The personal essay is not dead, but has it traded politics for style?
Too Much and Not the Mood
FSG Originals, $15 (paper)
Somebody with a Little Hammer
Penguin Random House, $25.95 (cloth)
Tough Enough: Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil
University of Chicago Press, $75 (cloth), $25 (paper)
The first essay in Durga Chew-Bose’s Too Much and Not the Mood is called “Heart Museum,” and it opens with a long description of an iPhone emoji:
There's an emoji on my phone that I’ve never used, of a shell-pink tower-block building with blue windows. Smaller than an apple seed, crumb-sized—if that—it stands six stories high. Six windows going up: three square, three rectangular. I counted them and double-checked because extra-small things bring out the extra-small person in me who sometimes even triple-checks things; who still chances certainty might exist in asking, “Promise me?”
The style is proudly mannered: the twee metaphors, the gratuitous details, the repetition of these details to tiresome effect. One can see the author chasing down a shallow sort of mimesis, willing her readers to join her as she double-checks and sometimes triple-checks the emoji so that we too might experience the starts and stops and pauses of her heart. But one can see no reason why her readers might want to share in either this experience or the many other experiences of bourgeois living chronicled in “Heart Museum”: dinner parties and dates, travels to Machu Picchu and Kolkata, ritualized anxiety attacks about the relationship between writing personal essays and pointless self-indulgence—an occupational hazard, she suggests, suffered by only the most tender-hearted initiates of New York City’s creative class.
For Chew-Bose, this isn’t a problem—indeed this is her point. All rhyme and no reason, she claims a little later in the essay, is preferable to “writing that clinches,” by which I take her to mean writing that too eagerly betrays its argument for the sake of some fidgety, faceless reader. “No writer hopes for ideas to take complete shape. Approximation is the mark,” she states—the first of many prescriptions about what writing is and what it is not; what can and what cannot be accomplished by paying careful attention to form or style. Most of these statements arrive as metaphors that substitute nonsense for sense, preciousness for persuasion. Writing is “a closed pistachio shell.” Writing is a “doubled-up glove.” Writing is, “off and on, running smack into Aha! and staring down Duh.” (She has a fondness for italicized onomatopoeia—“GASP!” “Oof.” “Woah.” “Pop!”) Writing is losing yourself, finding yourself, falling in love, having your heart broken, getting drunk, having sex, thinking about some stuff then thinking about some other stuff that kind of relates to the original stuff you were thinking about but not really.
But what makes “Heart Museum” so dispiriting is not the quality of Chew-Bose’s prose. Rather, it is how the essay not only celebrates its aesthetic failings, but also insists that these failings testify to the author’s success as a sensitive ethical thinker. If the prose is clunky, if the posturing is overindulgent, if the plot is lost and never found, then, Chew-Bose would have us believe, we have no recourse as readers but to grant how the formlessness of her writing—she would call it the “breathlessness” or perhaps the “messiness” of it—forces us to reflect on timeless quandaries about life and art. Is the writer a reliable witness to the past? Can she ever truly know the human beings she writes about? Can she ever truly know herself? Chew-Bose’s answer to all these questions is “I guess? Sort of.” “Is there anything better, more truthful and sublime than what cannot be communicated?” she concludes in “Heart Museum.” “The marvelous, hard-to-spell-out convenience of what’s indefinite.” These are pretty phrases that mean nothing and teach nothing. Their only purpose is to “clinch” (to echo Chew-Bose) the author’s status as a beacon of complex selfhood. But for whose benefit?
In a sense, there is nothing unique about the pose Too Much and Not the Mood strikes—and this is the real problem. For a certain breed of personal essayist at work today, there exists a necessary and desirable trade-off between aesthetic clarity and moral complexity; a bargain premised on the depressing notion that words are always insufficient to the task at hand and so we may as well stop trying to choose the clearest or most precise ones. The adjective that best captures the conditions of this bargain is messy. Messy feelings, messy reality, messy relationships, the messy unfiltered stuff of life; the personal essayist evacuates all in one, big messy outpouring of repurposed clichés about love and life and pain and joy and men and women and whatever other themes readers of these essayists are, by now, primed to receive as universal human concerns. “Style is character,” Joan Didion proclaimed in her 1979 essay collection The White Album. However imprecise this statement of equivalence may be, one suspects that it has been thoroughly internalized by personal essayists today who elide aesthetic judgments—judgments about the formal or stylistic features of prose—with ethical and subjective ones that assess the character of the human being who would produce such prose.
The eager transposition of the aesthetic into the ethical is not new; nor is criticism of the personal essay’s manipulation of its readers (its intimate “grossness,” Ralph Waldo Emerson once sniffed). The form has always grappled with the many valences of the term “personal” and the kinds of authorial projections it allows. Taking an unapologetically snobbish tone in her 1905 essay “The Decay of Essay Writing,” Virginia Woolf lamented how the nineteenth-century democratization of literacy had flooded the literary marketplace with personal essays. A new class of writers, blinkered by the “amazing and unclothed egoism” that came from asserting one’s importance through reading and writing, thought nothing of sacrificing “their beliefs to the turn of a phrase or the glitter of paradox,” Woolf complained. Theirs was a mass demonstration of newly acquired cultural capital over and above any aesthetic or political purpose they may have had for putting pen to paper in the first place. “You need know nothing of music, art, or literature to have a certain interest in their productions, and the great burden of modern criticism is simply the expression of such individual likes and dislikes—the amiable garrulity of the tea-table—cast in the form of the essay,” Woolf wrote, scolding those middle-class writers who would dare leave their grubby prints on the windowpane of good prose. If one can set aside her disdain, there is a larger point: too many people writing have nothing interesting to say and no interesting way in which to say it.
If, in the early twentieth century, the “I” of the personal essay bespoke the educated man or woman, then today it inaugurates the mindful one; the subject whose apparently infinite capacity for self-reflexivity trades the precision of language and thought for “the baggy fit of feelings before they’ve found their purpose” (Chew-Bose again). Yet the shamelessness with which the bargain is brokered these days can leave a reader feeling like something cheap and tawdry is at work: a shortcut hacked through the dense thicket of form and feeling. More than the lack of conviction or the preciousness of prose, it is the peacocking of the author that chafes. What should we make of writing that serves primarily, and sometimes exclusively, to present the author as a more admirably complicated type of human subject than others? It is the literary equivalent of the ill-mannered man who, thinking himself to be very mature, declares, “I may be an asshole, but look how self-aware I am about it.”
It is precisely the gimmicky quality of authorship that Jia Tolentino registers—albeit somewhat unwittingly—in a recent New Yorker piece titled “The Personal-Essay Boom is Over.” Around 2008, Tolentino claims, the personal essay began to “harden into a form defined by identity and adversity—not in spite of how tricky it is to negotiate these matters in front of a crowd, but precisely because of that fact.” If Woolf had mass literacy to blame, then Tolentino has the Internet, which, she argues, seduced American narcissists with the same siren song of self-assertion that penmanship drills did for the British middle class. Her argument draws on a strangely truncated history of the personal essay, beginning with the collapse of LiveJournal in 2008 and ending with the 2016 presidential election—the last stand of American “identity politics,” she claims, before the emergence of a new, more thoughtful political consciousness that exiled the personal from the republic of letters, possibly for good. As Tolentino sees it, under Donald Trump’s threats to liberty and justice, even the most egoistic of writers suddenly developed an acute sense for their own irrelevance and scurried away from public exposure like mice fleeing a raucous cat. Now the most poignant thing about the state of the personal essay was its loss. “I never got tired of coming across a writerly style that seemed to exist for no good reason,” Tolentino mourns. “I loved watching people try to figure out if they had something to say.”
It’s not an especially persuasive argument—a selective history coupled with a wide-eyed faith in the writer’s desire (or ability) to stop thinking about herself. Lucky for us, the universe of the personal essay is not as young as Tolentino believes it to be, and not everyone who inhabits it hounds their readers into choosing between a total lack of purpose and an interesting prose style.
• • •
The antidote to Too Much and Not the Mood might be Mary Gaitskill’s Somebody with a Little Hammer, a collection of her reviews, essays, and short memoirs from the past two decades. Here and there we catch glimpses of Gaitskill’s life: first as a high school dropout, then as a teenage runaway, a psychiatric patient, a homeless drifter, a born-again Christian, an occasional stripper and sex worker, a journalism student, a professional writer. There is plenty of material here to mine for dramatic revelation. Yet even while invoking these experiences, the essays she writes are so circumspect in their claims to self-knowledge that a reader grown used to the personal essay’s relentless flash of exposure might wonder what kind of shy, self-effacing creature produced them.
But Gaitskill is anything but shy. Somebody with a Little Hammer offers strong aesthetic judgments about music, movies, and literature in a tone that brooks no disagreement. “Bitch, please,” Gaitskill snaps at writers from Carl Wilson to Elizabeth Wurtzel to Gillian Flynn, while commending the ordinary loveliness of Nicholson Baker’s prose and Björk’s pop music. She enjoys coming to the defense of writers whom mainstream literary critics, their sense clogged by all the “silly shit” in the ether, have savaged, mocked, or simply failed to appreciate. Of Joyce Carol Oates’s Blonde, a novel about Marilyn Monroe that Gaitskill praises as “beautiful and clear,” she writes:
One is given the impression of a soul that has been, by some impossible error, snatched from its deep place in the psyche and thrust into a maze of personality and persona, through which it must grope and blunder, trying to make sense of the earthly barrage of words, images, and ideas like ‘movie star.’ The Monroe of Blonde is like every other lost soul, except that her lost state is so brutally public; in this essential way, the character may be true to the real woman, who continues to touch our imaginations more deeply than can be explained by great beauty and brilliance alone.
In her description of Oates’s Marilyn, one can find the nerve center of Gaitskill’s aesthetic and ethical project, which is nothing as generic as observing weakness or redeeming suffering, as many of her critics have suggested. It is the graceful acceptance of psychic irretrievability—the impossibility of knowing what may or may not touch the imagination; what may or may not undo the soul. We are all lost creatures, Gaitskill suggests, and not one of us can or ought to try to claim the higher ground of knowledge; not knowledge of ourselves, not knowledge of the world, and certainly not knowledge of others. There exists an “inexorable, ridiculous order that is unknowable by us,” she writes in the collection’s opening essay “A Lot of Exploding Heads,” which recalls her aimless conversion to Christianity and her first encounter with God’s absolute, incomprehensible rage in the Bible. Despite “the soft, radiant beauty of many of its passages,” she writes, it has a “mechanical quality” that feels “brutal and violent.” Its prescriptiveness will always fall short of psychological or spiritual revelation because its style is premised on its writer’s omniscience—his “primitive attempt to give form to moral urgency.” “All I felt was that persistent sense of truncation, the intimation of something enormous and inchoate trying to squeeze through the static form of written words,” she remembers. “These realizations don’t mean I have arrived at a point of any real knowledge, but they are interesting as markers of my development.”
This resignation is not the same as messiness or moral ambiguity. It is, in fact, its opposite. Ambiguity wants desperately to know, and not just to know but to know in spades. A writer like Chew-Bose pursues multiple interpretations for why people do what they do and what it means about who they are, leaving in her wake a trail of confused feelings, theories, and metaphors; evidence that she has circled the truth like a dog has stalked its dinner—from all angles. Gaitskill never even makes the attempt. For her, there exists no obvious relationship between the complexity of human experience and the profusion of prose; no need for qualification or subordination, the pile-up of pretty phrases to approximate an awful truth that will only recede before us. For Gaitskill, part of growing up as a writer has been learning to accept “my own stringent limitations when it comes to giving form to impossible complexity.” For her reader, it feels refreshing to finally have a grownup in the room, laying down the law but not really caring whether you follow it or not.
Part of growing up, too, is learning what objects in the world are worthy of our sustained attention. People are less original than they would like to think, and living is both less transcendent and less abject than most acts of narration would lead us to believe. Many of us move through life according to a relatively predictable set of rules and social codes that shape not only human behavior but also the kinds of art human beings produce to reflect their moral universe—the Bible, for instance, but also nineteenth-century novels, romantic comedies, and memoirs. This is a phenomenon that Gaitskill describes time and again as “mechanicalness,” and it grinds all manner of human interactions down into dirty shards of reality: rigid debates about sexual propriety and dating; the preoccupation with being cool; the idle chirping of social media. Since all this further alienates us from anything like a knowable or authentic self, the essayist’s ethical prerogative is to pay close and direct attention to this mechanicalness—to note its predictability, its self-absorption, its avoidance of painful reality: how it “cannot tolerate anything that is not happy and winning,” Gaitskill observes.
Her preferred metaphor—her only one in fact—for describing the mechanical quality of the world is the mask. Here she is, for instance, on Carl Wilson’s book about hating Celine Dion, Let’s Talk About Love:
What Wilson is describing, in this section and throughout the book, is a world of illusory shared experience, ready-made identities, manipulation, and masks so dense and omnipresent that in this world, an actual human face is ludicrous or “crazy.”
And on Gillian Flynn’s best-selling novel Gone Girl:
What makes Gone Girl scary rather than kooky is its cast of characters—what motivates them, and how they view each other. Amy and Nick do not resemble actual people so much as grotesquely smiling masks driven by forces of malevolent artifice, and its exactly that masked, artificial quality that’s frightening to the point of sickening. Most frightening of all is that the artifice is so normal.
And on Lars von Trier’s old-fashioned musical Dancer in the Dark:
The musical sequences are not just charming, weird delusions; they are there to show that under the ‘story’ of these lives there is a broader reality in which people who are deadly enemies or dear friends are merely playing roles for the sake of the soul’s exercise. Further, these roles are in fact flimsy and can be stepped out of for transcendent moments that expose human personality as a mask and human action, whether compassionate or cruel, as a kind of ridiculous theater.
The procession of masks in Somebody with a Little Hammer is at once terrifying and strangely anodyne. Everyone wears them all the time, which doesn’t make them any less garish; it only means you need someone to remind you repeatedly that they’re always in the wings, leering.
For Gaitskill, the best art illuminates the cracks in our inexhaustible social performances, lighting our way through “the maze of personality and persona” so that we may, if only for a brief and fragile moment, forget who or what we are playing at. Often, the best art is not serious or dignified. It is silly and irrelevant, irrational and ecstatic. It is the frantic, funky murmur of the Talking Heads on their album Remain in Light. It is the closing number in Dancer in the Dark, when Selma, a factory worker on the verge of going blind, shoots a police officer who has betrayed her, and he, instead of bleeding to death at her feet or shooting back, rises from the floor so that the two may sing a rapturous duet called “I’ve Seen It All.” It is Humbert Humbert’s feverish confession of his love for seventeen-year-old Dolores Haze, now “pale and polluted and big with another’s child, but still gray-eyed, still sooty-lashed, still auburn and almond, still Carmencita, still mine” in the final pages of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. None of these works of art aspires to truth in any revelatory sense of the word. Most are elaborate jokes, toying with our romantic sensibilities. Yet each admits a sliver of light into the theater of tragic automata and lets it dance, briefly, with abandon.
To Gaitskill’s list, we might add “The Bridge: A Memoir of Saint Petersburg”—one of only a small handful of memoirs in Somebody with a Little Hammer. Gaitskill recalls how on a trip to Russia for a writers’ conference she and her husband were floating down the Neva when she was hit in the head by a bridge. Bleeding, blind, and barely conscious, she gropes through her memory and stumbles upon the face of one of the strippers she used to work with.
She didn’t dance; she posed in an almost trancelike way. Thought she did have a powerful look in her eyes sometimes, and her eyes were deep. She did this complicated ‘stocking act,’ where she would hook the stocking on the end of her toe and change position, stretching it this way and that, so that she was looking at it over her shoulder, et cetera. She’d make it this precise, balletic thing, like a narcissistic ritual, her alone in her room—and then she’d look up and give the men these hot, deep eyes, and let them in the room with her. Let them inside her, but for just a second; then she was back with the stockings. That was the striptease really; this placid beauty who suddenly showed herself. Or seemed to. It’s the cheapest trick, but she didn’t realize that, which is why it worked.
This is not a passage so much as a pose, which, like the pose it describes, seduces its reader with the promise of psychological revelation while never touching that hot, deep place in the soul. It is a respectful pose, a refusal to trespass on interiority that transforms the stripper’s cheap trick into a magisterial act of self-preservation. It is, above all, a deflection of Gaitskill’s own pain—remember her head wound?—onto the “precise, balletic thing” we would call her style.
• • •
To position Somebody with a Little Hammer as the high point of the personal essay is to gaze down a longer path for the form than the one Chew-Bose and Tolentino ask us to tread. We can begin to separate the notion of the “personal” from the adjectives that have clung to and muddied its coattails—not only “messy,” but also “warm,” “caring,” “confessional,” “emotional,” “empathetic,” and “sentimental.” What if personal writing were not a manifestation of intimacy or interiority? What if art were a dish best served cold?
Often described by her critics as a “distinctly” or “utterly unsentimental” writer (and human being), Gaitskill would have kept good company with the women Deborah Nelson assembles in her magnificent book Tough Enough: Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil. Nelson’s study of the ethics and aesthetics of unsentimentality celebrates those icy, unsparing, and acid-tongued female artists who were committed to “looking at painful reality with directness and clarity and without consolation or compensation.” Many of these women depicted their own lives in uncomfortable detail: Mary McCarthy’s religious education, Susan Sontag’s breast cancer, Joan Didion’s loss of her husband and daughter. Others, like Simone Weil and Hannah Arendt, documented the horrors of industrial modernity: the miseries of factory work, the devastations of the Holocaust and the atomic bomb. Yet none believed that the representation of human experience, no matter how complex or agonizing or imponderable, demanded emotional expressivity. Indeed, for them, compassion for the human condition required the opposite: the evacuation of emotion from art.
Their unsentimentality was not a personal failing, Nelson claims, but a carefully constructed aesthetic and ethical strategy; a “lifelong project” that perceived, with great and terrible urgency, the limits of empathy after World War II. For the women of Tough Enough, dwelling on the emotional effects of an experience often occluded painful reality, shrouding one’s objects of criticism behind the cheap veil of sentiment and self-regard. Bringing an audience to tears was a parlor trick that preyed on people’s perverse attraction to suffering—their ability to take any awful situation, no matter how remote, and make it about their uniquely hurt feelings. Yet pain and suffering were as ordinary as living and dying, and absent-minded feelings of woundedness and pity and even love were the most illusory ethical grounds on which to build a shared world. “Generally speaking, the role of the ‘heart’ in politics seems to me altogether questionable,” wrote Hannah Arendt to Gershom Scholem after he chided her for the “heartless” tone she took toward the Jews in Eichmann in Jerusalem. “You know as well as I how often those who merely report certain unpleasant facts are accused of lack of soul, lack of heart. . . . We both know, in other words, how often these emotions are used in order to conceal factual truth.”
Stoicism in the face of suffering is an attitude much admired in a man. But a woman like Arendt was often the “wrong protagonist,” Nelson observes, for the conscientious management of feeling. Warmth, emotion, sentiment—all these adjectives have a long and irksome history of latching onto models of female comportment; the angel in the house, the good listener, the shoulder to cry on. But unsentimentality was a choice that came with risks: uncertainty, helplessness, alienation, a state of unhappiness from which there could be no relief, neither consolation nor commiseration. “In cases of profound and permanent unhappiness, a strongly developed sense of shame arrests all lamentation,” wrote Weil. “Every unhappy condition among men creates the silent zone alluded to, in which each is isolated as though on an island. Those who do escape from the island will not look back.”
Unsentimentality had its rewards too. Time and again, I found myself moved by Nelson’s simple, yet powerful, insistence that we disentangle ethics from empathy so that we might see anew the obligations we have to each other and to the world we share. We see it in Weil’s “painful clarity”: her simple, yet brutal, prose style that stressed concrete detail over abstraction in her descriptions of factory work, and thus extended neither sympathy nor empathy to laborers but a far greater form of compassion: attention and intellectual honesty. We see it in Arendt’s “realism”: her insistence that building a shared world after Auschwitz requires steering clear of both boundless sympathy and the “mania for introspection”—a solipsism that denies the plurality of human experience by appointing the self the primary arbiter of what is worthy of attention. We see it in McCarthy’s “factuality”: a journalistic practice of perception that attempts to isolate the truth and, in the process, often alienates the writer from her political community. We see it in the cold gaze of Arbus’s camera when she turns it on her beloved “freaks”; a willed concession of artistic control that shows us how the experience of physical and intellectual limitations is the most normal thing of all. We see it in Sontag’s strict management of desire and Didion’s moral toughness in the face of death.
To this chorus of cool female voices, we might add Gaitskill’s confrontation with the mechanicalness of life and art. Here she is writing about how Americans, who seem to love claiming the mantle of victimhood, secretly hate confronting pain:
I think this is the reason every boob with a hangnail has been clogging the courts and haunting talk shows across the land for the last twenty years, telling his/her “story” and trying to get redress. Whatever the suffering is, it’s not to be endured, for God’s sake, not felt and never, ever accepted. It’s to be triumphed over. And because some things cannot be triumphed over unless they are first accepted and endured, because, indeed, some things cannot be triumphed over at all, the “story” must be told again and again in endless pursuit of a happy ending. To be human is finally to be a loser, for we are all fated to lose our carefully constructed sense of self, our physical strength, our health, our precious dignity, and finally our lives. A refusal to tolerate this reality is a refusal to tolerate life.
For Gaitskill, telling the story of one’s suffering is not an occasion for insight—it is a cause for suspicion, a crude attempt to transform endurance into resolution. Most people cannot live in the senseless and unhappy tangle of life; they need their experiences to reaffirm their sense of self, their dignity, their purpose for living. Yet every triumphal act of narration denies the painful condition of existence shared by all human beings, which is that we will all, eventually, die. Our victories over suffering are temporary at best, a trick to forestall our inevitable confrontation with meaninglessness. To pretend otherwise is a profound act of self-deception.
Under what conditions should we care about the stories of other peoples’ lives? Why, especially, should we care about them as works of art? I think there is a lesson to be learned in recalling the barest definition of “care”: “To feel concern (great or little), trouble oneself, feel interest.” Nowhere does it specify what the character of care must be; how hot or how cold it must run to do some good in the world. One can, as Nelson has, build a very persuasive case for compassion that is based on thoughtfulness, particularity, intellectual honesty—a more persuasive case, even, than compassion based on the boundlessness of feeling.
What is true for human relationships is true for art and politics. If I care about building a world, real or imaginary, with you or for you, then I should think about that world in the most accurate and realistic terms possible. I should hold you to the same standards of precision that I hold myself; even—and especially—if we disagree; even—and especially—if that disagreement is uncomfortable and alienating. “Something happens and we retell it as a story, preparing it for communication or for reviewing it later with oneself,” Nelson writes. “Thoughtlessness begins with a deliberate choice not to represent actions in language, not to create memory.” The refusal to represent, or the insistence on representing messily, is a refusal to share the world with others; a turn away from reality that is comforting because it is so deeply self-absorbed.
This brings us back to the personal essay. More than a fad and more than a form, we might think of the personal essay as a contract between reader and writer. The contract is not necessarily an emotional or intimate one, but, like all contracts, it is mutually constructed and it demands clarity. Just as the writer commits her imperceptible acts of cognition to language, asking the reader to accept this language as a poor proxy for her inner life, so too does the reader acknowledge and participate in this fantasy of self-construction. Together, reader and writer act as co-creators of a new fictional persona, the knowing self. This task is impossible, or at least impossible to derive pleasure from, without particularity and concreteness—a sense of reciprocity and respect.
Under the terms of this contract, the best part of Chew-Bose’s Too Much and Not the Mood is the beginning of her essay “D As In,” in which the author considers her reluctance to correct people who mispronounce her name. She argues that her behavior complies with an “imaginary code,” a rule which those of us with “unusual” or “non-traditional”—that is, non-white—names navigate every day: “that establishing room for everyone else is the quickest route to assimilation.” Her practice of self-erasure is presented as a matter-of-fact, the price one pays for ordering a coffee, making a dinner reservation, or meeting someone new. The thoughtlessness here emerges in the racial politesse of others; the expectation that you “remedy their curiosity” about your name or the color of your skin by telling them a story. “Where are you from?” they ask; a diplomatic way of demanding, How did someone like you infiltrate my neighborhood, my school, my country?
There is the promise of a point here; something to elicit our care. Alas, it never arrives, detained by more rhetorical questions about the complexity of the self: “How can an ‘I’ contain all of my many fragments and contradictions and all of me that is undiscovered?” Despite her claims to racial and cultural otherness, reiterated to the point of self-fetishization, Chew-Bose’s style ensures that the vision of the world she offers her readers is totally apolitical, bereft of any common political or ethical position. As is the case for so many personal essayists, all paths lead back to the “I.” “Is this ‘I’ actually mine to own?” Chew-Bose asks. The answer is, quite simply, no—not for her and not for anyone else, at least not according to the terms set by the personal essay’s readers and writers.
Just as easily as promises are made, promises are broken. What we see in many personal essays today is not the shattering of language but the shattering of a pact. All we can hope for now is its speedy restoration.
There’s a certain kind of personal essay that, for a long time, everybody seemed to hate. These essays were mostly written by women. They came off as unseemly, the writer’s judgment as flawed. They were too personal: the topics seemed insignificant, or else too important to be aired for an audience of strangers. The essays that drew the most attention tended to fall within certain categories. There were the one-off body-horror pieces, such as “My Gynecologist Found a Ball of Cat Hair in My Vagina,” published by xoJane, or a notorious lost-tampon chronicle published by Jezebel. There were essays that incited outrage for the life styles they described, like the one about pretending to live in the Victorian era, or Cat Marnell’s oeuvre. There were those that incited outrage by giving voice to horrible, uncharitable thoughts, like “My Former Friend’s Death Was a Blessing” (xoJane again) and “I’m Not Going to Pretend I’m Poor to Be Accepted by You” (Thought Catalog). Finally, there were those essays that directed outrage at society by describing incidents of sexism, abuse, or rape.
These essays began to proliferate several years ago—precisely when is hard to say, but we can, I think, date the beginning of the boom to 2008, the year that Emily Gould wrote a first-person cover story, called “Exposed,” for the Times Magazine, which was about, as the tagline put it, what she gained and lost from writing about her intimate life on the Web. Blowback followed, and so did an endless supply of imitations. By September, 2015, online first-person writing was so abundant that Laura Bennett, at Slate, could refer to a “first-person industrial complex” in a takedown of the genre. “Every site seems to have a first person vertical and a first-person editor,” Bennett, who also cited Gould’s Times story as a turning point, wrote. One could “take a safari” through various personal-essay habitats—Gawker, Jezebel, xoJane, Salon, BuzzFeed Ideas—and conclude that they were more or less the same, she argued. While she granted that not all first-person writing on the Internet was undignified, there were far too many “solo acts of sensational disclosure” that read like “reverse-engineered headlines.”
The market, in Bennett’s view, had overinflated. She was right: a year and a half later, it barely exists. BuzzFeed Ideas shut down at the end of 2015, Gawker and xoJane in 2016; Salon no longer has a personal-essays editor. Jezebel, where I used to work, doesn’t run personal essays at its former frequency—its editor-in-chief, Emma Carmichael, told me that she scarcely receives pitches for them anymore. Indie sites known for cultivating first-person writing—the Toast, the Awl, the Hairpin—have shut down or changed direction. Thought Catalog chugs along, but it seems to have lost its ability to rile up outside readers. Of course, The New Yorker and other magazines continue to publish memoir of various kinds. Just this week, The Atlantic published a first-person cover story by Alex Tizon, with the provocative headline “My Family’s Slave.” But there’s a specific sort of ultra-confessional essay, written by a person you’ve never heard of and published online, that flourished until recently and now hardly registers. The change has happened quietly, but it’s a big one: a genre that partially defined the last decade of the Internet has essentially disappeared.
What happened? To answer that, it helps to consider what gave rise to the personal essay’s ubiquity in the first place. Around 2008, several factors converged. In preceding years, private blogs and social platforms—LiveJournal, Blogspot, Facebook—trained people to write about their personal lives at length and in public. As Silvia Killingsworth, who was previously the managing editor of The New Yorker and took over the Awl and the Hairpin last year, put it to me, “People love to talk about themselves, and they were given a platform and no rules.” Then the invisible hand of the page-view economy gave them a push: Web sites generated ad revenue in direct proportion to how many “eyeballs” could be attracted to their offerings, and editorial budgets had contracted in the wake of the recession. The forms that became increasingly common—flashy personal essays, op-eds, and news aggregation—were those that could attract viral audiences on the cheap.
Sarah Hepola, who worked as Salon’s personal-essay editor, described the situation to me in an e-mail. “The boom in personal essays—at Salon, at least, but I suspect other places—was in part a response to an online climate where more content was needed at the exact moment budgets were being slashed.” When I worked as an editor at the Hairpin and Jezebel, from 2013 to 2016, I saw up close how friendly editors and ready audiences could implicitly encourage writers to submit these pieces in droves. For the first two years that I edited personal essays, I received at least a hundred first-person pitches and pieces each week.
But an ad-based publishing model built around maximizing page views quickly and cheaply creates uncomfortable incentives for writers, editors, and readers alike. Attention flows naturally to the outrageous, the harrowing, the intimate, and the recognizable, and the online personal essay began to harden into a form defined by identity and adversity—not in spite of how tricky it is to negotiate those matters in front of a crowd but precisely because of that fact. The commodification of personal experience was also women’s territory: the small budgets of popular women-focussed Web sites, and the rapidly changing conventions and constrictions surrounding women’s lives, insured it. And so many women wrote about the most difficult things that had ever happened to them and received not much in return. Most sites paid a few hundred dollars for such pieces at most; xoJane paid fifty dollars. When I began writing on the Internet, I wrote personal essays for free.
For some writers, these essays led to better-paying work. But for many the thrill of reaching an audience had to suffice. And placing a delicate part of your life in the hands of strangers didn’t always turn out to be so thrilling. Personal essays cry out for identification and connection; what their authors often got was distancing and shame. Bennett pegged her Slate piece to an essay that Carmichael and I edited at Jezebel, written by a woman who had met her father for the first time as a teen-ager and engaged, under emotional coercion, in a brief sexual relationship with him. Bennett deemed the personal-essay economy a “dangerous force for the people who participate in it.”
By that point, writers, editors, and readers had become suspicious of one another, and the factors that produced the personal-essay boom had started to give way. Some of the online publishers that survive have shifted to video and sponsored posts and Facebook partnerships to shore up revenue. Aggregation and op-eds—the infamous, abundant takes—continue to thrive, although the takes have perhaps cooled a bit. Personal essays have evidently been deemed not worth the trouble. Even those of us who like the genre aren’t generally mourning its sudden disappearance from the mainstream of the Internet. “First-person writing should not be cheap, and it should not be written or edited quickly,” Gould wrote to me. “And it should be published in a way that protects writers rather than hanging them out to dry on the most-emailed list.”
There are still a few outlets that cultivate a more subtle and sober iteration of this kind of first-person writing, some of them connected to book publishing. There’s Hazlitt, launched by Random House Canada, and Lenny Letter, which now has a publishing imprint, and Catapult, which describes itself as a book publisher with a daily online magazine. (The managing editor of Catapult is Nicole Chung, who previously worked for the Toast.) But the genre’s biggest migration has been to TinyLetter, an e-mail newsletter platform. Gould, who writes a newsletter called Can’t Complain, suggested that TinyLetters are doing what personal blogs did fifteen years ago: allowing writers to work on their own terms and reach “small readerships in an intimate, private-feeling, still public enough way.” Carrie Frye, formerly the managing editor of the Awl, also has a TinyLetter. She told me that it seemed like “writers—particularly female writers—had said, ‘O.K., I’m going to make an Internet on which my essays go out in pneumatic tubes to just who I want them to go to, and no one else.’ ”
It’s clear, in any case, that the personal-essay boom is over. If it had already peaked by the time Bennett wrote about it, in the fall of 2015, we can locate its hard endpoint about a year later, in November of last year. After the Presidential election, many favored personal-essay subjects—relationships, self-image, intimate struggle—seemed to hit a new low in broader social relevance. “I feel like the 2016 election was a reckoning for journalism,” Hepola wrote to me. “We missed the story. Part of why we missed it might have been this over-reliance on ‘how I feel about the day’s news’—and now the journalism world recognizes that we need to re-invest in reporting.” Killingsworth echoed this, talking about her work at the Awl and the Hairpin: “I want to encourage people to talk about mostly anything other than themselves.”
There’s been a broader shift in attitudes about this sort of writing, which always endured plenty of vitriol. Put simply, the personal is no longer political in quite the same way that it was. Many profiles of Trump voters positioned personal stories as explanations for a terrible collective act; meanwhile, Clinton’s purported reliance on identity politics has been heavily criticized. Individual perspectives do not, at the moment, seem like a trustworthy way to get to the bottom of a subject. (Even Tizon’s piece, which was published posthumously and uses his damning closeness to his subject as a way to elucidate the otherwise invisible captivities of the Filipino katulong servant class, prompted an immediate backlash—which then prompted a backlash to the backlash, mainly among those who think Western readers have misunderstood Tizon’s understanding of his own position.) Writers seem less interested in mustering their own centrality than they were, and readers seem less excited at the prospect of being irritated by individual civilian personalities. “The political landscape has been so phantasmagoric that even the most sensationally interesting personal essays have lost some currency when not tied head-on to the news,” Bennett said in an e-mail. “There just hasn’t been much oxygen left for the kinds of essays that feel marginal or navel-gazey.” These days, she tends to see pitches “that center on systemic rather than personal trauma,” she added, “or on orienting personal trauma in our berserk new reality.”
No more lost-tampon essays, in other words, in the age of Donald Trump. And yet I find myself missing aspects of the personal-essay Internet that the flashiest examples tended to obscure. I still think of the form as a valuable on-ramp, an immediate and vivid indication of a writer’s instincts—one that is accessible to first-time writers and young people who haven’t developed experience or connections. The Internet made the personal essay worse, as it does for most things. But I am moved by the negotiation of vulnerability. I never got tired of coming across a writerly style that seemed to exist for no good reason. I loved watching people try to figure out if they had something to say.