‘The Personal-Essay Boom is Over‘ is the title of a really interesting piece by Jia Tolentino on The New Yorker. I disagree with it, but it is really worth reading if you want a view on the economics of commentary: to what extent is the profile of public discussion shaped by profit incentives? Tolentino argues — I think persuasively — that a boom in personal-essay writing, where writers (overwhelmingly women) mined their private experiences for content, was a result of media companies coming under increased funding pressures. The writing is cheap and easy to churn out.
Where I think the article is wrongheaded is in its selection of context: why are we looking specifically at this genre of writing?
There is nothing new about personal-essay writing. Seneca the Younger was constantly drawing upon his personal experiences and observations to launch into diatribes about how to be a better stoic. There is a fine tradition of writing reflectively about our observations and experiences. I routinely refer to Walter Murdoch’s essays which did exactly this. One of the most famous amounts to little more than ‘I came across an old tin in a puddle and it made me think about things.’
The recent criticism of first person essays seems strange when we situate this particular variant of the genre within its broader history. Why did we suddenly care so much about first person essays?
One answer is gendered. The typical essayist was male and the Internet opened up the market to a wider variety of writers. Stories that would previously have been marginalised because they were too deviant, too weird, too strange, or too improper suddenly found a platform outside of the traditional media. Women could write about experiences that had happened to them outside of the systems which typically silenced those viewpoints.
This incites two negative responses. The first is the moralist: there are standards that we should seek to cultivate in public discussion. The liberalisation of the marketplace of opinion means that there is less curation and more incentive to fuel outrage economies. Publishers could justify giving readers the titillating, the scandalous, even the obscene because the reader numbers proved that there was an audience for this material. Publishing this material was seen to be trashing public debate, searching for the next degrading story that would attract readers regardless of its impact on broader society.
The second was the sexist. Women are trivial and the writing proved that they are trivial. The denigration of the genre was less its content and more its authorship.
But the funding pressures on media organisations has, in general, reduced the quality of writing in all genres. In Australia, we are consistently bombarded with faux-contrarian hot takes. Striking is bad. Feminists are really misogynists. Darth Vader was really the good guy. House is always haunt. What is curious is that we do not heap the same scorn upon these areas of commentary (typically dominated by men) that we heap upon first person essays.
For my money, the first person essays are not exceptionally bad. They are consistently bad with other areas of commentary. The advantages of first person essays should not be overlooked when casting the bad commentary into the hellfire.
And there are plenty of advantages to first person essays, especially when they draw attention to groups who are excluded from the mainstream. Perhaps one of the most effective pieces of commentary this year was an article in the Canberra Times: ‘Why do Canberrans care more about refugees than public-housing tenants?‘ Phil Brown, who depends upon social housing, wanted to speak out against the way tenants were being portrayed in public debate, so he wrote a first person essay about his experiences and his observations about the way people were forming opinions.
But there are weaknesses to this style of writing. It is commonly — far too commonly — uncritical, playing into a kind of narrative where only those who occupy a particular identity are permitted to express opinions. Just because something terrible happened to you doesn’t mean that you really have anything interesting to say on the subject. This shouldn’t surprise us: one of the basic aspects of living in society is that we are often subject to and participate in forms of oppression without understanding that we are. This is particularly frustrating in a number of public debates where language and tone are strictly policed. The very worst examples of these debates are not the ‘I knitted a jumper with wool bundled up in my genitals’ but, instead, shows like the ABC’s You Can’t Ask That where neither questions nor answers are really worth airing.
So first person essays are not inherently bad. They are useful and can be really constructive. The problem is why there is a proliferation of terrible content, and it is not a problem specific to this genre. We should be casting our net wider and asking whether we are really comfortable with profit motives in public commentary. Should we let market forces decide what content is available, leaving decisions in the hands of editors trying to attract and retain subscriptions?