The week of September 21, 2014

Me IRL: Mallory Ortberg

By Miles Klee

As Mallory Ortberg read to a crowd of hundreds at BuzzFeed’s sold-out “We Might Only Do This Once” event in Brooklyn, N.Y., she had to pause several times to let her audience catch its breath. The crowd knew her work by heart, and seemed to laugh all the harder for it.

Any doubts about Ortberg’s standing as Queen of Internet Irreverence—not that you harbored such feelings—were obliterated when she took the stage to rapturous cries. With a mellifluous voice, she brought to life three unclassifiable thought experiments: “A Day in the Life of an Empowered Female Heroine,” “A Day in the Life of a Troubled Male Antihero,” and “Erotica Written by an Alien Pretending Not to Be Horrified by the Human Body.”

TL;DR: The Toast is producing the kind of stuff its competitors, if you can call them that, daren’t even dream of.

These days, Ortberg’s peculiar brilliance and humor reside on the Toast, a blog cofounded with Nicole Cliffe of Lazy Self-Indulgent Book Reviews Tumblr fame. In just over a year of existence, the willfully eclectic site—encompassing satire, listicles, criticism, and a healthy dose of casual misandry—has become a must-read, with a commenter base at once whip-smart and invitingly warm. One of Ortberg’s most popular recurring features there, in which she imagines iPhone-enabled dialogues between famous literary characters, is the basis for her first book, Texts From Jane Eyre, which hits bookstores Nov. 4.

Against a backdrop of bloated, bumbling Web media, Ortberg and her expanding cohort (she had to cap the number of applications for an assistant editor position at 720) seem impossibly nimble, curious, wry, and elevated. TL;DR: The Toast is producing the kind of stuff its competitors, if you can call them that, daren’t even dream of.

Before Ortberg left on a weekend sojourn to Yosemite National Park, we peppered her with some questions about how the site works, where it’s headed, and the lessons other publishers can take from her example.

First screenname: 

GOULASH and then a bunch of numbers after it. I did not know what goulash was but I thought it sounded cool. I don’t remember all the numbers.

Best bizarre Wikipedia entry:

Oh, Goddddd, ummm… AVIATION SHOW ACCIDENTS or list of internal decapitations. INTERNAL decapitations!!!

Who needs to leave Twitter immediately?

Anyone who isn’t enjoying it.

Who would probably be great on the Internet if they had lived to see it?

Good gravy, I sort of wrote a book about this. I should have a good answer. I mean, this is a copout answer, but Dolly Wilde. Because OBVIOUSLY Oscar would have been perfect. But we also have, like, all of his writing. [Dolly] never left anything written behind and by all accounts she was just as funny, only in lesbian form.

Is there a GIF that pretty much sums up what you’re all about?

I don’t have a GIF, but I do have a screenshot.


An uncanny likeness.

It’s pretty much me.

When you’re writing for the Toast, do you picture an ideal reader?

A librarian. Like, a fun librarian.

How did you and Nicole Cliffe become the dynamic duo you are today?

I loved her on the Hairpin, and we emailed a bunch, and then she bought me a ticket to fly to Utah, and we ran into each other’s arms in the airport, and we’ve been perfectly happy ever since.

What are most Internet media sites doing wrong?

Having the exact same conversation as every other site. That’s a broad generalization, but that’s the first that comes to mind.

What conversation is that?

Oh, I just mean covering the same stories, responding to the same news items as everyone else.

What changes or developments would you like to see on your own site in the next year or two?

I’d love to spin off a second vertical. (That’s how you say it, right? “Spin off” and “vertical.”) I’d like to have a second site that focused more on original reporting and journalism and science/tech news, but with the same sort of Toast-ish voice.

What should we do about horrible comment sections?

Oh man, I do not know. I’m very glad we don’t have one. Keep that shit locked down! The world does not need every single opinion at every single moment.

Are you more optimistic or pessimistic about the future of media in general?

Oh, God, ummm… optimistic, probably. There are always good people.

Do you think there’s a critical voice/format/conversation missing from the Web as it stands?

I don’t think it’s missing from the Web. I think it’s missing from a lot of the BIG PUBS and isn’t getting as much attention and money. Basically this. They’re there, the voices! They’re doing the work!

Is there a lesson big publications should take from the websites mentioned in that post? Besides “publish these people,” that is.

Pay attention to conversations that aren’t just between the people you work with or went to school with. There’s a big Internet out there.

What part of the Internet will you miss most while out in the wilderness this weekend? Oh, we’ll have Internet access. Or I’ll have to have it. I won’t be fully unplugged.

Lastly, which literary character would never, ever text?

I mean, they are all fictional. So with that huge lump of salt… Gary Cooper’s character from High Noon.


Illustration by J. Longo