October 24, 2019 § 4 Comments
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.
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!
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.