How Online Confessional Columns Are Reinventing the Diary Book
So long, princesses and Bridget Jones—hello, Grub Street Diet
As a pre-teen, I devoured books written in diary format. From the Royal Diaries series, which featured juicy details from the lives of famous nobles like Cleopatra and Marie Antoinette, to the wildly age-inappropriate Bridget Jones’s Diary, as long as each chapter started with “dear diary” and dangled the promise of outrageous oversharing, I was in.
Today, I’m a 20-something living in Brooklyn, and I’ve moved on to what I now view as the holy grail of first-person narrative: online diary columns. A sampling of my favorites include The Grub Street Diet, which gives readers a glimpse into the daily routines of gustatory greats; The Cut’s anonymous Sex Diaries, showcasing the sexually ravenous and the sexually chaste; Refinery29’s Money Diaries, which explores how people spend their hard-earned dollars; and The New York Times’ Sunday Routine, chronicling how “newsworthy New Yorkers” try — or, more often, fail — to unwind on the weekends. As a former anthropology major, I justify my habit as voyeurism lite, porn for those of us who wish we were Harriet the Spy, a non-creepy way for generally rule-following humans to satisfy our nosiness. I’ll see your Rear Window and raise you a Sex Diary.
The conceit of many diary-style books, including the Royal Diaries series, is that the authors use their journals as a much-needed respite from their examined lives. As Princess Victoria writes in Victoria: May Blossom of Britannia, England, 1829 by Anna Kirwan, “The reason I hide this ledger is that I do not wish anyone to know that it exists. Really, I must have a place to pour out my curious thoughts privately and sort through them. I never get to be truly alone.” Back when these books were published, in the late ’90s through early aughts, we thought that having access to someone was knowing them. Today, we have the exact opposite problem: despite our unlimited sharing via social media, we aren’t able to obtain an “authentic” glimpse into anyone’s life because we live too self-consciously for it to exist.
There is nowhere this is more apparent than in the land of online diaries: the diarists know their accounts are being read. The question is not what they do when nobody is watching but what they choose to do when they are aware that everyone is watching. In his Grub Street Diet, comedian John Early makes no secret of the fact that his dining habits are influenced by the assignment itself. He chronicles the low-grade hysteria he feels on his first day: “My daily cold-brew-induced panic begins, and I find myself immediately paralyzed by the performative nature of the whole endeavor. Will I accurately represent myself as the passionate eater that I know myself to be? Will I bring attention to the restaurants and small businesses that truly need it? Is it braggy to talk about my boyfriend? It feels so transparent to include him (‘I, too, am loved!’), but dishonest to leave him out!”
If the idea of the pre-internet diaries was to transmit a snapshot of a famous person’s actions, the internet diaries offer an outline of a famous person’s neuroses; readers witness them fret over everything from the quality of their writing to the quantity of food they consume. Alan Yang, co-creator of Master of None, prefaces his Grub Street Diet with this disclaimer: “What you’re about to read is a description of one of the craziest series of meals I’ve ever had…I love to eat good food, but this is not normal.” For his first feast, Yang orders: “three cheeses and blood-orange marmalade; salumi misti; a green salad with anchovies; roasted beets with whipped ricotta; burrata; white-bean soup; seared octopus with ramps; tonnarelli cacio e pepe; bucatini all’amatriciana; fettuccine alla carbonara; pappardelle alla Bolognese; malfatti with braised suckling pig; cavatelli with pork sausage; chitarra with charred ramps; chicken cutlet; poached trout; roasted carrots; and charred asparagus.” As can be seen by both Early and Yang’s anxious preambles, there is something incredibly meta about the whole ordeal: a week lived a certain way because the author is using it to market himself, curating a facade that he knows will leave an impact on his reputation and career as soon as the following day.
While it’s easy to think that perhaps the diarists are overly self-conscious, all one has to do is scroll to the bottom of each article to witness its immediate impact IRL. Here, the comments sections function like the Wild West of yore, except the cowboys are internet trolls and their shootouts are executed with loaded words. The tenor of each showdown varies by site. Readers of The Grub Street Diet tend to be mean, declaring female diarists anorexic and each of their male counterparts more of a pretentious asshole than the last. Chronicling a trip to Los Angeles in his 2016 Grub Street Diet, the late Anthony Bourdain writes: “For dinner, I got a double-double, Animal-style, and a chocolate shake at the drive-through at the In-N-Out Burger on Sunset, and took it back to my hotel. I ate the fuck out of that thing.” Below, sport7 comments, “It’s amazing how fame has made him insufferable,” and EdsRevenge agrees: “Poor Anthony. It must be absolutely exhausting to work so relentlessly at trying to seem cool.” Lvlvlv is less forgiving: “WTF else would you do with your DINNER, Captain obvious…is he contractually obligated to tack on an obscene comment to everything he says?”
If judgmental reactions stem from the feeling that the celebrity in question is trying too hard, it follows that the attitude on sites featuring anonymous diaries is the opposite. On Refinery29’s Money Diaries, pseudonymous millennials compare meditation apps, empathize over grueling spin classes, and generally affirm each other. A commercial analyst in Houston, TX recounts a conversation with her girlfriend, “She tells me she thinks one of her friends is a Trump supporter — I tell her to get new friends.” Below, HOTWINE cheers her on with a: “yasss qween!” Similarly, the unnamed authors of The Cut’s Sex Diaries detail their most salacious sexual acts without fear of blowback. “The Man Planning a Thanksgiving Threesome” describes an extremely active week of his polyamorous sex life and Harveywallbanger voices appreciation: “I love the combo of hard core sex and participation in small business Saturday.” Nearby, dc10001 pipes up with a constructive editorial suggestion: “Lacks detail on the T-day menu. Was there stuffing?” It turns out WASPyJewess is similarly preoccupied: “No way he brined his turkey for 3 days!!! Now I don’t know WHAT to believe!!!”
The majority of my online diary-reading takes place in the liminal state of post-3 a.m. insomnia, when I let the information wash over me as a sort of anaesthetic. Despite each narrator’s careful curation of the most envy-inducing events of their week, it’s often the mundane details that lodge themselves in my brain; a behavioral health counselor in Anchorage eats Starbucks’ eggs sous-vide for breakfast every morning; Neil Blumenthal of Warby Parker fame is “constantly chatting with peers” and does early morning push-ups with his daughter on his back; “The Interior Designer Cheating on Her Husband With an Actor” once masturbated under the table in a Tribeca café. While the lattermost is a morning ritual I don’t plan on adopting, the others intrigue me. Maybe I would be a more balanced person if I started my days with slow-cooked eggs. I can’t found Warby Parker but I do have peers — if I dedicated more time to chatting with them, would I come up with an idea that would lead entrepreneurs worldwide to revere me as an industry disruptor? Perhaps I could convince the toddlers who live in the apartment above mine to sit on my back while I do push-ups.
I make these tendrils of plans idly, telling myself I’ll start tomorrow. But by the time I scroll to the end of the page I’ve already forgotten, their novelty melting away like the wax on Icarus’ wings. Call them routines or addictions; the truth is that if we were so easily swayed from our patterns these diaries wouldn’t exist at all. What originally drew me to read about the daily practices of Marie Antoinette is the same thing that pushes me to skim an article about The Intern Sexting With Her Boss: we all pursue specific pleasures in order to quell our universal human needs. Like any recovering anthropology major, I’m fascinated by how people knowingly expose themselves to the world in order to gain favor. What do their “inner monologues” sound like when they’re aware that cyberspace is listening? How do choose to portray themselves? What will they cop to? Who sits on you while you do your push-ups?