A Response to Jia Tolentino’s “The Personal-Essay Boom is Over”

June 12, 2017 § 20 Comments

zoeBy 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.

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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.

On “the Terrible Efficiency of Gaslighting”

January 22, 2016 § 14 Comments

e.v. de cleyre

e.v. de cleyre

By e.v. de cleyre

On Saturdays, my mother brought me to the fabric store where she worked and taught me to measure yards. At home, the sewing machine whirred us to sleep, as my mother stole moments of creativity for herself. Slivers and scraps of fabric became something else entirely when stitched together—somehow more whole. As the work grew, stretching across the dining room table, we ate in the kitchen, displaced by quilts. Batting done, borders hand-sewn, the quilts disappeared, re-appearing with blue ribbon awards at the local quilt fair.

My mother stopped quilting after the divorce. She resigned from her position as a teacher and sales associate at the local fabric store, and returned to nursing. The connection was not made explicit, but as a child I inferred that creative pursuits were a luxury, not a livelihood; a hobby, not a career. Toiling at a fabric store, though creatively fulfilling, was not viable. At a certain point, we must make compromises in order to live, and oftentimes the first to be cut from the cloth is our creativity.

**

When asked about the reading, male-writer-friend replies that the visiting author was “a babe.” When pressed for more information, male-writer-friend adds that what doesn’t get conveyed in the recording is the author’s bubbly personality, the way she smiles, says “yeah,” and plays with her hair. He makes little mention of the content of her talk, or the quality of her work, only that one answer to an audience member’s question was “interesting.” Nevermind that the author topped the New York Times best-seller list, and landed a two-book, seven-figure deal.

The temptation is there to divorce writing from publishing, to delineate and distinguish the two as separate. The VIDA Count exists because there is still a discrepancy. One could argue that it is harder for some—women, transgender individuals, people of color—to publish than others, and that this obstacle makes it harder to write. If no one is publishing your work, at a certain point, the writing—if its intention is to be read—feels futile. If no one is compensating you for your work, the writing—which needs little to be done—may be pushed aside in favor of more practical matters, like paying the rent.

In the essay “On Pandering,” published recently on the Tin House blog, Claire Vaye Watkins relays her experience of being dismissed by a male writer as not a writer, not even a human, treated instead as a piece of property. Dubbing an author “a babe” is a similar dismissal—the refusal to acknowledge her as a writer, instead a direct infantilization.

Claire Vaye Watkins continues: “I have not written anything of consequence since my daughter was born. […] I spend my days with a baby and that, patriarchy says, is not the stuff of art. Once again I am a girl and not a writer. No one said this. No one has to. I am saying it to myself. That’s the terrible efficiency of gaslighting.”

When the author bemoans to a friend that she has “nothing to write about,” the friend reminds her of motherhood, a newborn child, the “struggle to make your marriage work.” Vaye Watkins writes, “when I write some version of this down it seems quaint or worse. I thought I had enough material for a novel but when it came out it was a short story, and one that felt unserious. I tried a story in the form of a postpartum-depression questionnaire and it felt quaint. Domestic. For women.”

**

When I introduce one of my favorite authors to people who have not heard of her, I mention that she was once married to a male novelist, as if the mention of his name validates her own genius, a kind of genius by association. Her work is brilliant. Staggering. It does not need to be associated with anyone or anything, no man nor marriage, and yet I find myself engaging in the same sort of gaslighting mentioned in “On Pandering,” unintentionally diminishing this woman’s work—and my own in the process. In order to be taken seriously as a writer, I buy into the (false) notion that I have to write serious things.

Again: No one said this. No one has to. I am saying it to myself. That’s the terrible efficiency of gaslighting.

**

I am twenty-seven and married in the same way my mother was twenty-seven and married. After my MFA, in between revisions of a nonfiction manuscript, I returned to sewing, joking that it was a creative pursuit that didn’t involve rejection.

Like my mother, I am afforded the luxury of time for creative pursuits through the support of a spouse. Writing should be easy, and is made easier, because I do not have to choose between creative pursuit and material comfort. But what if this connection is severed, along with this illusion of permanence and security?

As I feed fabric under the needle, hyper-aware of the limitations of my skills and the re-emergence of some dormant knowledge, I feel quaint—strung between wanting to create garments and quilts with fabric, and feeling hemmed in by the inherent femininity of the pursuit. It feels trivial to even speak of it; when I explain my new pursuit to a male-photographer-friend, before he jets off on an assignment to South Sudan, I find myself trying to justify it with facts and figures gleaned from a documentary—placing my creativity in a larger context, assigning it more importance than necessary. Really, all I need to say is, I like to sew. Yet beneath that, Vaye Watkins’s words echo in my mind: Domestic. For Women.

**

Writing does not leave me with pinpricks along fingertips. Writing does not scald like a hot iron. Writing is not a body ravaged by cancer. Writing is not a garment factory in Bangladesh, or a cannery in Alaska.

In this way, writing is easy. But it is still an internal struggle to carve out time each day to devote to the craft, to actively ignore or refute the terrible efficiency of gaslighting. It is a struggle to honor stories and experiences often dubbed trivial, quaint, and to consider them valid enough to voice—stories about struggling newlyweds, divorce, a novice seamstress, a woman trying to marry creative fulfillment and fair compensation. It is a struggle to do justice to someone’s life and work, to not reduce them to simplistic narratives: mother, quilter, divorcee, newlywed, nurse, daughter, sister, woman. It is a struggle to remain open, to be fully human, and to render others as such in prose—but you must remember, must believe, that it will be so worthwhile.

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e.v. de cleyre is a semi-nomadic writer, currently residing in the Pacific Northwest. She holds an MFA in nonfiction from New Hampshire Institute of Art, and her essays and reviews have appeared in Ploughshares online, The Review Review, and ayris.

 

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