Commentary, Opinion

Bye bye BuzzFeed: The folly of individualism and the personal essay

Last spring, Jia Tolentino wrote an article in The New Yorker declaring the end of what has arguably been the biggest literary trend of the 21st century: The personal essay. This trend has been bolstered by a subgenre of often pointless confessionals. These have inundated publications over the last decade for three major reasons: They’re simple to write, they’re accessible, and, most importantly, they’re easily attached to seductive headlines. Most people have probably noticed the Buzzfeed articles that flood Facebook news feeds with titles like “My Year Without Makeup,” “Ten Times I Knew I Loved You,” or “Watching And Reading About White People Having Sex is My Escape.”

Do we really need to read articles like this? Probably not, but–the merits of these pieces aside–the reason these sorts of essays have been published with such frequency is simply that people click on them. This desperation for and dependence on web-traffic has nurtured an online subgenre of largely tasteless, pointless, and awkwardly-personal exposition pieces. Unfortunately, this dangerous turn to the superficial egocentric has undermined the value and reputation of more powerful personal essays. Championed by George Orwell, Christopher Hitchens, Bell Hooks, and so many others, valuable and pointed personal essays still exist today, and must remain, as they provide an essential outlet for nuanced perspective in expository writing.

The supposed death of the personal essay has caused a polarizing discussion about the genre’s purpose and relevance in the world today. McGill English Assistant Professor Merve Emre is among those who’ve voiced distaste for the genre’s recent vapidity, writing critically in The Boston Review, “for so many personal essayists, all paths lead back to the ‘I.’” Emre laments the fact that too often, the personal essay, as exemplified by prominent essayist Durga Chew-Bose, “is totally apolitical, bereft of any common political or ethical position.”

This is the gathering consensus leading to the dwindling publication of this type of essay. In a world of burgeoning social and political turmoil, there’s simply no place for pointless individualism, nor is such promotion of narcissism innocuous. That said, examples of the value of personal essays are published every day: Take Jaime Lowe’s recent article in The New York Times examining the dysfunctionality of the psychopharmacology industry through the lens of her own experience. Essays like Lowe’s encourage an emotional engagement and understanding with social issues that’s difficult to elicit with detached expository writing.

The personal essay is a powerful and effective outlet to harness unique perspectives, but the notion often causes people to cringe. In 1936, Orwell wrote an essay titled “In Defence of the Novel,” later republished in 1968 in a collection of what could be called personal essays. Orwell was responding to the novel’s declining standing in literary academia. According to Orwell, this decline was due to an oversaturation of novels—usually bad ones—with reviews such as, ‘“If you can read this book and not shriek with delight, your soul is dead.’” Amid hundreds of works of mediocrity, it’s easier to turn away from the genre altogether; however, Orwell concludes that readers must persist in seeing the inherent value that narrators can provide through storytelling.

The trajectory of the personal essay has resulted in a similar phenomenon: Headlines such as “The Most Moving Personal Essays You Needed to Read in 2016,” push people to dismiss the genre altogether. But, the personal essay remains a way to communicate nuanced and relevant phenomena through individual experiences and provides an irreplaceable platform for issues that could otherwise be more easily brushed aside. The genre’s fundamental value lies in its unique position to elicit valuable emotional engagement in argumentative writing. Declining desire for shallow personal essays is positive, but the genre as a whole, like the novel, cannot die because good writing will always have a place when it has a point.

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