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JOURNAL: SPITE AND “FACTORY GIRLS”


For an early career journalist, a fair amount of my motivation comes from spite. First, it was spite for all those kids in J-school with their curated internships and professors who told them they were special gifts to the world of media, at least more special than a non-journalism kid like me. Those feelings mostly subsided as they by-and-large left journalism for lame PR jobs.

Second, and more current, I feel spite toward just about every journalist who is more successful than me. I know this second well of antipathy is completely illogical and baseless. Once I get to know virtually any other journalist, I end up liking them and don’t begrudge them success. Even the ones that are unabashed assholes, I usually can’t help but like for their larger-than-life personalities. Yet those I don’t know, I can’t help but feel spite toward.

That second form of spite often makes it difficult for me to read other China writers. Reading them — mostly China books, less so news — elicits all sorts of anxiety about where my own career is at. To a normal person, this naturally makes me seem like a neurotic misanthrope. For example, I had this conversation with my mom, while I was sitting on the L-shape couch in our suburban home reading a China book this Christmas break:

“I find it difficult to read books on China. They make me anxious.”

Mom, “Why?”

“Other journalists … I hate them.”

Mom, “…”

But all of this is no excuse for not knowing the corpus of present day China writing. With that in mind, I picked up a copy of “Factory Girls” by Leslie Chang at the Shanghai airport to read on my trip home to Wisconsin for Christmas. The book tells the stories of a handful of female migrant workers who take factory jobs in Southern China and details their struggles trying to get rich and have a good life. She weaves in quite a bit of Chinese history as told through the story of her own ancestry. With a 14-hour flight to Detroit ahead, I figured I could Stockholm Syndrome myself into liking it. At the very least, I’d have enough time to force it down.

I read 10 or so pages before flipping back through the front and seeing there was a three-sentence note about the author on the first page inside the cover.  I groaned. “She is married to Peter Hessler, who also writes about China.” Great, “I’m in for a Hessler-style schlock fest of personal writing bullshit,” I thought, in which the author themselves takes a large role, essentially becoming a character in the narrative. (Hessler has made a cottage industry of this in River Town, Oracle Bones, Country Driving, etc.)

Chang and Hessler both are more successful than me, so of course, I feel spite toward them. But their methods amplified my feelings. By making themselves a key part of the story, they violated what I saw as a key tenet of journalism: You are not the story. A journalist is supposed to get out of the way of the story. Right?

I’m not so sure anymore. I read “Factory Girls” over the following weeks of vacation and loved it. I finished it a week ago on the plane home. There’s no denying that the end product she put out is great. Any criticisms about her methods or how lucky she was to find herself in a position to write a book like this (she was a staff reporter at The Wall Street Journal when she started) are footnotes in comparison to the overall work.

I’ve slowly realized that my spite is just jealousy, my wishing I could write such a book. Really, what I should be doing is emulating Chang and Hessler (the good parts at least) rather than making some moralistic argument about why they suck.

With that in mind, I read the author interview at the end, generally things that I avoid since it seems a bit like grandstanding, to see what I could learn that might help with my own writing. One part of the Q&A that stood out to me is she mentions how she thought including her family’s story (her grandfather was a pivotal figure in the Chinese civil war immediately after World War II) would make the act of writing the book more interesting. That part of the story was also interesting in final form, so I can’t argue with that.

So, henceforth, I will get over myself when it comes to personal writing. Certainly, first person is not to be employed for it’s own sake. I will try to follow the guideline that I will use it only so long as it adds to the work and makes it more interesting. The biggest sin in writing is being boring, and most all other concerns should be secondary.

I will try to use this blog as a testing ground, starting with a post I’ve been working on about my trip to the countryside. I can’t promise that it will always be interesting, but I hope to figure out what is interesting and not about me as a character. My spite has stopped me from doing that thus far, even though it has otherwise been an asset in my obsessive career striving. These spiteful feelings are definitely part of my character. Hopefully it will stay that way — spite can be one hell of a motivator.


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