Meghan Daum’s essay “Herland, Revisited,” she looks at the paucity of single men in New York compared to single women, and compares it to her time living in Lincoln, Nebraska and Los Angeles, and claims that while it’s tougher to find men to date here, this forces women to be tougher and more self–reliant. Do you think it’s harder to be a single woman in New York than in other cities?
It’s hard for me to say. Right after college, I moved to New York and I have friends who are still along the west coast and who are going through the exact same ups and downs as a lot of my friends here are. I think, though, that if I were still single, I’d want to be single here. When it comes down to it, I think the right guy for me is a New York guy. As Meghan said, it’s pretty thrilling to walk into a bar and have six guys ask to buy you a drink, but if they’re six guys you can’t see yourself with in the future, some of the privilege of that or the excitingness of that disappears. As a lot of these writers express in these stories, it’s sortof in the back of your mind, whether the person you’re having an exciting experience with is someone you could take that beyond that with.
The book is divided into five sections, and one of the most interesting to me, and unexpected, was Allies and Enemies, which focuses on friendships and how they enhance and interact with romantic relationships, from Em and Lo on the importance of best friends to Lily Burana’s “Where the Boys Were,” about the gay men she befriended as a teenager and how they taught her about love. What was most interesting was how often friendship gets overlooked, like it’s a given and not worthy of examination. Was this something you had wanted to include, or did it emerge upon reading over the submissions?
In the case of Em and Lo, I worked with them at Nerve and know them really well and watched their friendship from the very beginning stage, when there were only four of us at Nerve, through the years. It’s really kindof the most amazing and unusual friendship between two women that I’d ever seen because it was almost like a marriage, where they considered each other in every decision that they made, even in terms of their writing careers. That’s one of the best things about them, their loyalty to each other. I was really excited with how that essay turned out, it really moved me.
When Lily Burana proposed that idea to me, I was excited to see it. That’s sortof a big theme, it’s almost a cliché at this point, the single woman and the gay best friend, and I love that she took it so much deeper than that. It was really about learning to love and how she learned how to love from gay men and how still to this day the men she’s attracted to have some essence of gay in them. That really helped me understand a lot about the appeal of having a gay best friend that isn’t really examined, to me, very well in shows like Sex and the City. I’m so tired of seeing it treated in a really superficial way.
I also think that friendship is so important when you’re single cause you rely so much on your girlfriends, so much more than you do when you have a romantic partner. One of my very good friends recently got a divorce and told me she felt the need to connect with single women because it was the only thing that made her feel excited about being single rather than being scared.
If you were to have contributed your own essay to the book, what would it have been called and what juicy single girl story would you have told?
The only reason that I didn’t put an essay in is that I was plum exhausted; I'd been working full time and doing this book project on the weekend. Every spare minute was devoted to editing the essays.
I actually wrote the essay that I might have written for the book in Glamour [February 2005 issue, on mistakes she made while dating and the lessons she learned from them]. I think it’s important to look at the things you did wrong along the way to make a good go at the relationship you end up in and I did a lot of things wrong. I feel that as an editor at Nerve and now at Glamour, I’ve really made a career out of making people write about difficult things and be open about things that are more easily held close to the chest. I feel that I owe it to those writers to be open as a writer myself, and I like to focus on my mistakes.
You write in the introduction that even though you’re now married, “I will probably always write about the time I was single and remember the powerful ambivalence I felt about dating. While I craved the attention, the companionship, and sex that came with it, I was often saddened by the fleetingness of the connections I made with men in those days.” Can you elaborate on that ambivalence?
I think it’s this push pull that was constantly happening inside of me when I was single. I really found it thrilling to be in a conversation with a totally new guy or to meet somebody who I felt a connection with and to wonder where it would go and to have all the firsts that you have with a new lover. But at the same time, I think when you’re dating, sometimes those connections don’t run that deep and I always found myself expecting that they would, that every connection would be a worthwhile one, and learning that sometimes they are what they are is part of growing up. It can be really tough, but it’s also counterbalanced by the fact that you get to discover a person for the first time as many times as you want to when you’re dating.
I was always the kind of person who, the evening I had a date, I remember feeling like I always wanted to call my best friend and watch a movie, I just wanted to go to dinner with my girlfriends. I felt like I really yearned to be with my girlfriends rather than a guy that I didn’t know very well. That’s in my nature, but a lot of my friends have told me they felt the same way.
Did you learn any lessons from working on the book?
I guess the overwhelming feeling that I had when I finished editing the collection was that I was totally normal. I had never known for sure if my experiences about feeling that conflicted about being single were normal or not. It was really reassuring to know that all these beautiful, confident, talented women felt the same way that I had.
As I was reading, I found myself identifying with a lot of the authors, and I found some of them really brave, because I think even more than the push–pull of single/coupled, there’s a desire to pretend that single life is perfect and that we are not at fault for falling for the wrong people, that it’s the people we fall for who break our hearts that are the problem. And in probably my favorite essay, the one by Darcy Cosper, she writes about pursuing inappropriate men (“Above all, I was attracted to men who wanted absolutely nothing to do with me, and I pursued them with brio.”). Do you feel like modern women are better able to admit to our dating mistakes and own up to our own role in dating mishaps rather than simply saying "men suck?"
Unfortunately, I think that’s still a tendency. It’s easier to say that men suck than that women suck too, but it’s not about sucking or being a bad person or a good person and I think that when someone steps all over your heart, the easiest thing to do is to think that they’re a lousy human being. But I have a feeling that it’s just what we do, and it’s not any more a woman thing than a men thing. I wish none of it went on. I wish people would just think of each other as people first. That’s what I wish, but I don’t want to be corny.
It seems like any time there is a story about single women in the media, it’s about what they can do to not be single, and it can get a little daunting, to sortof constantly be told there’s something wrong with your life. Even if you are searching, I think often that advice comes across as patronizing. Do you feel there are ways to address single women en masse that aren’t patronizing and are truly helpful?
I think Glamour makes it easy to do that because the philosophy of Glamour is to celebrate you as you are and that’s what we’re always trying to think about. We’re not always successful, and sometimes we can’t; it would be mundane if we said every time “stay exactly as you are” because our readers do want to better themselves and do want to hear from other women’s experiences.
I think the best way to do it is to let other women tell it, to talk to lots of different women in every story and let their voices create a story or a philosophy and we do that a lot here. We’ll run a whole article that’s just a collection of quotes. And we don’t even try to tie them all together, we just let them stand on their own and I think those are some of the most successful relationship stories we do.
What are you working on next?
I want to do a follow up book on single guys, but I want to see how the response to this book is and maybe learn from that before I get started on it. Hopefully, if this book is a wild success, it will make publishers knock down my door to do the next one, but either way, I’m gonna do it. And then I’m working on another project about women and success with my good friend Liz Welch. We think it’s going to be a book, but it will probably start off as an article. We want to look at how women perceive success and how it’s a much more complicated concept for women, we think, than it is for men.
What about anything focusing on married women?
I feel like The Bitch in the House did a really thorough job of that. As a fiction writer, it’s going to come up in my work over the years, if I ever wind up doing any fiction writing, but I’ve had to put it by the wayside the last couple of years. Married life is very very rich ground for all kinds of stories, fiction and nonfiction. I want to approach it in a really fresh way.
I wasn’t going to ask who your intended audience for the book is because I thought at first “duh, single women,” but I’m wondering if you think guys will be interested in dating stories told from these women’s perspectives.
I do think it’s going to appeal a lot more to women than to men. I wish that guys were curious enough that they would want to get this amazing insight, to be on the other half of a date. If my husband is any indication, though, they won’t be. He said the writing was really good, but he wanted to know how the guys were feeling and obviously that’s not the perspective our writers were giving and that’s why I want to do the bachelor book. I think both men and women will read that one, because women by nature are especially curious about how other people feel and think. That's why women buy more books!
After editing the book, do you have any advice for single women?
I’m really bad at giving advice. I guess the best guy that I’ve ever met, who’s now my husband, I met on a set up, pretty much a blind date, so I’d say let your friends give it a try but make sure they have the right intentions. Probably at the time I didn’t think of myself as someone who needed to be set up and was probably a little haughty about it and almost didn’t do it, but I’m really glad that I did.
Sex and Sensibility: 28 True Romances from the Lives of Single Women (Atria, $14) is available in bookstores now.