In Defense of the Personal Essay

There is something both cathartic and terrifying about exposing yourself to the Internet.

The Internet is a swift and harsh mistress, ready to judge in a flash as media whips by — for an instant, you can become the talk of the town, and at the next, you’ve faded away into the background, remembered by only a handful of people.

“Remember,” they say, “that one essay. You know, the one.”

Laura Bennett at Slate set the cat among the pigeons with a piece damning what she called “the rise of the first-person industrial complex,” namechecking a host of primarily female-orientated websites, which was not a coincidence, but I’ll get back to that in a moment.

The first-person vertical, she suggested, had become a form of monetizing — and exploiting — the lives of writers who bared themselves within it. It does, as she noted, have a low barrier to entry, with many sites accepting personal essays more quickly than any website accepts other kinds of content, and some freelancers hope to get their lucky break through such essays — or just want to share their stories.

It was the essay that launched a thousand thinkpieces (speaking of journalistic trends) around the world, with many crawling out of the woodwork to join her in condemning the personal essay, or in mocking it. The authentic, raw stories that people had submitted to the Internet at large became the stuff of joking quizzes: “Real or fake,” headlines asked.

Speaking intimately about your personal life and experiences, especially the more shameful or intense, is akin to baring your belly to the beast. Some submit such essays in full awareness that they’re likely to be attacked for it, sometimes viciously, sometimes choosing to write under pseudonyms — which would seem to suggest that people want to tell their stories even more than they want to be known for those stories.

The first-person narrative has also spilled over onto Twitter, where people livetweet humiliations from the TSA, or speak out under hashtags designed to coordinate political actions.

The specific vitriolic hatred and disdain for the personal essay, though, is curious and fascinating, in large part because of something Bennett herself admitted: “…it often privileges the kinds of voices that don’t get mainstream attention…aside from the fact that the ‘confessional’ essay as a form has historically attracted more women than men …. so many of the outlets that are most hungry for quick freelancer copy, and have the lowest barriers to entry for publication, are still women’s interest sites.”

In a single and largely ignored paragraph, she got at the very reason the personal essay is so important, whether it’s an elegant and beautifully crafted piece run in the New York Times or an anthology of essays, or clickbait slapped up to draw a steady supply of readers: It’s a story written by someone who may not have been heard before.

Not always — and it’s not necessarily a story that benefits the world — but it’s a story that’s important to the teller. Some personal essays make me roll my own eyes because of their lack of self awareness, or the horrific parts of humanity that they reveal, laden with casual racism or homophobia or ableism, but they still provide me with insight into how their writers live, and what they think is important. That, in turn, is a window into the way society thinks about itself.

And some tellers definitely don’t know what they’re in for when they unleash their stories on the world, even if they’ve witnessed the fallout of particularly controversial incidents for themselves. As Emily McCombs of xoJane noted when she was interviewed by The Guardian about the subject:

As editors, we try to warn writers who choose controversial topics that backlash that may occur, and offer them the opportunity to publish anonymously. We never want to put anyone’s safety or livelihood at risk. For every story we publish, there are three that we choose not to because the writer doesn’t seem mentally or emotionally ready, or lacks perspective or self-awareness.

There’s something deeply curious and troubling about reserving such antipathy for the first-person essay when it’s a genre occupied almost entirely by women, a form of subtle cultural misogyny that reminds women their voices aren’t important, or valuable in society.

It’s an especially stark contrast to the widespread praise of women speaking out in other ways and on other platforms — at the same time that the incredibly moving and powerful #shoutyourabortion hashtag was spreading like wildfire, some of the editors sitting down to write thinkpieces praising it were also the same editors trashing the personal essay.

What, fundamentally, was the difference between the two? I ask this question genuinely, as someone who was once heavily criticized for writing a piece about my own abortion that was deemed “too flippant” for the tastes of many readers because it didn’t adhere to traditional narratives about what abortion was supposed to look like — not least because it was written by someone who’s not a woman, about an experience many people associate very specifically with womanhood.

Maybe it was too early for the shift in attitudes about letting people tell their own abortion stories, whether they be proud, or regretful, or neutral, or sad or any number of other things. Maybe there are more allowances given for the lack of nuance in 140 characters, a silent understanding that we can’t overburden writers with too many demands when they have such a limited space to write in.

For thousands of years, women have been telling stories amongst each other, and many of those stories have remained condemned to women’s spaces — some form of xoJane, of The Ladies Home Journal, of Bust has always existed, even before humans were writing.

People have a compulsion to share stories, both as a way to communicate about their own lives, and to provide instructive examples, but men’s stories and lives continue to be privileged over those of women. Men who bare all are congratulated while women who do so are sneered at contemptuously, even by those who should know better.

I recently finished reading a piece of literary fiction purporting to tell the story of a marriage from two sides: that of the husband and that of the wife. The husband’s half of the book was indeed about the marriage from his perspective, and I was curious and excited to see the dynamic flipped, to see the marriage through her eyes.

Only, it turned out, “her” story was still about him, and revolved entirely around her husband. I can only pray it was a deliberately calculated choice, elegantly illustrating how the lives of women are often subsumed by those of the men around them culturally and fictionally, but to me it tied in with the distaste for the personal essay. Even in fiction, we can’t let women tell their own stories.

We love Hunter S. Thompson for his out of control, wild gonzo journalism that documents acts of incredible irresponsibility…

…but what if Hunter was a girl?

Image: Diary Writing, Fredrik Rubensson, Flickr