A Response to Jia Tolentino’s “The Personal-Essay Boom is Over”
June 12, 2017 § 19 Comments
By Zoë Bossiere
A couple of weeks ago, a piece by Jia Tolentino came out in The New Yorker called “The Personal-Essay Boom is Over.” The title alone was enough to deluge social media feeds with writers stepping forward to defend the vitality of the personal essay in spite of the article’s assertions, or otherwise agreeing with Tolentino that the personal essay is, in fact, “dead.” The only problem is, the article isn’t actually about what we writers know as the personal essay at all, but rather a separate subgenre of nonfiction called the “confessional essay.” If we want to get even more specific, Tolentino’s article is talking specifically of the confessional essays typically printed in online “women’s” publications such as xoJane, Jezebel, Salon, and others. To compare the personal and the confessional is a common false equivalence, and a great underestimation of all that first-person nonfiction writing encompasses.
I can recall one of my first nonfiction professors drawing a line on the board, labeling its two ends “Self” and “World.” From there, we students worked to fill in the line with subgenres of nonfiction such as memoir, journalism, personal essay, critical essay, and so on. Every subgenre has a place on this spectrum, and the personal essay, I learned, falls squarely in the middle. Contrary to what many might believe, the personal essay is not a self-absorbed, naval-gazing reflection pool. Rather, the signature of the genre is its use of the self to comment on something larger than. The personal essay cannot, by nature, be strictly personal, as that would delve into “confessional” territory.
A confessional essay focuses exclusively on the self, usually in the form of an anecdote—“This one thing that happened to me this one time.” One convention of the genre is to explore taboo subjects (incest, rape, the female body) to grab reader attention, which some have likened to the writing equivalent of internet “clickbait.” I appreciate how Tolentino addresses the practice of publishing such sensitive material as potentially exploitative, writing that “so many women wrote about the most difficult things that had ever happened to them and received not much in return” except harassment from strangers. This is undoubtedly one of the hazards of the confessional genre, and one that editors who publish such stories should be aware of. I disagree, however, that this kind of essay holds no currency in a world where even the most innocuous statements on Facebook and Twitter can and are interpreted as in some way political.
While Tolentino remains critically neutral in her article, relying on quotes from those she interviewed to do most of the hard-hitting for her, it’s clear the current trend is to lambaste the confessional essay (again, under the false moniker “personal essay”) as narcissistic or “too personal.” But I’m here to remind you there’s really nothing wrong with writing like that. After all, writers like David Sedaris have built a career on essays that might be labeled “confessional” if he were a woman. And we love David Sedaris. So what’s the problem?
According to Tolentino: “Put simply, the personal is no longer political in the same way it was” before the election. Before Donald Trump. Historically, though, there’s always been a reason why the public thinks women should not be writing, and least of all about their own experiences, which as young girls we learn are somewhat trivial to the rest of the world. Movies centered around the lives of female protagonists are routinely dismissed as “chick flicks” and stories showcasing the ways women can be strong are dubbed exclusively “for girls” as though they have nothing to offer any other audience. Tolentino says herself that the writers of the confessional essay are almost exclusively female, so to say that the personal is no longer political seems like just a new way of telling women to shut up about themselves because there are more important things in the world to talk about.
If the nonfiction spectrum has taught me anything, it is this: The world is large. The self contains multitudes. Of course there is enough room on the internet for the personal and the political to be happening simultaneously. And during a time when women and immigrants and people of color can see the effects of the current administration in their day to day lives, to say otherwise is absurd.
But frustratingly, implicit in articles like Tolentino’s is the sense that men who write about their experiences are writers, while women who do the same are simply selfish. This is an idea women have been rallying against for a long time, as Claire Vaye Watkins wrote in “On Pandering” and Rebecca Solnit in “Men Explain Things To Me.” These essays remind us that for some, it will never be a good time for women to freely write and publish about their own lives without offending the current political or social climate. But I have a sneaking suspicion that the people who say that no one wants to hear about your lost tampon when there’s a crazy man in the oval office are the same people who wouldn’t want to hear about it anyway.
And though Tolentino claims to be among those who like the genre but “aren’t generally mourning its sudden disappearance,” she does admit to missing the prevalence of the confessional essay on the internet, writing that, personally, “I never got tired of coming across a writerly style that seemed to exist for no good reason.” Of everything I’d read in Tolentino’s article, this gave me most pause. To make a value judgement about the existence of the confessional is to categorically dismiss all of the writing, and therefore all the writers, within the genre. In truth, the fact that women are driven to write essays like these is good reason enough.
Zoë Bossiere is an incoming Ph.D candidate at Ohio University where she will study creative nonfiction. Works and significant life events can be viewed at zoebossiere.com.