The Indignity of Confession

October 24, 2019 § 4 Comments

By Sarah Boon

I have always struggled with finding balance in the personal essay, between telling too much and not telling enough, between exposing myself versus keeping myself under wraps. In 2017, Jia Tolentino wrote in The New Yorker that the personal-essay boom was over. “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.” At Slate, Laura Bennett wrote disparagingly of “solo acts of sensational disclosure that bubble up and just as quickly vaporize.”

Some writers agreed. Over at LitHub, Lorraine Berry quoted Virginia Woolf’s grumpiness about the proliferation of personal essays:

Almost all essays begin with a capital I—‘I think,’ ‘I feel,’—and when you have said that, it is clear that you are not writing history or philosophy or biography or anything but an essay, which may be brilliant or profound, which may deal with the immortality of the soul, or the rheumatism in your left shoulder, but is primarily an expression of personal opinion.

Berry added,

Woolf urged writers to stop writing crappy book and theatre reviews and put something real on the page…Tolentino is telling writers to stop writing personal essays where the “I” on the page has an experience that cannot be related to the greater structures in which we’re operating…We need to treat the personal essay with more dignity than we have done. There are infinite glimpses of human truth to be had in personal writing, but it really is okay not to publish every single thing you write.

This line resonated with me, as I find that too many authors think it’s important to publish everything they write, and in the process they end up publishing overly confessional essays.

Other writers were firmly opposed to Tolentino’s essay. Susan Shapiro fought Tolentino’s statement that it’s mostly women writing these essays, asking “Is it uncouth for a woman to admit to wild adventures without proper repentance while making good money?” Here on the Brevity blog, Zoë Bossiere wrote that “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 agree with Bossiere that the issue isn’t the personal essay itself, but how it is defined. As Emily Fox Gordon points out in The American Scholar, there is a difference between essays that confess and those that confide. “What’s always most important about a confession is its content; what’s often most important about a confidence is the relationship it creates or furthers.” This is exactly how I think that personal essays can be divided, and it’s the latter that makes the most impression on readers.

The personal essays that Tolentino was calling “dead” were those that confess.

Recently, Tolentino published Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, her first book of—you guessed it—personal essays. But these nine chapters are heavily researched, transcending the confessional to discuss how women exist in today’s web-obsessed world. The personal is used to draw the reader in. In “The I in Internet,” Tolentino describes her use of the web when it first started, then pivots her viewpoint to engage with several books outlining how we use the web today, and are increasingly merging our professional and personal lives online. She makes the personal political by focusing on how the internet is built to distend our sense of identity, how it encourages us to overvalue our opinions, maximizes our sense of opposition, cheapens our understanding of solidarity, and destroys our sense of scale.

Through the essay, we not only discover one writer’s personal history with the web, but a detailed discussion of the internet’s role in present day society and of social-media addiction. Tolentino herself is not immune to the siren call of social media, writing, “Still, on occasion, I’ll shut down my social media blockers, and I’ll sit there like a rat pressing a lever…masturbating through the nightmare until I finally catch the gasoline whiff of a good meme.” While deeply personal, the essay connects with readers by expanding our knowledge of the negative aspects of social media in the context of the author’s personal experience. Her addiction is an example, not the whole point.

Tolentino’s research extends to her own history. In “Reality TV Me,” about being on a reality show in high school, she goes back and interviews the director of the show and the other cast members. By interrogating their experience and combining it with her own memory of the events—and her current perspective on them—she pulls together an engaging essay on how her reality TV experience “simultaneously freed me from and tethered me to self-consciousness by making self-consciousness inextricable from everything else” and was a precursor to her life on the internet, where personal and professional blur into a single online presence.

Ultimately, Tolentino proves that the personal essay—the confiding rather than the confessional—is not dead. Writers like Robin Wall Kimmerer, Kathleen Dean Moore, Sarah Menkedick and others produce work that brings the reader in with personal details, then opens up to broader topics and ideas. These are writers who definitely treat the personal essay with dignity, and I hope to count myself among their ranks.

Long live the personal essay!

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Sarah Boon‘s work has appeared in Outside Magazine, Catapult, The Millions, Alpinist Magazine, Longreads, LA Review of Books, Chicago Review of Books, Literary Hub, and more. She is currently working on a book about her adventures in remote field research and blogs at Watershed Moments.

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.

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