Editor Amy Goldwasser has been reading teenage girls’ diaries for the past three years. Well, sort of. Former New York staffer Goldwasser sifted through more than 800 personal essays to find the 58 authors included in Red: Teenage Girls in America Write on What Fires Up Their Lives Today. Since then ‘Red’ has evolved into a teen-centric multimedia empire: Each girl has a daily blog on redthebook.com. There’s a fashion collaboration with Pepper + Pistol. And a book drive for underprivileged would-be writers. Tonight, Red’s paperback tour kicks off at Housing Works, where authors Maya Popa, 19, Kelly Otterness, 16, Olive Panter, 18, and Zoe Mendelson, 18, and novelist Francine Prose (her new book, Goldengrove, stars a teenage sister) will be discussing “The American Teenage Girl in Fiction and Reality.” Vulture caught up with Goldwasser en route to New York from Los Angeles where she’s been workshopping yet another extension of her empire: Red, the play.
High School Musical 3 raked in $75.7 million in three weeks. Gossip Girl is must-see TV for grown-ups. Twilight is the only thing sustaining the publishing industry. Why are teen girls so popular now?
We’ve always had a mixture of fascination and repulsion and abject terror at being right back there in our own teenagehood. But the current, highly stylized, highly fictionalized idea of the teenage girl is palatable and commercial.
So that’s a bad thing, right?
Actually, I’m all for this. It’s fun and can contain tremendous insight — Freaks and Geeks, My So-Called Life. But since when was teen pregnancy cool? I saw Juno on an airplane, and it made me furious. It was the first time I considered swiping a credit card in that phone just to rant to someone.
What surprised you most about the girls’ work?
The two big surprises are that they’re really good at writing satire and they’re really deep. I didn’t get essays about boys and clothes. One 13-year-old wrote about vowing to end female circumcision. Another wrote about the ludicrousness of her teacher turning to the “one black boy” in her fancy Brooklyn prep school for his opinion on the civil-rights movement. I did get a lot of cutting essays and can’t believe the proliferation of that whole anorexia-into-bulimia-into-cutting trend. It’s so familiar to these girls that they’re able to identify what kind of knife their friend is using.
Are New York girls different from the other girls you’ve gotten to know?
They cut right to the chase — there’s no bullshit, and they have an incredible ability to self-diagnose their own drama. They also seem better at tricking therapists.
You say this generation of teenagers are all writers since they live on MySpace, or e-mailing and texting. Does all that writing about themselves mean they’re healthier because they’re so in touch with their feelings?
I do think all this has incredible self-esteem benefits. Every teenage girl in every generation thinks she’s alone with her problems. On the Internet, you get a second shot at finding the right group of friends and a community for yourself. You can live one identity in high school, then come home and have an entirely different one. The Internet’s also created a funny idea of privacy. These girls will read on national TV before they’ll read in their school library or local bookstore. The more public, the farther from home and safer it seems.
Why aren’t they embarrassed about exposing themselves?
They are embarrassed. It made me realize how much adult writers, however confessional, can hide. These girls have to go to school with their subjects the next day. An unrequited crush in the hands of the entire soccer team is tough to face. Which brings me to the parents, especially the New York ones, who have been heroic about supporting their daughters. There’s one piece that ends “What a bitch” about the author’s mother, and there she is, clapping away at the reading.