Aspirational Literary Labor in I May Destroy You

By Sarah Brouillette

In I May Destroy You, the main character, Arabella Essiedu, is struggling to finish writing a book – completion made nearly impossible after she is drugged and raped and has to find a way to get on with her life in the hideous aftermath. The show’s depiction of her experiences provides searing insight into the conditions faced today by many racialized writers who have not come through the usual publishing industry channels of wealthy parents, Oxbridge, and a creative writing degree. 

The first shot is of a wall covered in post it notes – the rough bits of a work in progress. Arabella has been in Italy visiting her boyfriend and supposedly working on her book, and returns to her flat in London to urgent promptings from her literary agents, who want her to finish her draft in time for its inclusion in the Writers Summit. This is an evening of readings of work by non-white writers published by Henny House, who have a contract to release Arabella’s book if she can manage to finish it. Arabella proposes to do an all-nighter in the agency’s office space – we see her cutting and pasting from her Twitter account, and googling “how to write quickly” – but she is coaxed out by her friend Simon, who gives her cocaine and sees her get more and more wasted, before finally leaving her to fend for herself. Something is slipped into her drink; she’s raped. The next few episodes explore how the murky details come back to her, and then how she works through what has happened to her, with help from her friends who have related experiences – a working through, we should note, that becomes inseparable from the activity of writing itself.  

Arabella started out as a writer on Twitter, where she was, as she tells it, “expressing [herself] on line,” but found that people kept asking if she intended to write a book. She published Chronicles of a Fed-Up Millennial in response to their fandom, distributing it as a free PDF. Judging by the number of people who recognize her on the street and quote lines from it, it has been a success. Simon jokes that he’s “rolling with a literary star.” While she is not making any money from it, what it does get her is agency representation from Future Voices, a firm run by two white Oxbridge types with tight, reluctant smiles. Her situation here is in fact an increasingly common one: the pipeline from social media influencer to published author is becoming very important, as firms are eager to work with writers who can shoulder the costs of at least some of their own marketing by arriving with a legion of fans in place. 

Arabella discusses her nervousness about the publishing process with her roommate, complaining that “it’s all a bit corporate, isn’t it?” She says she “did the first book for Twitter,” not for “big fancy business people.” His reply is canny: “Who owns Twitter?” She concedes, yes, it’s also fancy business people. Just different ones. Working as an independent writer, without a publishing house and without agency representation, may mean avoiding traditional industry gatekeepers, but this doesn’t mean no major companies benefit. Whereas a publisher and a writer working together to produce a traditional book product would both usually earn something from it, here, in Arabella’s social media writing, the author is left to shoulder the burden of producing and managing their work and their brand without industry supports or, indeed, any pay. What is often true in these conditions is true for Arabella: writing done online is a form of unpaid apprenticeship, or what Brooke Erin Duffy has described as “aspirational labor” done toward the expectation of eventually “earning” the right to access more tangible and secure future rewards: “a mode of (mostly) uncompensated, independent work that is propelled by the much-venerated ideal of getting paid to do what you love” (4). It’s an especially hard row to hoe if you don’t have money already or a wealthy network to fall back on.

Future Voices sends someone to help her finish her book – a fellow Henny House author, a South Asian man named Zain, who has a degree from Cambridge and won a prestigious award for his first book. He teases Arabella about her path into the industry, “who knew I could sub three years at Uni for a Twitter account?” Except the show clearly shows that Zain has it much easier than Arabella does, given the difference his prestigious degree makes; and he has taken courses in creative writing, he knows how to fit into the mold set out by comparable titles. Later he praises her work, and she doesn’t quite believe him. 

“This is good,” he says. 

“Good – or good considering?” she asks. 

She is aware here of the difference between his path and hers, and fears that her work could only be read as good if one considers, first, those other factors she is obliquely referring to – that she’s from a black working-class family and doesn’t have his formal training. 

But the show depicts an industry hungry for precisely her kind of outsider’s point of view. It’s all very canny about the contemporary literary scene, in which publishers have been eagerly responding to the reports showing how disproportionately white they are. There is a “business case for publishers to be more culturally diverse,” acknowledged in recent years by firms such as Penguin Random House, which famously got rid of university requirements for job applicants. Most of the mainstream firms have been eagerly backing mentorship schemes to attract non-white executives and to cultivate new non-white talent. They know very well that if they do not acquire and cultivate a younger and more diverse readership, they are pretty much hooped. 

Arabella is shocked when, a full year after signing the publishing contract, she finally meets the head of Henny House, Susy Henny. “You’re Susy? Hi Susy! You’re black!” she says, laughing. Later she and her best friend Terry joke that “the big boss is black” and compare her to Barack Obama. Arabella’s surprise here accurately reflects the lack of black women in executive positions in the British publishing industry. While women are fairly well represented in executive positions, including in senior management, black women represent only a small portion of publishing employees at any level. Still, the show is far from a celebration of Susy’s rising through the ranks – much the opposite. It’s the shit that Susy is willing to do that makes her a success. 

Despite how unfinished it is, Arabella is invited to read a portion of her manuscript at the Writers Summit. They clearly need her, as she is the only woman on the docket. Eager to give her friend the opportunity, Arabella asks Susy if Terry can read the portion for her, and Susy agrees only after asking if Terry has “the same background, the same education” as Arabella. She adds, seeking further assurance, “and she’s black?” Susy wants to ensure that Terry, like Arabella, doesn’t come from an especially posh family and hasn’t been to the schools that most publishing industry workers have been to; she knows what she has to do to produce good diversity metrics. At their first in-person meeting she seems not to recall Arabella’s name, she has to get it from her assistant – we get the message that Arabella is nothing but disposable talent until she delivers the goods. Her agents from Future Voices are there too, and on the defensive. They say – passive voice – that there has been “an underestimation of how much work there was to be done.” Susy asks “on her part … or yours?” Her interrogation implies that perhaps they invested too much in untried talent? Or ensnared her in an agreement with someone incapable of the right sort of productivity?  Throughout this exchange, which takes places before Arabella has even arrived, we clearly see that Arabella only matters as producer of exploitable content. When she announces later in the meeting that she has been raped, that this has presented an understandable impediment to her work, nobody even pretends to care. They just want her to finish the manuscript. Meanwhile for Susy, the experience is an opportunity: “You better get to work missy. I want to see that story.” We understand that she sees sales potential in the rape narrative, which will fit within an appealing author’s biography for her marketing team.

Arabella takes Susy’s advice. In a later scene she reads a heartfelt, impassioned, politically fiery section to her agents – a section in which she wonders if she can express the right kind of solidarity with women who have been victims of patriarchal violence. She wonders if her rape is nothing in the face of what others have been made to suffer. They look a bit mortified while she is speaking, and then simply say, again, “we have a contract.” We gather only then that she is sharing this writing not because she’s expecting some deep exchange about what she is saying, but as proof that she is working on the book, because at that moment she badly wants them to give her another portion of the advance. This is one of many reminders provided by the series that being a social media influencer and self-publishing author with another book forthcoming does not mean being anything like financially stable. Instead the opposite is the case for most people in this aspirational position – it’s precisely the conditions of uncertainty that lead to the frenzied activity that Duffy describes in her work on self-branding: “investments in time and energy: building and maintaining one’s social networks … ensuring the consistency of one’s brand across the sprawling digital ecosystem” (11). The “seductive ideology” of working for yourself, doing what you love, hoping for a way to turn that into money, tends to “glamorize labor conditions that are far less remunerative and gratifying than hyped.” And indeed, Arabella’s appeals fall on deaf ears – again the refrain, “we have a contract.” Whatever else is going on, whatever suffering state her writing evinces, whatever material struggle of daily survival as an aspiring creative she’s in the middle of: for them, her writing is never anything more than an unfinished deliverable. The point is reiterated when she goes from there to Susy Henny’s office, and finds the same message. We see how Arabella aims to please, as she needs the cash: “I started writing about my experiences.” Susy struggles for a minute to remember what she is even referring to, and then blurts out, excited: “Rape! Fantastic!” before refusing to give her any more of the advance, reminding Arabella, with high condescension, again, “contracts … they’re a little like things we’ve agreed.” 

Now desperate, Arabella is forced to try to work her microcelebrity in other ways. She is brought in to help advertise a new vegan grocery delivery app called Happy Animals. Arabella eats meat, but her friend Theo, who receives a commission for getting the right brand ambassadors on side, convinces her to do it – and she’ll be paid to star in the ad. Once on set they ask her if she’d be willing “to influence” – meaning promote the service via her own social media accounts – and at first we see that she is reluctant. Like many social media influencers, she must carefully manage what products she tags and promotes, lest it seem like she is online for purely mercenary reasons rather than because she is speaking authentically from her heart; we recall that she described her writing as arising from, at first, “just expressing [herself] online.” Throughout the series we see how a certain authenticity is coveted, and how the idealization of “realness” is used to celebrate social media culture as more “honest” than the culture offered up the traditional media industries. This “realness” discourse is yet another way the increasing prevalence of gig work in the cultural industries is justified. Your social media is supposed to seem like an expression of your real life and true self, not like work you are doing to get by. 

But when the Happy Animals guy mentions double pay, in cash, Arabella cannot say no. She does not have the luxury at that moment of curating carefully what she will affiliate with. Later we find out, too, what Arabella didn’t know – that Theo gets a bump in her usual commission for bringing in a black person. At a party there is a loud debate about whether Arabella is naïve and has been exploited. A friend points out that she helps to give the Happy Animals brand exposure to a targeted demographic, and exposure gives them more followers, which leads to more power and more money. While this works for a company, that has a clear way of turning followers into money via sales via the app, it does not work in the same way for Arabella, yet again. Driving the point home, at the start of the Happy Animals episode she is trying to buy groceries. The cashier recognizes her and asks for a selfie, and later posts the picture with a mocking caption about Arabella’s credit card being declined. Through scenes like this, we are reminded constantly that there is no clear pathway from microcelebrity to wages, which poses challenges that are especially acute for people who are not starting out with wealth and other advantages. What this results in is in many cases an even more relentless drive to manage one’s image online, to be a presence on social media, to live one’s life online. 

A key sequence about the darker side of self-enterprising social media culture unfolds when Arabella and Terry show up at the Writers Summit for the reading. Over the past few days Arabella and Zain have started having sex, and the first time, he took off the condom without Arabella knowing. She’s angry and unsettled, but lets it simmer until she hears a radio show describing this as rape. Arabella shares this information from on stage at the summit, seemingly spontaneously and out of extreme unease; Terry takes his picture as he slinks off; this turns into a massive social media event. The women joke at the bar later that it “broke the internet.” From here Arabella becomes a spokesperson for abuse victims, but the show depicts this status as fostering manic activity, an addiction to the retweets and likes and mentions that she depends upon in lieu of a more substantial path to healing. In one scene she has a massive fight with her Italian boyfriend over the phone. He blames Arabella for her own rape, telling her that she should have been watching her drink to make sure it wasn’t spiked. Arabella hangs up and immediately posts a selfie from her bed – with instant likes and comments, assurances of love. To a soundtrack of “Pynk” by Janelle Monáe, the scene concludes when an oversized emoji heart floats out of her smartphone screen and into the air in front of her eyes. The irreal fantasy aesthetic signals that there is something insufficient – artificial – in her way of comforting herself here. “♬ Pink as we all go insane ♬.” 

From here, she descends deeper and deeper into a void of constant need for the kind of affirmation she gets from engagement with her online content. This is depicted as a downward spiral and as risky activity that opens her up to further potential harm: in Duffy’s words again, “gendered forms of self-disclosure,” intimate communication about one’s private life, the more raw and genuine the better, exposes young women to trolling, cyber-bullying, doxing and more. For every “you are my queen,” a stranger asking to see your breasts; for every heart-eyes emoji, a threat. We see Arabella enmeshed deeply within this, driving her real-life best friends crazy and worrying her therapist, who asks her to get off social media and consider the real problem: all the stuff she buries under the constant flurry of smartphone activity. 

As the series works toward its close, Arabella visits Susy Henny in her office one last time. The space is immaculately posh and full of lush plants. Susy explains that she “hasn’t had a break in 8 years,” and strokes leafy foliage to ground herself. To Susy indoor gardening is a constructive, healthy hobby befitting her status. “Do you grow?” she asks Arabella – the phrasing suggesting not just nurturing plants but the whole spate of productive, aspirational, self-improving activities that Susy would recommend, including, first and foremost, finishing her manuscript. Their meeting is thick with tension. As the months have ticked on, her hostility toward Arabella is now blankly apparent – not a hint of genuine concern, friendship, or empathy; only: “where’s your draft?” Susy has also kept Zain on as a writer despite his being outed as a rapist, even encouraging him to use a woman’s pseudonym for his book since his own name is mud. Again, for Susy it is not about the person but about the fact that they had a contract – it’s about how best to exploit their property, their “talent.” As Arabella leaves the office, Susy is already on the phone to Future Voices finally cancelling Arabella’s book deal. From here her agency also lets her go, since she has failed to honor the terms and is now in debt to Henny House for the portion of the advance already paid to her. 

Crucially, though, this is the low point that Arabella needs to reach before she can really break through and finish her book her way. She listens to her therapist telling her to avoid social media and focus instead on activities that help her actually heal; she takes advice from MFA-Zain about non-fiction story structure; and then, in an ecstasy of exploration of the various forms of revenge and forgiveness that she can imagine in response to what she has been through, she happens upon the solution of three variant endings, and so she writes. It’s hard to overlook the fairly romantic image of writing emerging here in the series’ finale. The romance is of course not with the horrible publishing industry eager to get whatever they can out of marginalized “voices.” It instead with the authenticity of the creative writer at work – a romance very apparent in how Michaela Coel herself talks about her own writing process, as a means of dwelling in the zone of transcendent ecstatic expression of the truth she has to communicate. Indeed the activity of writing is redeemed in part precisely because it is taken out of the hands of the industry people, the Oxbridge agents, the coaches, the posh publishing house run by the noxious exploitative boss, as well as the social media companies that Arabella produced so much free content for her during her lowest moments. It is not just that Arabella’s finished work is published independently – without the exploitation that the show so carefully skewers as key to the industry’s operations. Independent publishing is made to converge with her taking command of her process and also of her mental health. She needed to take the time that she did, including the fallow periods, in order to be able to arrive at the right structure for her book and the right route to its publication. The struggle has all been worth it.

The series’ final moments add to this story of the writer healing herself and finding her way, a further idealized image of literary bookishness. These scenes seem even deliberately fantastical, as if designed to indicate that what is being envisioned is not a realistic solution to the problem of living as a writer. (We cannot forget, Coel’s own process of writing and recovery resulted not in a book, but in this TV series.) When Arabella receives copies of her hardcover, it is not clear how the books were paid for or produced, nor how much they are selling for. We only know that it was independently published. She gets set to do a reading from it in front of a sizeable crowd packed into a small bookstore. It feels like evening; the yellow walls and soft lighting are welcoming and intimate. The audience is rapt. The aesthetic is one of marked literariness, rendered for the series’ TV audience – an aura of humane community and thoughtful listening. Arabella parts her lips nervously to read the first line. The screen cuts to black, and then we see a cursor, and slow typing, completing the arc of the writer’s experience, spelling out “END.” It is hard not to conclude that this portrayal of blissed-out bookishness ultimately props up the value of the kind of self-managed creative work that the show otherwise depicts as so difficult to do. One cannot find a voice until released from the constraints of the legacy media; ergo, gig work – challenging but deeply satisfying. It is perhaps at the same time though Coel’s own compensatory fantasy, even an exorcism, of a desire for creative fulfillment and material sustenance that writers are lured by but can rarely achieve within the insecure conditions of contemporary publishing. 

Sarah Brouillette is a Professor in the Department of English at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.

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