Rage Writing: When Writers Sell Anger at a High Price

man with head made of crumpled paper typing at typewriter

don’t let yourself be blinded by the words.

“BITCH, Make Me 300 Sandwiches, Orders Beautiful Woman’s Boyfriend.”

This is the title of the Gawker article that introduced me to Stephanie Smith’s blog, 300sandwiches.com. Stephanie created the blog to document her “quest” for an engagement ring, which she would ostensibly achieve by making her boyfriend Eric 300 sandwiches. She received this “challenge” from Eric himself, her blog states, when he exclaimed, after eating one of her especially delicious creations, “Honey, you’re 300 sandwiches away from an engagement ring!”

The author of the Gawker article portrayed Eric as if he were a Devil character in a Grimm fairy tale. She was not the only online writer to lash out against Stephanie, Eric and their sandwiches; for days, Facebook feeds filled with links to a Jezebel piece in which the author identifies “a gross wedding-hungry aspect” to Stephanie’s quest, as well as a HuffPost article, whose author snarks: “one should never learn about love from people who trade diamond rings and lifelong commitments for sandwiches.”

When I went straight to the source, I was confused. I found, easily accessible on the “About” page of Stephanie’s blog, an innocuous and disarming account of her supposed quest for wifedom: “Some say I’m just desperate to get engaged. Hardly. …[Eric] gave me a challenge—a dare, to some degree—and the type-A, Tracy Flick side of me can’t stand being challenged. I will prove to him and the rest of the world I can make the 300 sandwiches.” Any reference to “wife material” or Eric’s expectation of sandwiches seemed, to me, likely tongue-in-cheek. Importantly, contrary to the Gawker article’s title, Eric never “ordered” Stephanie to make sandwiches, let alone called her a “bitch.”

Why were these online media writers so incensed? Why do so many articles from huge online publications boil down to outrage and snark? Why is “rage writing” all the rage, and are there consequences when writers engage in it? Let’s look to 16th-century French philosopher Michel de Montaigne to give us some insight.

Three Voices
In college, I participated in a writing seminar with three other students. Meg Mott, professor of political theory at Marlboro College, presented us with an excerpt from de Montaigne’s essay, “On Experience,” in which he discusses three different voices: “There is a voice for instructing, a voice for flattering or for reprehending.”

This excerpt changed how I think and write. de Montaigne discusses these voices in terms of how the speaker addresses the hearer — the instructing voice treats the hearer as a pupil; the flattering voice strives to please the hearer’s ear or ego; the reprehending voice scolds the hearer. But I began to think of these voices in terms of how the writer treats and presents her subject matter:

The instructing voice approaches its subject matter analytically. It strives to first gather and then disseminate accurate information.

When we approach a topic with the flattering voice, we generously look for something to agree with. (We may not find it, but we hold ourselves open to the possibility.)

The reprehending voice is judgmental of its subject matter — critical with no obligation to be constructive.

When one voice takes over, we lose something — accuracy, generosity or judgment. All these things can benefit the way we think about and discuss our subject matter.

Tempering the Reprehending Voice
Rage writing is the result of speaking, thinking and writing through the reprehending voice at the expense of the others. Rage writing racks up page views, and it can be cathartic for the angry writer. It’s also exciting for the reader – who doesn’t enjoy a bit of righteous indignation, now and then? But we’re ultimately missing out, as writers and readers, when we don’t engage our instructing and flattering voices.

The goal of rage writing is the perpetuation of rage itself; it doesn’t go beyond rage, or a particular situation against which to rage, to anything broader or more constructive. When we incorporate the instructing voice, however, we can look at what actually is, setting bias aside and gaining a more accurate view of our subject matter. When we incorporate the flattering voice, we can check our predispositions and verify whether or not they are fitting to the subject matter at hand.

300 Sandwiches is but one example of a “ragebait” topic; Facebook feeds and trending lists are congested by hyperbolic titles with vitriolic bodies and little substance. These topics could serve as springboards for meaningful discussions — Stephanie’s blog could have got us thinking about women’s attitudes toward marriage today, for example. But when all we implement is the reprehending voice and the reprehending voice alone, we will never advance our thinking beyond the Stephanies and Erics.

A final word from de Montaigne: “Speaking is half his who speaks, and half his who hears.” Here’s a challenge for speakers, hearers, writers, readers and thinkers alike, one that calls for an experiment: When the reprehending voice is loudest, why don’t you interrupt it with the other two and see what happens?

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