Their stories pop up in his inbox at all hours of the day and night: The college student whose romance, developed via Skype, fizzled once the couple was in the same room; the middle-aged New York divorcée who traveled all the way to China for a blind date with a man who spoke little English but would propose marriage; the Nashville songwriter who—tested by a car accident that left his wife a paraplegic—saw his admiration for her only grow.
They are stories of love, and they arrive by the thousands every year in the email inbox of Daniel Jones (Col ’85).
Jones is editor of the personal-essay column “Modern Love” in the New York Times, and he reads and selects from some 5,000 essays each year submitted by writers both established and unknown who detail deeply intimate personal stories and, often, the greatest challenge they’ve ever faced.
Some entries are from writers hoping for exposure on a national platform that’s widely read in literary publishing circles; the column has spawned at least 37 book deals. But many “Modern Love” contributors—whether examining the twists and turns of a romantic relationship or revealing a complicated and heart-wrenching tale involving open adoption, domestic abuse or even the death of a child, spouse or parent—seem to be seeking, above all, catharsis through their words.
“Often what gets published is the most important story in that person’s life,” says Jones, 51. “I’m not sure I set out intending that, but when I look back over the stories that I’ve published, I’ll bet in 70 percent of the cases it’s the most important story in that person’s life.”
So enthralled is the column’s following that the term “modern love” is often the most searched term on nytimes.com on weekends, and one 2006 installment became the most e-mailed article in nytimes.com history (“What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage”). Amid reports of wars and deficits and political campaigns in the Times, the “Shamu” piece was “a human story—a human voice within this gush of objective voices of news of the world,” says its writer, Amy Sutherland.
“Everyone loves to hear a good love story,” says Natalie Appleton, a Canadian writer whose 2012 “Modern Love” piece detailed finding true love across the world in Thailand, “because we all want to know that it’s possible—that maybe if it happened for someone else, it can happen for us.”
The essays are full of longing and suspense, such as Appleton’s tale of fleeing her small hometown in search of adventure only to end up meeting—and falling in love with—a man from her very own hometown of Medicine Hat, Canada, via online dating while in Thailand.
As a collection of works, the column has seeped into pop culture. The “Modern Love” essay is a regular writing assignment in some college courses. The column inspired a full-length musical, “Love is Love,” that had a run in Miami and a CD by New Hampshire-based singer-songwriter David Lockwood. It has even been used as a plot point in Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black.
As the 10th anniversary of the column approaches, Jones shares his collected wisdom on everything from destiny to monotony in a new book, Love Illuminated: Exploring Life’s Most Mystifying Subject (With the Help of 50,000 Strangers). “In my mind I have not been mastering love all these years so much as marinating in it,” he writes.
In his new book, Jones offers his predictions and conclusions, often humorously, on everything from Anthony Weiner and sexting to the slippery slope that may materialize when a married person decides to track down an old crush on Facebook. He raises questions about why online-only relationships (which he dubs “Soul Mate in a Box”) tend to fail when the pair finally gets together in person—as well as the idea of soul mates altogether.
Love Illuminated is the fourth book by Jones, who traces his start as a writer to his days as an undergrad at UVA. A native of suburban Pittsburgh, Jones chose the University when his father, political science professor Charles O. Jones, accepted a position on Grounds after 12 years at the University of Pittsburgh. “We all sort of went to college together,” Jones says with a laugh.
He admits feeling a bit lost when he arrived in 1981. “I had no idea what I wanted to do when I went to college, and floundered for probably two years,” he says.
Then he immersed himself in the UVA English department.
In writing workshops, Jones found his place. He particularly enjoyed learning from journalistic and literary veterans such as the late Time magazine editor and correspondent Champ Clark, who lectured in newswriting.
But it was a course taught by the late novelist Ellen Douglas, a National Book Award nominee whose work delved into race relations and the role of women in the Deep South, that proved to be a turning point. “She really was the first to think that I could write well,” Jones says.
After graduation and two years as a ski instructor in Park City, Utah, Jones headed to the University of Arizona for graduate school in creative writing.
And this is where Jones’ love story—both personal and professional—begins. In Tucson, he met fellow writer Cathi Hanauer. A wedding, a move to New York and two babies later, Hanauer edited the book The Bitch in the House: 26 Women Tell the Truth About Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood, and Marriage and Jones followed with a companion volume, The Bastard on the Couch: 27 Men Try Really Hard to Explain Their Feelings About Love, Loss, Fatherhood, and Freedom.
“Those books together got a ton of media attention,” Jones says—as well as the attention of Trip Gabriel, then style editor at the New York Times, who had wanted to start a personal-essay column about relationships and was searching for just the right editor.
To launch the column, Jones solicited five essays, not knowing if he’d have to keep soliciting or whether the column could sustain itself with submissions.
It didn’t take long to find out.
“It started as a trickle,” he says, “and grew into a torrent.”
As the sole reader of incoming entries, Jones tackles them in several daylong marathons, sometimes reading as many as 80 or 100 in one day in his office overlooking a casket factory in Florence, Mass. He reads at least part of every essay submitted.
Anything that’s fresh becomes apparent quickly.
One such example arrived in his inbox in 2006: Sutherland, who had been working on a book about a school for exotic animal trainers, penned an essay about applying the training techniques on her husband. (She wrote, in part, “The central lesson I learned from exotic animal trainers is that I should reward behavior I like and ignore behavior I don’t. After all, you don’t get a sea lion to balance a ball on the end of its nose by nagging. The same goes for the American husband.”)
The column was such a huge hit, it led to a book that has been published in at least 10 countries.
“It was the combination of surprising advice combined with a topic that could not be more universal,” Jones says. “I hear more about the frustrations of midlife marriage than any other topic, and that’s sort of being simultaneously bored and irritated by your partner’s habits and deficiencies. This spoke to those in a very short article that provided actual advice—funny but smart advice—on how to deal with it, and with the right tone that made people laugh.”
Sutherland’s piece also led to a movie deal; production could begin this spring.
While topics of “Modern Love” columns may vary greatly—from being jilted to mourning—one common element is dramatic tension.
“A lot of them read almost like short stories,” Sutherland says. “They have that quality, and that has a lot to do with Dan’s eye and editing ability to shape them into that.”
Among the pieces that have most stuck with Jones: a stark recounting by Chicago poet Courtney Queeney, who was abused by her boyfriend and sought an emergency protection order; and a painfully honest look by writer Dan Savage at his open adoption of a boy from a homeless teenager.
Increasingly, technology plays a role in these love stories. In his book, Jones points to the story of the college student who developed a relationship over Skype that, after she drove 540 miles to be with him in person, fell apart. Even with her at his side, he kept obsessively checking email and his website’s traffic stats.
“Young people who grow up with smartphones in their hands—when you conduct a relationship that way through an iPhone and through your laptop, you’re used to getting your emotional fix through the device, and you’re always distracted from your physical life by this virtual life,” Jones says.
Something that has not changed about love? The effort it takes.
“It’s interesting to watch people try to change love into something that’s easier—and fail—because it can’t really be improved upon in that way,” Jones says. “It can’t be streamlined. It can’t be made more efficient. You have to go through making yourself vulnerable by being the first to admit your affection for a person and risk having it not reciprocated. All that stuff still applies—and your smartphone is not going to save you from it.”