by Merve Emre
The essay form…bears some responsibility for the fact that bad essays tell stories about people instead of elucidating the matter at hand.
The personal essay is a genre that is difficult to define but easy to denounce. The offending element is rarely the essay as a form, but its content, “the personal,” “a permanent temptation for a form whose suspiciousness of false profundity does not protect it from turning into slick superficiality,” writes Adorno. A list of counterparts to the personal essay might include more admirable imaginary genres such as the structural essay, the communal essay, the public essay, the critical essay, and the impersonal essay. Or, as Adorno insinuates, the good essay, which prioritizes “elucidating the matter at hand” instead of telling “stories about people,” as “bad essays” do.
What makes essays that tell stories about people bad? For Adorno, as for Walter Benjamin, one of the essayists Adorno most admired, essays about people betray the true object of essayistic criticism: the private individual. The private individual is not a particular person with a particular story to tell, no matter how distinctive, original, or purely bizarre that story may be. The private individual is not a proper name—not “Virginia Woolf” or “Elizabeth Hardwick,” not “Joan Didion” or “Zadie Smith” or whoever it is you consider your favorite personal essayist to be. Rather, it is the idea that animates all these figures, the powerful, unobtrusive concept that gives the personal essay the appearance of ventriloquizing a singular and spontaneous subjectivity.
Most essayists and scholars who write about the personal essay agree that its “I” is, by necessity and choice, an artful construction. Watch, they say, as it flickers in and out of focus as a “simulacrum,” a “chameleon,” a “made-up self,” a series of “distorting representations” of the individual from whose consciousness it originates and whose being it registers. Yet having marveled at its aesthetic flexibility and freedom, few critics put this claim through its paces. What if individual subjectivity were as much a fiction as the “I” with which it so prettily speaks? What if stressing the artifice of the first person were, as Louis Althusser argued, a strategy for masking “the internal limitations on what its author can and cannot say”?
What if the real limitation of the genre were its glittering veneer of expressive freedom, of speaking and writing as a self-determining subject? What if no performance of stylish confession or sly concealment could shake this ideology loose? What if these performances only intensified the enchantments of subjectivity?
To answer these questions about the personal essay, its mode of address, and the private individual that enlivens them requires a biography of sorts, though not a personal one. The biographer could be any of the twentieth-century theorists who have heralded the entrance of individual subjectivity into history, but it is Benjamin who emerges as the thinker most interested in its literary aesthetics. According to Benjamin, the private individual was conceived sometime between 1830 and 1848, during the reign of Louis Philippe, often known as the first “bourgeois monarch.” Under his rule, the European ruling class and the middle class came together to realize their defining goal: the separation of the public domain from the private, where, as Karl Marx observes, the bourgeoisie could rejoice in “Property, the Family, Religion, and Order.”
Once labor had been cordoned off from life, once the productive activity of work had been extricated from the supposedly unproductive experience of dwelling, the private individual was born. He was, quite naturally, blind to his own history as a derivative creature, an artifact of political and economic processes that he had little incentive to question. The domestic sphere was his incubator, his sanctuary from commercial and social considerations. There he could retreat, wide-eyed and mewling, to probe what he believed to be his thoughts, lodged in his self, his mind, his body, and his home. “The private individual, who in the office has to deal with reality, needs the domestic interior to sustain him in his illusions,” Benjamin wrote, explaining how the ownership of property mirrored the ownership of subjectivity. He continued, “From this arise the phantasmagorias of the interior—which, for the private man, represents the universe.”
For Benjamin, the best representative of the private individual was the collector of decorative objects, “the true resident of the interior” as an architectural and an existential space. For us, it might be the personal essay collection, which props up the same ideology. The personal essay’s historical and aesthetic function has been to persuade us not just that personhood is beautiful or good, but that it is primordial—that individual subjectivity and its expression exist prior to the social formations that gave rise to it. This is a lie, the lie that subtends bourgeois individualism and all its intrusions into language, art, and education, as Adorno explains. The personal essay appears as the purest, most unflinching aesthetic expression of the lie, for the simple reason that, for an essay to qualify as personal in the first place, the primacy of the private individual must be presupposed, “implicitly but by the same token with all the more complicity,” Adorno wrote.
By my account, the personal essay is a modern formation. It is a wholly different creature from the essay birthed by Montaigne in 1570 and nurtured through the seventeenth century by Sir Thomas Browne, Thomas Fuller, and Abraham Cowley. Each of these essayists is unwilling to disentangle the individual from the condition of man or nature, a commitment reflected by how their prose slides with graceful abandon through the various third-person singulars. The “I” with and of which the modern personal essay speaks proclaims its distinctiveness from the “we” that crowds the eighteenth-century periodical essays of Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, as well as the “they” that throngs the nineteenth-century metaphysical disquisitions of Leigh Hunt and William Hazlitt. It bears a distant family resemblance to Charles Lamb’s Essays of Elia, the “quintessence of the spirit of bourgeois intimacy,” according to Mario Praz. Though Lamb begets the lineage in the early nineteenth century, he takes care to thwart its autobiographical referentiality. Writing under the pseudonym Elia lets him throw a small but devastating wrench into the personal essay’s production of individual personhood—its demand for “a single subject whose identity is defined by the uncontested readability of his proper name,” as Paul de Man writes in his essay “Autobiography as De-facement.”
“No one has approached the essays of Elia,” writes Virginia Woolf in “The Decay of Essay-Writing.” Published nearly a quarter-century before Benjamin began his Arcades Project and a half-century before Adorno’s “The Essay as Form,” Woolf’s lament about the aesthetic decline of the personal essay grasps the problem of telling stories about people not head-on but obliquely. She opens not by offering a history of bourgeois individualism but by decrying its most obvious institutional manifestations: first, “the spread of education,” and second, the proliferation of print culture. The churn of both schools and presses results, ultimately, in the flattening of much written matter, Woolf complains, and in a feeling of oversaturation, of boredom on the part of the reader who bears the onslaught. But the reader’s boredom is not the boredom one feels when confronted with an apparently infinite, depersonalized expanse of writing—the boredom of slogging through tightly packed columns in a nineteenth-century periodical, for instance. Rather, it is the boredom of having to attend to “a very large number” of people, all of whom demand public recognition through the projection of a private interiority.
The intimate connection between education, the bourgeois public sphere, and the specter of private individuality compels Woolf to judge the personal essay “a sign of the times.” It is the genre whose formal conventions—the “capital I” of “I think” or “I feel”—not only draw the individual into public view, but also insist upon the primacy of the individual. This insistence occurs regardless of the quality of the essayist’s prose. The personal essay’s significance “lies not so much in the fact that we have attained any brilliant success in essay-writing…but in the undoubted facility with which we write essays as though this were beyond all others our natural way of speaking,” with the “amiable garrulity of the tea-table,” Woolf writes. It is “primarily an expression of personal opinion,” with the stress falling on the “personal,” one’s “individual likes and dislikes,” rather than the strength or the stylishness of the opinion expressed. While these individual likes and dislikes certainly add up to a large “number,” a word that Woolf repeats with scornful amazement, they do not combine in any sensible way. They cannot be imagined as a mass, a totality, cannot be integrated and set to any collective social or political purpose.
Woolf did not hold the desire for recognition to be unethical or untoward, nor did she believe that collective representation is the only purpose to which the essay ought to be directed. Rather, the essay had to maintain the contradictions between individual desires and social demands, between personal being and impersonal experience, to grant the form its unique ability to capture the texture of life—not a particular life, but the impersonal activity of living. “The Decay of Essay-Writing” thus concludes with two visions of potential essays, the first permissible, according to Woolf, the second unacceptable. “To say simply ‘I have a garden, and I will tell you what plants do best in my garden’ possibly justified its egoism,” Woolf writes;
but to say “I have no sons, though I have six daughters, all unmarried, but I will tell you how I should have brought up my sons had I had any” is not interesting, cannot be useful, and is a specimen of the amazing and unclothed egoism for which first the art of penmanship and then the invention of essay-writing are responsible.
The tacit hope is that one day, the essay may be blocked from circulating stories about private, homebound people into the wider world.
“The Decay of Essay Writing” appeared in 1905, roughly when the descriptor “the personal essay” began to spread through the English lexicon. Before the twentieth century, the essay as a form was assumed to be personal but, as the writing of Montaigne and his contemporaries reveals, only in a deliberately circumlocutory manner. Reading across composition textbooks from 1900 to 1940 reveals that the personal was not conveyed through action; not “the simple words ‘I was born’” and a description of the events that followed. Rather, it was through style, a different form of excess from the excesses Woolf decried.
Style was marked by the excesses of language, by an author’s pace, punctuation, diction, and grammar; her distinctive deployment of adjectives, adverbs, and prepositions, which, as Jeff Dolven observes in Senses of Style (2017), “cannot be counted upon to shore up the first person as a verb does.” Consider, for instance, Woolf’s ecstatic tendency to set off adverbs in pairs (“simply and solemnly,” “finely and gaily”). Consider Hardwick’s love of trebling adjectives and sometimes hitching an adverb to the last one, so that her prose appears to increase in precision exponentially in the short span of a sentence. (“She is self-absorbed, haughty, destructive.” “They are defenseless, cast adrift, and yet of an obviously fine quality.”) Consider Didion’s habit of beginning with a missing antecedent to create the impression that writer and reader have arrived at a scene in medias res. (“It is an altogether curious structure…”) Framed by teachers of writing as “conversational” and “chatty,” characterized by its air of “spontaneity,” the essay suggested the author’s “personality” as a specular structure. Its refusal to subject the writer to direct observation was an integral part of its signature.
The essays from earlier centuries that are retroactively designated as “personal” today were commonly referred to as “familiar” essays in the early twentieth century. Their counterparts were “didactic,” “factual,” “informative,” or “instructive” essays. The familiar essay seldom treated the author as its object of interest. Rather, familiarity concerned the relationship triangulated between the essay’s writer and its reader—a relationship between friends. Always, this friendship was mediated by the presence of an object to which the writer had committed her powers of perception and analysis, and, through it, secured her reader’s interest: a novel or a painting, a historic figure such as Cato, a creature such as a moth. “One might put it thus,” writes Christopher Morley in the 1921 anthology Modern Essays: “that the perfection of the familiar essay is a conscious revelation of self done inadvertently.”
By contrast, the personal essay distinguished itself from the beginning by its failure to maintain the practice of triangulation between the essayist, her reader, and the object that shared their attention—its unwillingness to commit to inadvertency. It indulged the temptation to “fall into monologue,” Morley complained, allowing its language to curdle into disclosures that were “too ostentatiously quaint, too deliberately ‘whimsical’ (the word which, by loathsome repetition, has become emetic).”
As many of the composition textbooks from the early twentieth century recognized, direct address could not be avoided entirely: it was inherent in the use of the first person. Yet its influence on essay writing and reading could be minimized, made to harmonize with competing forms of address that were more depersonalized in the kind of friendship they imagined—indeed, that held impersonality to be a sign of the essay’s aesthetic and ethical success.
Any avowal of “impartial publicness” is, of course, never as impartial as it insists. Public styles are always marked by nationality, literacy, class, and race; there exists no such thing as a perfectly inclusive or universal language. Yet the claim to mediating friendship through style nevertheless reveals how, against the rising tide of individualism, the familiar essay demanded that its readers place the highest premium on the imaginative interactions of nonintimate selves. It is the friction between social and private modes of representation that the contemporary personal essay smooths away with increasing vigor in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
Why are people attracted to stories about individuals? The answer is as obvious as it is petty and perhaps cynical. The fiction of private individuality projected by the personal essay allows bourgeois subjects to accrue various economic, cultural, and social rewards. These rewards are dispersed by institutions that are both constituted by the fiction of the private individual and responsible for reproducing it. The most obvious institution of this kind is the school and, as Adorno observes, its elevation of “pedagogical necessity” into “a metaphysical virtue.” Once the production of personhood becomes bound to and administered by pedagogy, its illusions gain in intensity and reach, as does the personal essay.
A more specific genealogy for the genre—and an explanation of its distinctively American quality today—is the “personal statement” that high school students applying to US colleges and universities were asked to produce starting around 1920, and which has evolved into a cornerstone of the admissions process. Although it is difficult to pinpoint how many students per year write personal statements, more than 5.6 million applications were submitted in 2019–2020 through the Common App, a generic college admission application that requires the applicant to write at least one personal essay. Orbiting these millions of essays is a burgeoning industry of tutoring, prepping, and editing services, evinced by the popularity of books such as How to Write the Perfect Personal Statement, The Berkeley Book of College Essays, College Essays That Made a Difference, and How to Write a Winning Personal Statement. The personal narrative is the designated genre to reveal the writer’s “inner self,” an “opportunity to differentiate yourself from everyone else,” writes Alan Gelb in Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps.
The first mention of the personal essay as an admissions requirement, according to Jerome Karabel’s The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton (2005), came during Harvard’s drastic changes to its admissions practices in the 1920s. Since the turn of the century, selection based on exam scores had created what administrators called a “Jewish problem”: the admission of more Jewish applicants than the university deemed acceptable. “We can reduce the number of Jews by talking about other qualifications than those of admission examination,” wrote Harvard president Abbott Lawrence Lowell in 1922, advocating for a subjective set of criteria. The other qualifications he listed, “character” and “leadership,” were to be assessed through three new genres, as Karabel writes: “Demographic information, a personal essay, and a detailed description of extracurricular activities.” The assumption was that Jewish applicants would fall short of the school’s desired “character standard”—that their “centuries of oppression and degradation” meant that they were characterized not by a commitment to individual and personal self-assertion but by a “martyr air.”
To weed out Jewish applicants, universities mobilized the essay as an heir to the Catholic tradition of confession and the later Protestant tradition of narratives of “saving faith,” notes the historian Charles Petersen in his dissertation on meritocracy. No doubt the version of individualism championed by administrators drew on the moral culture of the Protestant bourgeoisie, what Max Weber described as its use of education to cultivate a rational, self-assertive personality. This type was marked by its ability to adhere to a consistent and subjective set of values in a disenchanted world. Forced to conceive the meaning of things, and even man’s relationship to reality, as an individual matter, Weber’s rational personality type formed intellectual arrangements to anoint himself the master and the arbiter of his own destiny, and eventually the destinies of those around him.
The premise of elite college admissions was that this relation could be cinched, and indeed enhanced, by reversing its terms: that the ability to demonstrate, through the genre of the essay, one’s commitment to an idealized model of private and rational individualism marked the applicant as someone well-suited to higher education. Whereas in previous centuries, higher education would have secured a career in the ministry, now it led to executive roles in industry and government. Beyond its discriminatory function, the personal essay sought to identify the students whom the university could transform into the political and economic leaders of the future. Learning how to “game the system” was only a sign of the system’s success at shaping applicants’ behavior.
The overtly discriminatory origins of the admissions essay have been superseded by more covert models of calibrating personhood by ethnicity, as in the recent case of Harvard University admissions officers accused of assigning Asian American applicants lower scores in subjective categories such as “positive personality.” Yet the value the admissions essay—and the college application process in general—places on the private individual as a self-reflective and self-governing subject, the rightful heir to the spoils of capitalism, remains as powerful as ever. Kathryn Murphy and Thomas Karshan, in On Essays: Montaigne to the Present (2020), write:
Applicants are encouraged to draw a moral out of a personal anecdote, often about struggle, and enriched by some element of their reading or studies: “failure,” an expert on the admissions essay tells us, “is essayistic gold.”
Far from signaling weakness, the proud narration of failure speaks of character in precisely the terms set by the educated bourgeoisie of the early twentieth century: character as the capacity to maintain one’s self-comportment in a moment of distress, to tell a tale of hardship lit by the glow of self-knowledge.
At the start of the last century what Petersen has described as the “Catholic tradition of confession,” with its ponderous moral and spiritual accent, its desire for masochistic public exposure and redemption, had yet to enter the scene of personal essay writing and did not do so until the mid-1960s. Almost all the guides mentioned earlier warn applicants away from striking a tone that is too testimonial or therapeutic, working hard to buffer the admissions essay from the sins and perils of what is commonly called confessional writing. Unlike the admissions essay, whose rules and stakes are firmly pegged to educational institutions, confessional writing speaks to a shift in the importance of the individual and the technologies used to conceptualize new notions of personhood. “Its development coincides with new cold war cultures of privacy and surveillance, with therapy/pop psychology culture, with the falling away of modernist and ‘New Critical’ approaches to art and literature, with the rise of the television talk show and the cult of the celebrity,” writes Jo Gill in Modern Confessional Writing (2006).
While one could trace the history of confessional writing back to Augustine, Rousseau, or Freud, as the scholar Christopher Grobe does in The Art of Confession, it was only during the mid-twentieth century that “the confessional” coalesced as a “reinstatement of two closely related literary conventions,” writes the critic Robert von Hallberg: that literature originates “in [their] subject matter” and that writers “mean, at least literally, what they say.” Hallberg was writing about confessional poetry, but one could apply the claim to literature more generally. Perceived by many critics as a rejoinder to New Critical ideologies of reading, the confessional generation appeared to turn away from the university, where the modernist idea that a work exists independently of its creator had been institutionalized. The confessional school, by contrast, squatted at the nexus of therapeutic culture, with its air of psychological self-seriousness; second-wave feminism, from which it drew its reputation as a genre of female complaint; and 1960s counterculture, which imagined literary production as a loose and spontaneous activity.
The rise of confessional writing authorized new groups to speak as individuals, amplifying the voice of the “voiceless” in testimonies to dispossession. Yet as Cheryl Butler argues in The Art of the Black Essay (2003), the essays of James Baldwin, Rebecca Walker, and, more recently, Ta-Nehisi Coates are only awkwardly aligned with the tradition of the personal essay. Even if personal experience is what authorizes the essay form, its function as “a weapon for the downtrodden and the desperate-to-be-heard” presumes that personhood was, from the outset, an unequally distributed resource. Nowhere is this more evident than in Baldwin’s “Stranger in the Village,” in which he examines himself from the self-estranged perspective of the white Swiss villagers who rub his skin and touch his hair, astounded by his blackness: “There was yet no suggestion that I was human: I was simply a living wonder.”
The uncanniness that Butler identifies in Baldwin’s moment of double-consciousness—the same uncanniness that marks “the Latino essay” and “the woman’s essay,” she claims—resides in the moment when the essayist recognizes “who I am.” Yet this recognition is also the moment when 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. “Haunted by sociopolitical dramas around issues of race, sex, and class, for example, the essay itself might arrive as a racy document with a radical politics left unveiled,” Butler writes. Had the personal essay followed in the footsteps of the racy documents of the 1960s, it might not exist anymore, having yielded entirely to the countercultural currents of the political essay.
A genuinely countercultural practice can only flourish for so long before being co-opted by the dominant culture. In this case, co-optation proceeded not through the university, but through the publishing industry, which, as one publisher’s report concluded in 1982, had realized that “giving the actual names of girl-friends involved with [one’s] sex ventures…further increased the curiosity of the general reader, and also promoted sales.” Running under this gleeful voyeurism were more depressing and commonplace changes in the conditions of publishing after the recession of the 1980s forced the industry to grow “leaner and meaner.” “Confession is a growth industry,” announced The Sydney Morning Herald, a claim that was echoed in Irina Dunn’s textbook The Writer’s Guide (1999).
On the production side, confession’s growth had been spurred by a proliferation in new media forms attractive to nonprofessional writers, particularly the rise of blogs and self-publishing, at the same time that professional editorial jobs were being made redundant and advances for nonfiction books were beginning to decrease. On the consumption side, it was marked by the erasure of meaningful aesthetic differences between “quality media and the tabloids.” These economic factors made individual experience more salable than ever, simply because it could be bought on the cheap and sold on the regular, especially when tethered to intimate, therapeutic disclosures about transgressive sexual activity, trauma, and family members in crisis.
While one could read individual essay collections to trace how the market emboldened the aesthetics of confession, parody presents a more fruitful opportunity for understanding the personal essay’s evolving commercial function through the 1990s and 2000s. “I am a Personal Essay and I was born with a port wine stain and beaten by my mother,” declares the Personal Essay who narrates Christy Vannoy’s “A Personal Essay by a Personal Essay,” published in McSweeney’s in 2010. “A brief affair with a second cousin produced my first and only developmentally disabled child.” Here, in close and crowded quarters, appear the most notable features of confessional writing, beginning with its audacious use of the first-person pronoun at birth—a wink at Woolf’s line in “The Decay of Essay-Writing”: “The simple words ‘I was born’ have somehow a charm beside which all the splendours of romance and fairy-tale turn to moonshine and tinsel.” Yet the charm of the Personal Essay wears off immediately in Vannoy’s delightful piece. It is sullied not by the port wine stain—there is magic to that punning detail—but by the rapid accretion of traumatic disclosures: the observation of physical deformity, the admission of family violence, the recollection of sexual transgression. In aggregate, they add up not to a story, but a sales pitch.
The Personal Essay speaks to us from “a clinic led by the Article’s Director and Editor for a national women’s magazine,” which will publish the most promising personal essay out of a crowded field of candidates. In attendance are “the Essay Without Arms,” the “Exercise Bulimia” essay, “Divorce Essays,” the “Alopecia” essay, and a pitiful, misfit essay who refuses to speak in the first person and talks only about “Tuesday.” “Not the Tuesday of an amputation, just a regular any old Tuesday,” the Personal Essay tells us, bewitched by this essay’s descriptive prowess and scandalized by its refusal to play by the rules. Doesn’t the Tuesday essay know what it takes to secure a social position in the contemporary literary field? she wonders. Our narrator prevails as the winner of this competition, as we know she will from her triumphantly abject beginning. “Anyway, come November I will be buying every copy of Marie Claire I can get my one good hand on!” she crows. “If you haven’t looked death straight in the eye or been sued by a sister wife, you won’t see yourself in my story.”
Whereas the narrator of a personal essay draws our attention to the experience of a single individual, the Personal Essay Vannoy ventriloquizes channels the genre’s conceptual production of personhood as a salable commodity. This production takes place through a competitive practice of disclosure, a game of one-upmanship that promises access to publishing’s networks of mentorship, distribution, and circulation. And the conventions of confession, the shocking clichés that the personal essays in the clinic must mobilize to perform their singular and embodied personhood, depend so much on their content that they short-circuit any consideration of individual style on the part of either reader or writer. We have no idea how these essays are written; we only know what they are about. We see this in the naming of the personal essays at the clinic—not by the readability of the proper name, but by subgenre, a categorical descriptor that could belong to any number of individuals. (Certainly, more than one essayist has written on divorce.) One could imagine the clinic filling up with an infinitely receding horizon of subgenres that, for all their startling combinations, never get any closer to grounding the essay in the peculiarities of prose. The tension between personality and impersonality, essential to early understanding of the familiar essay, has gone slack, bloated by traumatic content.
Under what conditions is content king? When the personal essay makes the production of personhood not only publicly legible but also monetizable. “Secretly…we each hoped to out-devastate the other and nail ourselves a freelance contract,” confesses Vannoy’s Personal Essay. Her confession is comic, cruel, and pathetic, revealing the mismatch between out-devastating another person through self-exposure and the rewards it yields. In a publishing industry that has largely done away with staff writers, an industry in which art and literature have dwindled into minor cultural forms and creative laborers must maintain appealing online personae to crowdfund their livelihoods, few things could be more coveted than a “freelance contract.” If there is something painfully anachronistic about buying every copy of Marie Claire, then there is something equally painful in the recognition that the Personal Essay’s performance of personhood only gives her access to exploitative labor conditions. But this is as good as it gets.
The Personal Essay’s appraisal of the economic situation reveals why the triangulation of reader, writer, and object secured by the familiar essay is no longer possible. Fewer places will pay for it; fewer people are trained to produce it. 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. As Jia Tolentino, the New Yorker writer, has pointed out in “The Personal-Essay Boom Is Over,” low-budget websites pay young women a pittance for “ultra-confessional” essays that allow for the “negotiation of [their] vulnerability,” knowing that these essays will encourage voyeuristic traffic and, by extension, increase the advertising revenue on which these sites depend. The Personal Essay who narrates the conditions of her own existence is more matter-of-fact about what other essayists have failed to recognize, or, in Tolentino’s case, have helped to perpetuate: the precarious conditions under which creative labor is performed.
For Tolentino, the end of the personal essay boom is explained by the election of Donald Trump and the suspicion that, since his reign, the personal is no longer political. Yet its decline is explained more by the structural shift on the Internet toward a “self-branding social media influence economy,” as Sarah Brouillette has argued. In the last analysis, it is not a decline so much as the convergence of the genre with social media platforms that has rendered online venues devoted to personal essays redundant. Whereas personhood, as a collection of tastes, preferences, and experiences, was once bought and sold through long-form narrative, now it can be sold and bought in the form of views, shares, and followers—personal data managed not by editors and the publications they run but by corporations such as Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon. What we ought to mourn, then, is not the decline of the personal essay; its ethos and its aesthetics persist. Rather, it is the much longer, slower death of the conditions that gave rise to the essay’s unintimate friendship, a familiarity mediated not by a spectacular personhood but by the skillful cultivation of style.
Originally published under the title “The Illusion of the First Person” in the 3 November 2022 edition of The New York Review of Books.
Merve Emre is currently a Distinguished Writer in Residence at Wesleyan. She is working on a book called Love and Other Useless Pursuits.
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