“I think readers are hungry for honest stories about relationships”: editor Daniel Jones on The New York Times’ Modern Love column

Since 2004, the New York Times’ Modern Love column has featured hundreds of funny, poignant and heartwarming tales of love and relationships written by its readers. Essays are accompanied by some charming illustrations by Brian Rea and have also been made into a series of animated shorts…

Editor Daniel Jones started the column with his wife Cathi Hanauer in 2004, after they edited The Bitch in the House and The Bastard on the Couch, a pair of essay anthologies about relationships and the stress of marriage and parenting for working couples.

“They sold well and got a ton of attention, including from the Style editor at the New York Times,” says Jones. “He wanted to create a weekly essay column that was similar to the material in our books and hired us as a couple to do it. We started the column together but it was a job for one person, not two, and my wife was working on a novel … so I took it over,” he explains.

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Illustration by Brian Rea for The New York Times
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Illustration by Brian Rea for The New York Times

It’s a popular series: Jones says he has received tens of thousands of submissions and the column often provokes debate among readers, with hundreds posting comments online and on social media.

“I think readers are hungry for honest stories about relationships that don’t sugar-coat problems or suggest simple solutions,” adds Jones. “And the column creates its own material: readers are inspired by reading about other people’s stories and want to share their own. Although writing a good one is much harder than it looks!”

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Illustration by Brian Rea for The New York Times
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Illustration by Brian Rea for The New York Times

In an article published in February this year, Jones shed some light on the varying ways different genders and age groups talk about love. He also revealed that he has to turn away around 99 percent of submissions.  Those that make the cut have to be well-written, empathetic and intelligent, he says. “It helps if the story sheds some light on what love and relationships are like today, what the new challenges are.”

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Illustration by Brian Rea for The New York Times
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Illustration by Brian Rea for The New York Times

Three illustrators have worked on the column since 2004, the longest serving of which is Brian Rea. “His work is reliably playful and smart and can be quite touching,” says Jones. There’s also a sense of vulnerability to Rea’s charming hand-drawn work, which works perfectly given the intensely personal nature of submissions.

Since 2013, the paper has also commissioned a number of animators to create short video essays for the series, including Moth Collective, Joe Donaldson and Manyhands.

“The animation series was started by a Times video journalist  Zena Barakat, who sought out a variety of styles for the videos. It helped if the essay was especially cinematic, but this wasn’t always the case ,” says Jones.

“My personal favorites were about a boyfriend with bad grammar and spelling [Under His Misspell, shown below], which was hilarious, and another about a failing relationship and a dead pigeon [Fight or Flight, also below], which was just gorgeously animated, a real work of art.”

It’s a wonderfully diverse collection of stories: some are happy tales of finding companionship, while others deal with loss, loneliness, separation and infidelity. Writers are straight, gay, young, old, male, female and recent stories range from a 59-year-old woman’s experience of trying online dating after losing her husband, to a recovering alcoholic’s account of how her drinking destroyed her relationship with an ex-boyfriend. As its name suggests, it’s an honest portrayal of modern love, and Rea’s sensitive illustrations, coupled with some great animation, really help bring readers’ essays to life.

You can read and watch more Modern Love essays here.

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