Q&A with Anne Helen Petersen: "It's not that they're fans of me so much as fans of that attitude."

This week’s interview is with Anne Helen Petersen, who published Can’t Even: How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation earlier this fall and writes the Culture Study newsletter. We talked about pandemic book promotion, why it feels like there’s no good celeb gossip, and what it’s like to build long-term relationships with your audience wherever you are on the internet.

In the two years since you’ve been focusing on millennial burnout (ever since your viral BuzzFeed piece from January 2019), how has it affected your own work “ethic”?

The pandemic allowed me to see just how much I was equating "going places" with productivity and success. Like, literally going places — traveling for reporting, for speaking gigs, for vacation, for time with friends. What I did on those trips was important, but I think I was losing sight of that and just trying to pack my schedule, show that I was going after the most stories, and countering the exhaustion of work with scheduled leisure. 

I love planning stuff, whether reporting trips or vacations, and that's not going to change, but I've also seen just how much can be achieved by staying put, both in terms of actual journalism (the phone is fantastic!) and leisure (spending a whole lot of time in my garden). Still, I think it takes a lot to unlearn any ideology that you've internalized for years. I'm constantly unlearning the ethos at the heart of burnout.

How was the experience of promoting Can’t Even during the pandemic? I enjoyed the virtual panel you invited me to be a part of for Book People, but I’ve been wondering how doing it all virtually compares with the traditional promo circuit you’ve done for your first two books. 

It was less exhausting, even though I did about five times as many interviews and events. I know that the introvert/extrovert dichotomy is a lie, but I am a person for whom crowds (and being around people) takes a lot of concerted energy (whereas hanging out by myself, what my mom still calls "Alone Time," is incredibly restorative).

I cannot tell you what a thrill it is to do a live event and do the book signing line. I also feel like I've been run over by a truck afterwards. (This is also how I feel at the end of a day of reporting). I loved the virtual events but was inordinately stressed about them and their "success," and in typical pandemic fashion, they did not feel like an event: I would finish them, and it would be 5 p.m. or 6 p.m., and I'd just go do what I've done every night at 5 p.m. for the last 10 months (walk the dogs, make dinner). 

People love book events because of the actual presence of the author, but they also love going to them with friends, making it an evening, having drinks or dinner before or after. We had such great discussions but they felt like podcasts, you know?

This year, you also moved your reporting and writing full-time from BuzzFeed News to your Substack newsletter, Culture Study. Now that you’re speaking primarily to a newsletter audience instead of a website audience, have you noticed any differences in the way you write or report?

My big reporting plans for Culture Study are still to come — because I *do* want to get back to more on the ground and original reporting. Some of that's on hold because of the pandemic, and some of it's on hold because I'm writing a new book (with my partner, Charlie Warzel, on the future of work). We sold that book in a haze of pandemic productivity, and I'm very excited for it, but I'm equally excited to be able to shift my primary focus back to generating new reporting for the newsletter. 

In the meantime, though, I'm doing the sort of writing that grew the newsletter's audience before I left BuzzFeed. You could call it bloggy, or in-process, or conversational, or just stuff that doesn't necessarily fit at a big site. I get to move between in-depth interviews with sociologists, food scholars, authors...and writing about women's "holiday" labor. For me, none of this is new. I'm an Old Millennial and had a free Wordpress blog that I nurtured all the way through grad school. I'm a better writer, I hope, and a better thinker, but a lot of the style, the form? It's the same.

I was reading about you in this Study Hall piece about Substack and online communities, and how many of your current readers can be traced back to your days writing for The Toast and the Hairpin and your Wordpress from roughly a decade ago. (Then there's also your Facebook page, which has 44,000 members). I was especially intrigued by this line:

In short, being a fan of Petersen herself has become something of an online community.

Obviously the idea of building direct relationships with one's audience is on the mind for everyone in media. What advice do you have about building this kind of community that extends across all kinds of different mediums — and for so many years?

I really think of the FB Page (and the subscriber-only community on my Substack) as something I facilitate — and certainly benefit from, both in terms of idea generation, the pleasure of discussion, and, at least with Substack, paying my bills — but it’s not "about" me, if that makes sense? 

On the FB page, we've had discussions about the potential of changing the name of the page to reflect the shift towards generalized attention to "culture," in all of its valances, but people wanted to keep it. Not because the page is still focused on "celebrity gossip, academic style" but because it communicates a posture towards culture, a commitment to taking the seemingly frivolous or feminized seriously, while also taking pleasure in it, and asking more questions, not fewer, encouraging each other to think more, not less. That's who gravitates to that page, and to the newsletter. It's not that they're fans of me so much as fans of that attitude. And I love being a part of that.

A writer asked me the other day if they should start a Facebook Page, and I don't think so. A lot of the people who are part of mine tell me they only stay on Facebook for it and a few other groups. It's not where most people want to be. 

I'm fascinated by Patreon Discord channels (like the one for the really smart and funny American Girls podcast) where you essentially pay a few dollars a month to be in a really good group chat and reading club. The podcast is about the American Girl Dolls, but it's actually about history and gender, you know? So how do you do this? You make it about the approach, and the broad interest, not the individual.

That last question is kind of funny because now I’m outting myself as a longtime fan of your work as well. I still remember how I first came across your writing via those amazingly comprehensive celebrity analyses, like the one on J-Law and the cool girl trope

So this is kind of a question from a fan’s point of view: now that you have Culture Study and you’re working on your next book already and you have all these years of political reporting under your belt, too, I have to ask……..have we seen the last of the AHP celeb treatments? Has that era officially ended? 

I was tweeting about this the other day, but I miss celebrities, I miss celebrity gossip, I miss a good scandal. That's why people went so wild over the Dominic West / Lily James photographs. When I asked Twitter for their favorite celebrity fuck-ups this year, everyone just named politicians making horrible personal and policy decisions. Which is a symptom of where we are, pop-culture-wise: politics has sucked up all the air, led by Trump, who has always been an effective but morally bankrupt celebrity. 

So who's interesting these days? Chrissy Teigen, Ben Affleck's iced coffee with Ana de Armas routine, Jennifer Garner's second image remodel. In a different publicity cycle, I think there'd be something interesting to say about Paul Mescal or Anya Taylor-Joy, but we don't really know anything about their private lives, which is where celebrity frisson always comes from. The gossip magazines are effectively dead. 

Is there something to say about TikTok stars, other than they're the new teen idols, with a  corresponding absence of personality? I dunno. I do think I'll write about the Peloton celebrity universe soon, though. I'm always thinking about this stuff even if I'm not writing about it. (My new favorite gossip publication: Allie Jones' Gossip Time).

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