Apr 23, 2023 Books
In a 2017 article for the New Yorker, ‘The Personal-Essay Boom Is Over’, the writer and cultural critic Jia Tolentino declared the personal essay dead. The confluence of online platforms — “Gawker, Jezebel, xoJane, Salon, BuzzFeed Ideas” — that had fostered this form of writing, the largely untrained and often un- (or under-) paid writers who wrote them and the eager readership they once served had begun to give way. Through the late noughties and the early twenty-tens, these plat- forms had made a booming trade publishing “ultra-confessional” essays that foregrounded and fetishised the personal experience of the author (often young women) — such as ‘Ten Days in the Life of a Tampon’ (2008) by Moe, and the notorious ‘My Former Friend’s Death Was a Blessing’ (2016) by Amanda Lauren. While there was a feminist tenor to much of this writing — the personal is political, as the oft-quoted slogan goes — there was something exploitative in the lack of adequate remuneration for these pieces and the voyeuristic appeal which fuelled the market for them. When Tolentino wrote her article in 2017, these platforms were already beginning to lose their once-avid readership for personal essays and increasingly moving on to other forms of content. Tolentino attributed the end of the boom to internal conflicts within the digital cottage industry of the personal essay, many of which were due to its chequered economics, as well as broader shifts in the political cli- mate. There would be, she argued, “no more lost-tampon essays, […] in the age of Donald Trump”.
From our vantage point in 2022, Tolentino’s eulogy for the personal essay may have been premature. The rhetorical conventions and underlying logic that animated it are still very much alive and well. Indeed, personal writing as a style continues to haunt formal literary production, both fictional and non-fictional, from the novel to cultural criticism. Everywhere across the field of literary production, we can observe its characteristics: among them, the prevalence of the first person (‘I’), a confessional quality (‘no filter’) and the glorification of ‘personal experience’. Autobiographies and memoirs have been a significant part of the publish- ing landscape since a number of break-out successes in the 1990s with a continuing rise in popularity. Recently, so-called ‘autonomous’ modes of writing (such as auto-theory and auto-fiction) have proliferated in art and literary circles (Maggie Nelson’s 2015 book The Argonauts being one of the best-known examples). In the realm of online content, everything from recipes to literary reviews is now often prefaced by some kind of personal anecdote from the author.
Advocates of personal writing often champion it as an antidote to the historical predominance of the third person, a construct that is associated with implicit claims to objectivity or universality in non-fiction writing and an emphasis on narrative form and character development in fiction. Increasingly though, its voyeuristic allure ceases to capture our attention as it once did — as the endless performances of personhood that saturate our social media feeds now more than exceed our appetites for the confessional. Recently, two notable scholars and literary critics, Merve Emre and Anna Kornbluh, launched a polemical broadside against the style. Somewhat ironically, given the concerns at play, their intervention had its origins in a tweet by Emre from February 2021: “The personal essay boom never ended. Instead, the personal essay quietly colonised other genres, beginning with the so-called literary review essay.”
Since then, the two theorists have elaborated their critique of the predominance of personal writing across podcasts (the episode ‘Bootstrapping Across Dystopia: Autofiction, Autotheory, Autoeverything’ on The American Vandal), articles (Emre’s ‘The Illusion of the First Person’ for the New York Review of Books), a public lecture at the University for Chicago Illinois, and Kornbluh’s forthcoming book Immediacy, Or, The Style of Too Late Capitalism. While their central arguments are consistent in that they both view personal writing as mirroring neoliberal capitalism’s conception of the individual, they provide different accounts of this phenomenon’s historical development.
For Kornbluh, drawing on the work of the Marxist theorist Fredric Jameson, personal writing’s proliferation is a symptom of the cultural logic of late capitalism. She characterises this logic as having shifted from that of postmodernism — which Jameson saw as being characterised by a “historical deafness”, waning of affect and emphasis on pastiche as a style — to one of ‘immediacy’. Here, she points to a crucial intersection, as the digital technologies of a network society characterised by the endless production and consumption of content via social media platforms and the seamless user experiences they claim to offer come up against the ever-increasing intensification of the circulation of capital.
This circulation is a way of extracting value, even as global capitalism hits the ecological limits of ‘real’ production. The production and consumption of digital content, or data, serve to provide an immaterial or informational commodity from which value can be extracted, seeming to offer a solution to the lack of cheap resources and exhaustion of new markets within our thoroughly globalised world. Within this context, we, in the overdeveloped West, find ourselves called upon to become entrepreneurs of the self. We are agents in a marketplace where our personal experience and cognitive labour are our main sources of economic value; we are implored to exploit the ‘resource’ of our identities and put them to work via circuits of post-digital cultural production — from selfies and no-filter social media posts to confessional essays and auto-theoretical missives.
Emre provides a more institutional history of the phenomenon. For her, the proliferation of the personal essay emerges from the historical interplay of education — “the bourgeois public sphere” where hegemonic public discourse is shaped — and “the private individual”, the product of the cordoning off of private and public life through the modern Western forms of private property and the family. Emre’s account notes the influence of the personal statement or admissions essay, which is central to the admissions process at American universities. From the 1920s onward, graduating high school students in the United States were required to produce personal statements in which they rhetorically performed a kind of personhood that conformed to “the moral culture of the Protestant bourgeoisie”. These performances, enacting a kind of Protestant “rational, self-assertive personality” that can account for and strive to overcome personal struggles and failings, became, and have remained, a prerequisite for entry into educational institutions.
Where Emre’s and Kornbluh’s critiques converge is in highlighting the way labour in the publishing industry, from writing to editing, is increasingly being performed by under-skilled, under-supported workers, even as the vocational educational requirements for gaining these roles have risen ever higher. Under neoliberal educational reforms, literary studies programmes (and arts and humanities departments more broadly) have been starved of funding. Meanwhile, working conditions in the publishing industry, from journalism to literature, have become increasingly precarious through the casualisation and gigification of its workforce — a move that is in line with broader reforms in the global North, particularly in the service sector and cultural industries. As Emre notes, the predominance of the personal as a stylistic mode provides a solution to an economic problem: “the confessional has proved a highly successful strategy for extracting literary production from an increasingly deskilled workforce that needs to do little more than share experiences”. Within this context, more highly skilled and labour-intensive modes of writing, such as long-form investigative journalism and engaged cultural criticism, which have real social value and import, are sim- ply not economically viable.
The fundamental problem with the current dominance of personal writing is the way that it precludes new means of thinking about social and political relations beyond the horizon of personal experience. Instead of critically interrogating the contemporary moment or working to produce new forms of political solidarity or commonality (which is possible, as we will discuss below), it simply posits and re-affirms the personal experience of the atomised neoliberal individual. One person after another has their individual story posited and affirmed; “everyone speaks their truth in turn”, as Kornbluh puts it. While proponents of this style of writing often claim that it challenges the sense of a private individual by revealing it as an artful construction, this is rarely borne out. Instead, such writings largely serve to reproduce the ideology of the private neo- liberal individual rather than challenging it in any fundamental way.
It is important to note, however, as Emre and Kornbluh do, that contemporary forms of personal writing have antecedents in more radical social movements — Black, feminist, queer — and the modes of writing they produced. Indeed, in returning to and rereading these antecedent movements and texts, we may find some of the resources needed for thinking through the tensions of the personal and the political in more nuanced ways. While contemporary proponents of these trends often cite these traditions as precedents for their own practices (a gesture that attempts to legitimise the supposed radicalism of their own writing), they often fail to acknowledge that these traditions were not simply seeking to affirm personal experience and personhood as given, but rather interrogating its very construction, contradictions and limits.
Here, we might look to return to and reconsider these more radical traditions, as Emre does in ‘The Illusion of the First Person’, where she draws on the history of essay production by Black writers. Exemplified by the likes of James Baldwin, this tradition works through the forms of double consciousness experienced by Black people who are constantly confronted by the alienating effects of racism. For example, in Baldwin’s ‘Stranger in the Village’ (1953), Baldwin “examines himself from the self-estranged perspective of the white Swiss villagers who rub his skin and touch his hair, astounded by his blackness”. In Baldwin’s essay, the moment of recognition of “who I am” is simultaneously the moment that “the question of the private individual is dissolved by the knowledge that the ability to write and to speak as an ‘I’ is a restricted social and political phenomenon”. Here Baldwin explores the construction of personhood in relation to the legacies of slavery and colonisation and, in turn, the production of the racialised subject who is, ultimately, excluded from full personhood by European society, as he is reduced to an object of curiosity by the Swiss villagers due to the colour of his skin.
We may also look to feminist authors such as Hélène Cixous who, influenced by a feminist reading of psychoanalysis and French philosophy, developed a mode of formally experimental writing that she referred to as écriture féminine or writing in “white ink”. Moving freely between highly personal accounts of her dreams and fantasies, esoteric philosophical passages and experimental poetry and prose, her écriture sought to challenge what she saw as the dominant ‘phallocentric’ mode of writing. She saw this form of writing as being defined by an intrinsically male relationship to language and composition that emphasised formal coherency and logical argumentation. Through the use of free association and wordplay, and the addition of ruptures, gaps and silences into the text, her work can be seen to interrogate how personal experience, and in turn gender and sexuality, is constructed in and through language and the very act of writing itself. In her best-known essay, ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ (1975), she rewrites the myth of Medusa in “white ink”, championing the Gorgon as a feminine figure whose apparent hor- ror lies in the fact that her desire is incomprehensible and illegible to the patriarchal social order that seeks to subjugate it, a desire that Cixous seeks to express through her experimental prose.
The movement of New Narrative writing that came out of San Francisco’s queer scene in the late 1970s serves as another vital point of reference here. Emerging in dialogue with the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, whose work focused on avant-garde experimentation on a level of form, the New Narrative movement saw writing as an inherently social and political act. For New Narrative writers, such as Bruce Boone and Robert Glück, the relationship between personal experience, politics and writing was a central concern, one that they explored through a highly heterogeneous set of writings that included everything from poetry and novels to critical theory and cultural criticism. In their collection of writings, one encounters productive juxtapositions everywhere — intimate accounts of their love lives and friendships sit beside poetry that riffs off the novels of pulp-horror authors such as Stephen King and sustained theoretical meditations on the work of the French erotic writer-cum-philosopher Georges Bataille.
The New Narrative writers are important here not just for the way their theoretical essays self-reflexively interrogate the relationship between the personal and the political in their creative writing, but because the movement itself was communal in its organisation — a communality grounded at once in anarchist and socialist politics, the legacies of Californian hippie utopianism and the alternative kinship models of queer culture. For the New Narrative writers, writing is fundamentally a social practice rather than an individual one, something that was exemplified in their methods and in the form and content of their work.
Personal writing, then, does not in itself foreclose the critical or socially productive potentials of writing, but the bulk of contemporary personal writing arguably does little more than aestheticise personal experience as that of the private individual without challenging it in any fundamental way. Rather than simply using this mode to affirm personal experience as given, we should turn our attention to the ways in which personal experience is always the product of the social, historical and political conditions that constitute it, and thus look to interrogate and challenge the very construction of the personal and personhood. In doing so, we would be carrying on the vitally important work of the radical writing traditions that employed more experimental and rigorous approaches to personal writing that preceded the current trend. As the New Narrative writer Boone puts it, “if our writing is no longer to have social effects, why do we write?”