A man once complimented Samantha Irby’s back during sex. Flattered, she gave it an exfoliating treatment, which unfortunately scraped the skin raw. The next time Irby’s suitor knocked on her door, “bearing nothing but lidded eyes and a throbbing erection,” he was alarmed by the inflamed torso he’d admired before. “Good ol’ thermometer dick,” Irby writes, a preacher circling around to the moral of her sermon: “reminding me that no good deed goes unpunished and you should never do anything nice, ever, for anyone.”
This misanthropic apothegm is from Irby’s new book, Wow, No Thank You, which debuted at the top of The New York Times’s paperback nonfiction bestsellers list two weeks ago. It’s Irby’s third collection of essays, although they all read more like beautifully edited blogs. Irby’s career as a writer began on MySpace, but it was the Blogspot site BitchesGottaEat that made her name. She wrote about her life there at length, blurring the line between the diary and essay forms. Irby kept that site running from 2009 to 2014, as it gained a cult readership and eventually yielded a “blog-to-book” publishing success story.
Irby’s writing mixes recent anecdotes with stories from her difficult early life. The bare bones are important to know. She was a very poor kid in Evanston, Illinois, and her parents died when she was a teenager. By then she had been caring for her mother, who had multiple sclerosis, for a long time. That’s a lot of responsibility to bear at such a tender age, but it was not accompanied by practical life lessons. Nobody explained to young Samantha what a credit score was or how to get one, and after dropping out of college she began adult life about as unprepared as it is possible to be. This is why the adult Samantha spends her paycheck on fancy candles and expensive makeup.
That’s the backdrop to Irby’s long-running prose sitcom. The comedy derives from the scrapes our wise-cracking heroine gets herself into, as she works her day job at the pet hospital and braves the dating scene. Sex, memory, money complexes, intestinal distress: Those are the signature Irby motifs, and they blend to make both her best jokes and saddest stories. For example, the essay “Sorry I Shit on Your Dick,” from the 2013 collection Meaty, is a joint investigation into digestive problems and romance, an adventure along the searing knife-edge of humiliation. Samantha survives. She learns that her “bowels are hella unpredictable. You have to order anal sex two days in advance, like peking duck.”
Wow, No Thank You is something of a departure from the earlier books and the blog, since Irby’s circumstances have changed. Irby has moved from Evanston to Kalamazoo, Michigan, to live with her wife, who has kids. Transformed in a flash from cocktail fiend to a person who has to understand how gutters work, Irby’s new life is a prompt for a whole new kind of anxiety.
It’s a much more grown-up book, and less sad than her others. Instead of complaining about sex with horrible men, Irby now grumbles affectionately about her granola-hippie spouse and the healthy snacks she buys. Where once she wrote odes to “Re-wearing Gross Panties With the Hardened Crotch,” now Irby has to remember not to swear in front of the children. For the longtime fan of Irby’s work, it’s a genuine pleasure to read about the safe and happy place she has found herself, even though the disasters were so fun to read.
The culture has changed, too. Irby’s frankness about her body and her refusal to pile it with shame felt radical when Meaty first came out. That book opens with a list of her perceived physical imperfections, like “insanely large mons pubis,” and “yellow foot bottoms.” It also contains some paragraphs about Irby’s weight that probably wouldn’t get published today, so far has America’s tolerance dropped for listening to people criticize fat women—which is ironic considering how important Irby has been to that change.
In its heyday, BitchesGottaEat was connected both to the fat acceptance movement online and to a thriving community of women bloggers inventing new ways to write about women’s bodies and minds. The influence of the bloggers who made wild comedy out of their vaginas and made fun of idiots on diets has been long-lasting. It’s more of a style—irreverent, almost cheesy sometimes, unrestrained—than a set of values. Many of these blogs weren’t edited, of course, which is probably why Irby’s site still hosts a pretty offensive post titled “I Tried to Fuck a Midget.”
Along with friend and occasional collaborator Lindy West, Irby came to epitomize that rebellion. They and a lot of online imitators brought a new ballsiness to narrating the modern fat woman’s experience, especially where it comes to sex. Unapologetic, guttural, and real, that new sensibility has now bled into mainstream advertising (are there any underwear ads without hot plus-size models anymore?) and TV programming. For example, when West’s own memoir, Shrill, became a TV show for Hulu starring Aidy Bryant, Irby moved temporarily to Los Angeles to write for it—her experience there forms an essay in Wow, No Thank You. There, she wrote the famous “fat babe pool party” episode, a fantasy in liberated, joyful flesh that was by far the show’s best episode.
That gorgeous slice of TV is a specific example of Irby’s influence on the culture, but the blog boom has had more diffuse and intangible effects, too. In shows like Girls, Broad City, Fleabag, Killing Eve, or High Maintenance, “blog humor” found its place on television. A little alienated, a little gross, and a lot more funny than The Big Bang Theory, this new ripple of TV comedy owes a debt to the unpaid, independent bloggers like Irby.
So why isn’t Samantha Irby living in L.A. on top of a huge pile of money? One essay in Wow, No Thank You details how Abbi Jacobson, co-creator of Broad City, grew obsessed with Irby’s work and chased her for a meeting for months. Jacobson’s emails sat unanswered until she finally flew out to Illinois to meet Irby, hoping to talk her into writing a TV show based on Meaty. Reluctantly, Irby agreed, and the pair went to Hollywood. FX announced that they’d picked up the show in 2016, but that deal fizzled out. Now, Irby is in talks with Comedy Central to produce Meaty.
The tough part will be finding the right actress to lead Meaty, as anything less than a full Irby charm-assault will be disappointing. Until then, Wow, No Thank You’s spot on the bestseller list is a belated but hard-earned symbol of recognition for America’s most talented comic writer, and proof that the line between “blog” and “essay” has finally disintegrated altogether.