Me, Myself, and I

Today in Slate, senior editor Laura Bennett has a piece up exploring the rise of the (often squeamishly) personal essay as one of the most popular mediums on the web:

First-person writing has long been the Internet’s native voice. As long as there have been bloggers, there have been young people scraping their interior lives in order to convert the rawest bits into copy. But we are currently in the midst of an unprecedented moment in the online first-person boom. The rise of the unreported hot take, that much-maligned instant spin on the news of the day, has meant that editors are constantly searching for writers with any claim to expertise on a topic to elevate their pieces above the swarm. First-person essays have become the easiest way for editors to stake out some small corner of a news story and assert an on-the-ground primacy without paying for reporting. And first-person essays have also become the easiest way to jolt an increasingly jaded Internet to attention, as the bar for provocation has risen higher and higher. For writers looking to break in, offering up grim, personal dispatches may be the surest ways to get your pitches read.

The key problem with what the title of the piece calls “The First Person Industrial Complex” is its opportunism. These essays aren’t better, substantively, than the “hot take”, but the fact that they recount lived experience lends them credibility, whether or not, Bennett argues, they demonstrate meaningful introspection or self-awareness. I would personally add that they are uniquely protected from the kind of probing criticism one might give an analytical piece making the same arguments. Moreover, they fuel a weird, disquieting confessional arms race:

The mandate at xoJane, according to Carroll, was: the more “shameless” an essay, the better. Carroll describes how “internally crushing” it became to watch her inbox get flooded every day with the darkest moments in strangers’ lives: “eating disorders, sexual assault, harassment, ‘My boyfriend’s a racist and I just realized it.’ ” After a while, Carroll said, the pitches began to sound as if they were all written in the same voice: “immature, sort of boastful.” Tolentino, who worked as an editor at the Hairpin before Jezebel, characterizes the typical Jezebel pitch as the “microaggression personal essay” or “My bikini waxer looked at me funny and here’s what it says about women’s shame,” and the typical Hairpin pitch as “I just moved to the big city and had a beautiful coffee shop encounter, and here’s what it says about urban life.”

This is all of a piece with the primacy of lived experience granted (for some people, anyways) by what I suppose could be called the Identity Left. As Bennett notes, the personal essay boom has meant that a growing number of outlets have dedicated space to telling the stories offered by minority writers, just as the Identity Left has (re)emerged to insist that those stories illuminate things about life in our country that abstracted analysis cannot. These trends are reinforcing each other and that is largely good. Concerns should arise though, for anyone who believes that personal experience, while critical to understanding how the abstractions and contextual facts about issues like race manifest themselves in actual life, cannot nourish that understanding alone. It is a simple thing for a writer to talk in personal terms about the injustices, misunderstandings, and ignorance they encounter in their own lives. It is  harder to understand and write about the policies that reinforce them. There are plenty of young writers doing the former and too few doing the latter.