Nobody is Never Not Themselves
Writer Charlotte Shane on journalism, the internet, and working towards a better future.
By Karina Vahitova
I first encountered Charlotte Shane's work in 2015 through an article she penned for The Kernel. After reading everything I possibly could and signing up for her Tiny Letter, she very quickly became a crucial voice in my process of self-discovery as a radical feminist. Recently, we chatted over the phone about the mechanics behind the journalism machine, why the end of the capitalism is nigh, and what it might mean to exist on the internet.
Karina Vahitova: On this beautiful day, tell me: how do you describe the work that you currently do in the world?
Charlotte Shane: That’s a great question. Let me think for a minute… Right now I am a writer trying to figure out how to write and make a living without making the world a worse place. It feels really hard to do. Much harder than it should be or one would hope it would be. That definitely seems like one of the central questions of the year for me that probably started last year, but it felt like it really came to a head this year. I think it will take a while to figure out and I don’t think that 2018 will end with me having a really firm grasp on how to participate in the media and feel like I’ve maintained my own integrity. I hope I keep trying. I can’t imagine not writing. I have to figure out ways to do it and continue to do things like buying groceries and paying rent.
KV: How do you feel that writing can make the world a worse place than it already is?
CS: As somebody who works with words, I haven’t really figured out the right ones to use when talking about the machinery of media making. Mainstream media feels nebulous and also not inclusive enough, weirdly. I think that problems are replicated across all platforms, not just the ones with a lot of funding and not just the ones we might call legacy publications, like the New York Times. Because of the way media has become a hostile environment, it's hard for people to make a living working in it. I kind of saw some of this happening before I was as enmeshed as I feel now, before I lived in New York. You were seeing these outlets failing, a lot of editors being fired. You were seeing young people without editorial experience taking jobs as editors. I don’t fault them — they wanted a salaried job. They didn’t have a lot of mentorship or experience. My general experience of the media as a consumer and as someone who contributes to it is that there are often, not always, but too often, and impulsivity to it. There is a lack of quality control. For me, it’s one thing to be snobby about something like fiction or short stories, but it is a real crisis when that’s happening with things that are supposed to be non-fiction, that are supposed to be journalism, that are supposed to be informative, and things that are really integral to the act of building society, community, a healthy republic.
I am a writer trying to figure out how to write and make a living without making the world a worse place.
The New York Times is one of those places. I have friends who have written for them, my boyfriend has contributed, the people that I love and respect…But you know liberals watching Fox News? — if I want to get to that degree of angry, I will read the New York Times. I’ve read articles in the New York Times that are not even op-eds (their op-eds are notoriously heinous right now), but things that are supposed to be straightforward news pieces, and the thinking in them is really sloppy. I used to teach composition and if a student turned this in to me I’d be like, “We have to sit down and talk about this because your level of thought is not where it needs to be to make an argument.”
At this point in my career, I love the thought of being able to work with an editor who's really hands-on and can challenge me, but it's hard to find because editors are so strapped and a lot of them are under-trained. I’ve definitely had an editor make a piece worse. It’s not an ego thing — I love being edited. You have to sign up for a series of indignities where your final product might be worse than your first draft. It’s going to take you a long time to get paid and your name is going to be on something you may or may not believe in and the outlet may not stand by you once they publish it, even after they’ve made it the way they want it! It’s just a really awful time to freelance. I don’t mean to sound too bleak, but I do believe it’s kind of an awful time to be trying to sell your writing.
KV: I don’t think you’re being bleak. I think it’s true. It does always come back to the fact that capitalism creates such intense competition, especially in fields where money is a scarce resource. It does drive the quality down and makes people hustle in this way that can oftentimes stop being about facts and about putting genuinely good work out in the world and more about getting to the next thing. Which is understandable, but awful.
CS: Yeah, there’s nothing happening that’s inexplicable, but the way that it is is unacceptable and I just feel way too gross participating in it. I feel very differently now about all these outlets than how I used to feel. I used to believe that the very prestigious by-line had an inherent value. Now, the more I write, learn, and observe, the more I see it as a real shell game.
These publications don't just have things in their past that are embarrassing. You know, like a terrible track record with how they’ve talked about women or how they have not only talked about, but also not employed people of color, particularly Black people. To look at those legacies and see that they didn’t end. Everyone wants to pretend that back in the 60s, people maybe didn’t know any better and now we know better, but then you look and see all this stuff is still happening.
These are all still problems that people inherit when they come into and attach themselves to these institutions and outlets, even as ownership changes hands or the Editor-in-Chief changes names. I don’t think any of these outlets are incentivized to reckon honestly with their mistakes or admit them publicly. That’s incredibly rare. It doesn’t give me a lot of hope for their ability to make it better when they’re just really busy trying to ignore everything from the past and pretend that that isn’t carrying into the present.
KV: Yes, even looking even at the most recent VIDA Count was scary. So, you’re in this career transition from being a full time sex worker to now working full time as a writer, editor, and running your own literary press. You’ve mentioned in other interviews that financially it’s been a difficult transition and I am curious why you’ve chosen to go this route anyway?
CS: I don’t quite think of myself as a sex worker now, but I’m also not entirely not a sex worker anymore. I don’t work the way I used to. I don’t have a site, I don’t advertise. I believe a lot in transparency and anyone who I felt compelled to be honest with, I tell them that I still don’t feel like I make a living from writing. TigerBee, the press, according to my accounting — which is probably not super precise because accounting is hard — is profitable. However, it is a very minor profit. It comes at the expense of me working for free and my partner Sam working for free. It’s not a sustainable profitability. It feels really good and exciting even when it’s such a low margin. I mean it’s literally like a three figure profit, meaning in the low hundreds. People don’t even use the phrase “three figure” to describe it, it’s so small.
KV: It’s still an accomplishment, congratulations!
CS: Thanks! It makes me feel so happy and proud and excited. I'm really honored and touched that we’ve worked with the people that we’ve worked with and that I can do this and that people have supported it and responded to what we do. I also really want to be clear with people that right now I am basically living off my savings because I made so much as a sex worker. It doesn’t really feel like my place to talk about it as candidly on the record as I used to, but I do want to make it clear because it’s important for people to be transparent about their finances.
Most of my income does not come from my writing. I might have a really good month. Recently, I had a month where I more from writing than I ever have. I finally got paid for a bunch of stuff and it felt really good, but even if I made this every month, which is not going to happen, it’s a pretty modest yearly salary. And because I am not actually salaried, I don’t have benefits, I don’t have anyone else helping me pay taxes. It’s really grueling to make it as a writer. I really want to support other writers in any way that I can, which is what I’m exploring now in terms of trying to do a little more work with unions and labor organizing. The downward spiral can’t continue — people won’t be able to do it! The industry has always been gate-kept to a large degree by finances because, of course, notoriously, people from rich families are the ones who can afford to intern at prestigious outlets. They’re the ones who can afford to live on this severely compromised income because it’s supplemented by family wealth. As anyone with a brain can see, capitalism is winding itself down because everything is way too out of whack to continue.
KV: I hope you are right, honestly.
CS: I am! It’s not because I’m insightful, it’s because when you look at history — nothing lasts. This is is honestly what I tell myself all the time to feel better. I might not see the change in my lifetime, I think I will, assuming I live a naturally long life. It will change. It will change soon. It doesn’t mean it won’t get worse before it gets better, but there is no way that things can stay the same.
The [writing] industry has always been gate-kept to a large degree by finances because, of course, notoriously, people from rich families are the ones who can afford to intern at prestigious outlets.
KV: I recently read this book The End of Man: A Feminist Counterapocalypse by Joanna Zylinska. The book is about the race for space that we have going on again with people like Elon Musk. She writes that wanting to move our planet to a different planet has to do with the fact these men who have power and access to this technology and the money to invest into it basically decided that it’s human nature to exhaust resources, which is why capitalism is not going to end. Their reasonable solution to the mess we made here is just needing to find ways to get off the planet. But I hope you are right and we can figure out a way to stay here and not ruin other planets.
CS: There’s a book, I really don’t like its title and maybe I’m alone in this, but it’s called Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism. It’s a little tongue in cheek but it’s also honestly a little bit of a cynical marketing ploy. The book is better than I think the title indicates. The author, Kristin Ghodsee, writes a lot about how our generation, you and I, we've been convinced that there is no alternative to capitalism because we were not alive during the Cold War. We were either born after or were really young when the Berlin Wall fell, so we don't have the same sense that some older people have of this Socialist threat encroaching. The resurgence of socialism and communism and people identifying strongly either as socialist or communist speaks to that. It was demonized when we were growing up and the sense was that it had vanquished. I think her book is good and encouraging.
I don’t think I believe in that line, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” — I don’t think that’s true, and I don’t think I believe in progress either. There’s a good book called Straw Dogs by John Gray that’s also really cynical about the idea of progress. I don’t know if the human species ever really progresses in the way we want to believe we progress, but I do think that we change. I think our hubris helps to convince us that we make things that last and I think — for better or for worse — that is usually not true. Things need a lot of maintenance and there is so much that is out of our control. I try to stay optimistic if I’m going to see it. I think that we are in for a lot of huge changes. It’s an exciting time in that respect because I think we’re getting to see things that have been deteriorating for a long time start a true and inexorable collapse.
KV: I agree with you. The writer of that book talks about how the “doomsday” rhetoric, meaning the trope of the world ending and all of us dying unless we escape to another planet, is such a patriarchal rhetoric. Having hope and working towards change and actively coming up with solutions for the social, environmental, and political problems that we have is inherently a feminist act, because all men want to do is go colonize another planet.
CS: [Laughs] Maybe it’s a little trite, but there is very much a stereotype of men loving to abandon things, like the guy who goes out for cigarettes and never comes back and becomes an absentee father. It’s true there is a gendered dimension to care-taking versus bailing out when things get hard and not sticking around to deal with consequences of their actions.
I think our hubris helps to convince us that we make things that last and I think — for better or for worse — that is usually not true.
KV: I want to talk a little about you and your community and the people who have supported your writing. I started following you and Prostitute Laundry kind of towards the end. You were my first experience of a Tiny Letter and I thought it was the coolest thing ever. Your format has been the most intimate to date of what I have seen. I am curious what you had in mind when you made the transition from your Tumblr blog, Nightmare Brunette, to Prostitute Laundry, the Tiny Letter. Did you want to have this community and have people’s emails in order to feel more connected and supported?
CS: I knew that I wanted to do some really personal diaristic writing. It's something that I always go to when I feel lonely inside of myself in a particular way. Because I had the Nightmare Brunette blog before, I knew it felt good to imagine that what I wanted to write had an audience of people who wanted to read it. But I also knew I didn't want to do a blog again because I had a lot of weird feelings left over. I was younger when I had the blog and most of the responses I got were supportive and nice, but of course some of the responses were from creepy men who were overly familiar in a way that I just didn't really protect myself from. That sort of bullshit is something that I didn't want to deal with it at all and I didn't want it to taint the experience. I didn't want to feel like there were readers who are in anyway malevolent or abusive who could just have access to the work whenever they wanted to.
I knew it felt good to imagine that what I wanted to write had an audience of people who wanted to read it.
My friend Melissa was using Tiny Letter for personal updates and that’s how I found it. It was just a way to send emails. I think I tweeted about it and the first letter had just a few emails on it, some of which I recognized, some of which I didn’t. I thought it was just some of my friends who remember Nightmare Brunette and are willing to read that sort of stuff again, or it’s fellow sex workers who are interested in it, and it took off from there. It was not my intention to have it be serialized but I was happy with it because there were people reading and enjoying it with the kind of purity of enjoying fiction. It felt like their reactions to it were sincere and supportive and warm and invested in the emotional drama of it. That was really fun. I got really lucky with who shared it and who told friends about it and who eventually constituted the bulk of the subscribers.
KV: Yeah, when I first signed up it felt like this beautiful secrete intimacy and I remember literally telling people in person, “Oh, do you know this writer? You should sign up for this thing, here’s the link.” In this way that I haven’t really ever shared something internet based in-person with people by taking their phones and putting in the link to sign up.
CS: That’s really cool.
KV: So, then you ran the Kickstarter for the collection of these letters into the book Prostitute Laundry and the subscribers from the series supported it. Did you foresee having it be this community funded project?
CS: Around maybe January of 2015 I realized that I was getting ready to end it and it just occurred to me that it would be a really nice way to do so. I don't think that for the vast majority of the time that I was writing the letters that I was writing them with the conscious idea that they would be published or that I would compile a book. I remember I was talking to my friend Susan, who is the co-founder of Tits and Sass, the sex worker blog, and I said something about writing a book and how I can't write one and she was like “You already have!” — and I was like “Haha that's sweet." Now I probably should credit her more explicitly than I have, because I think she was really the first person who said that to me. I just hadn't been thinking about it that way at all until she did.
KV: It's very interesting when you do something so organically and you look back on it and you're like: "Look at all the stuff I made!"
CS: Yeah it's fun and it's fortuitous and is the absolutely best way of working because you can't psych yourself out because you don't even realize what you're doing.
KV: That's the best way that I make work, when I'm not actually trying to make something that I can then have somebody else be affected by.
CS: Right, to have no idea of a product and not think that this is going to exist as an object in the world, but just to sort of be like: "I want to communicate and this is the best way for me to do that right now."
KV: I was recently listening to merritt k's podcast Woodland Secrets and you both got into a conversation about the internet and it got me thinking about something else you had said in other interviews that I’ve read with you. You had said that you didn't really feel like you had a very drastic persona with your former clients when you were an escort. I'm just curious about how the internet has shaped your writing identity or affected your identity in general? There is a kind of anonymity that people get with the internet even if they're not not actively trying to do that and people talk about personas when it comes to the internet all the time. It's an interesting dichotomy.
The internet lets people be different versions of themselves. Nobody is never not themselves. We're always ourselves in everything that we do. Even when we do something experimental, or even when we do something half-heartedly, we’re still ourselves.
CS: I think it's really healthy for people to have different avenues to explore different aspects of themselves in a way that maybe would be critically phrased as fragmentation, or compartmentalization, or even dissociation. All of which are things that come up a lot for sex workers — this idea that the work is inherently too traumatic to be present for. Or this idea that in order to prepare to do the work you have to change something about yourself inside. I guess there is a way in which I feel like that's true and not true at the same time. I think it's true in a much more interesting and nuanced and complex way than a lot of people want to make it out to be. The internet lets people be different versions of themselves. Nobody is never not themselves. If I started a different Twitter account right now and I'm like a really despicable person and my Twitter bio is white-supremacist-gamer-reddit-user and I start harassing people, I don't get to pretend that this persona I put on out of curiosity is somehow totally foreign to who I am. We're always ourselves in everything that we do. Even when we do something experimental, or even when we do something half-heartedly, we’re still ourselves.
The internet is so fundamental to who I am and I think that's true for most of us at this point. So many people are on it. It's not a young person thing anymore like it used to be. Our parents and grandparents are all on social media and whether or not they know it, they’re definitely experimenting with public versions of themselves with what they're posting and what they comment on and what they read. For me it has been an overwhelmingly positive experience. I feel like I've learned a lot about myself and met a lot of people I would not have met otherwise that I'm so glad to have in my life. Just to be clear, I do not have any secret Twitter accounts that I use to harass people as a gamer.
KV: [Laughs] Oh thank god you don’t! I think it’s a really poignant observation that we’re never not ourselves, that even the performative aspects of us are still something that comes from us.
CS: I don't think it's bad. I think more and more the notion that that is weird or dysfunctional is falling out of favor because the internet is so integral to so many people's lives now. There is still some lingering disapproval, but I think it's misplaced.