Fifteen months ago, an aspiring actress and artist began writing pithy little four-line poems about the micro-struggles of 20-something life. Illustrating them with her own whimsical drawings, Samantha Jayne posted them to Instagram and Tumblr under the title of “Quarter Life Poetry.” She added many hashtags (#mastersdegree. . . #firstdate. . . #fail. . .) Her friends tagged their friends. Those friends tagged their friends. Everyone, it seemed, could relate.
My friend has a baby
and owns a boutique
I just bought a cactus
it died in a week
Soon enough, the 26-year-old had a steady following. Now, after posting barely more than 100 quatrains, Jayne’s collection of Instagrams has made her a published author. Her debut is called “Quarter Life Poetry: Poems for the Young, Broke and Hangry.”
This corporate job crushes my soul
with the weight of hopeless doom.
I’ll quit someday, ’til then I’ll raid
free bagels in the conference room
“Holy [expletive], it’s a book!” her website exclaims.
Holy [expletive], indeed. Grand Central Publishing is betting that 20-somethings will fork over $14.99 to read brief poems about terrible Tinder dates, excessive wine drinking and unfulfilling jobs. Or perhaps their gift-buying moms, as the marketing pitch suggests, might find the book perfect for their “unwed daughters.”
Today, a book deal like this isn’t considered a risk. “Quarter Life Poetry” falls perfectly in line with a booming genre: the woe-is-us millennial struggle book. The publishing industry is awash in memoirs and comedy musings from 20-somethings, most of whom were discovered on blogs and social media.
“That post-grad life, grappling with going from the safety net of the academic environment to being thrust into a real world, with a humorous lens,” is how Kate Napolitano describes it. She’s an editor at Plume, a division of Penguin Random House churning out this kind of book. There’s “You Deserve a Drink,” “Don’t Worry, It Gets Worse,” “Miss Fortune” and “How to Ruin Everything.” From other publishers, “Adulting: How to Become a Grown-up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps,” “F*ck! I’m in my Twenties,” and “My Boyfriend Wrote a Book About Me: And Other Stories I Shouldn’t Share.”
The books promise to delight readers with their authors’ “misadventures” and read “as if your best friend is talking to you.” Some are laden with advice, but most aim simply to remind unhappy post-graduates they’re not the first person to have an existential crisis in a cubicle.
For lunch I had a salad
with spinach, kale and peas
or as I like to think of it:
a treasure hunt for cheese
Jayne isn’t actually suffering in a cubicle these days, but she insists she truly did live through the minor miseries that she’s managed to monetize. The New Jersey native, born Samantha Jayne Siegel, graduated from New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology then struggled to find a job in advertising. Once she had one, she was still despondent. She tried moving to San Francisco, hoping a change of scenery would “cure everything.” She was basically the embodiment of every article about the millennial mindset: She wanted to create her own schedule, be creative and feel like she was contributing to the world.
So she quit her job. She’s now an actress and freelance art director, making enough, she says, to support a life in Los Angeles and regular trips to a donation-based yoga studio.
“I finally feel like I’m doing what I am meant to be doing,” Siegel said. “There were so many moments over the past years, like, what am I doing and why, ugh, God, I got into some really dark places mentally. I felt lost. I felt like, why did I get this degree? Oh my God, am I stuck in New York forever?”
Millennials, Jayne said, grew up with economic security and the notion that they could be anything they wanted, only to find themselves graduating from college into a world that hadn’t recovered from the Great Recession. Poems like hers, and the slew of other books about the struggles of being her age, aim to be painfully honest about the difficulties.
Her Instagram followers love it, liking and following and tagging their friends in her posts. Whether that translates into actually buying books is unclear. Despite the recent slew of books similar to “Quarter Life Poetry,” none have really broken out as widely read bestsellers or launched their authors into fame. Coffee table-type books have better long-term prospects, but the large number of millennial-authored books doesn’t indicate that those books are all selling out.
“For a book like this, it’s not a straight path to the New York Times bestseller list,” said Libby Burton, Jayne’s editor at Grand Central Publishing.
The exception might be “Not That Kind of Girl,” the book millennial icon Lena Dunham published at age 28. But Dunham was already nearly a household name from her HBO show “Girls.”
The popularity of the sitcom’s messy and self-confessional nature certainly paved the way for interest in books such as “Quarter Life Poetry.” Still, being dismayed in your 20s is not actually a new phenomenon. Before Dunham, there was Emily Gould, the Internet’s first queen of oversharing, who blended heavy doses of self-analysis into her takedowns of the New York elite for Gawker and landed a book deal; so did Joyce Maynard way back in 1972, after she spilled her jaded take on growing up in the 1960s for the New York Times. Most notably, perhaps, was Elizabeth Wurtzel, who published her memoir “Prozac Nation” in 1994, when she was just 26.
“When I wanted to write ‘Prozac Nation,’ they thought it should be a novel because no one in their 20s wrote a memoir,” Wurtzel said. “You can’t imagine, it was a whole different world. Nobody thought it was a good idea.”
Her book triggered both raves for its sparkling prose and groans for its worldview: “Self-absorbed” was a frequent accusation. And then it became a bestseller, inspiring a wave of little-known writers to pen their own memoirs. They’re still flooding her inbox to this day. Wurtzel says “you would not believe how many” requests she gets to write promotional blurbs for self-confessional memoirs, many from non-famous “20-nothings” like she once was.
Those years provide a lot of good material, Wurtzel says: Being in your 20s sucks. She is now 48 and fighting breast cancer, but she wouldn’t trade it for being 26 again.
“When you’re in your 20s, you have no perspective and no ability to handle anything,” she said. “By this time, it’s like cancer, hmm, whatever. It’s no big deal. When I was in my 20s and my one-night stand went wrong, I thought it was the most devastating thing ever. And then a one-night stand went wrong the next night, and then I had two one-night stands that went wrong, and I was upset about both of them. And that’s your 20s.”
Now there’s no trouble convincing anyone these experiences are worth writing about. Usually the authors are already self-aggrandizing online when the book deal comes their way.
“Gone are the days when publishers are rolling their eyes at blog books or Instagram books,” Burton said. “Having a strong online following is as legitimate as having a lengthy piece published in a literary magazine.”
Expect to be seeing many more books from young bloggers, YouTube stars and the like. These writers come with established online fan bases, all ready to buy – or at least “like” pictures of – their books. They have years of experience marketing themselves, making easy work for publicists. Jayne, for example, created four mini-movies to promote her own book. As an actress, she starred in them, of course, further promoting her brand.
One video, called “Mom Talks” was picked up by viral content site theberry.com. So far, 8.8 million people have viewed it on Facebook. Jayne thought the views would be mostly from 20-somethings. From the comments, she could tell it was being shared by their moms, too — who are probably a lot more willing to plop down $14.50 than their young, broke and hangry daughters.