First Person Essays Are Both Boring and Also Exploitative

a writer writering as hard as she can writer
September 15, 2015

There's a fantastic story at Slate about the rise of the "first-person industrial complex," that dreadful brand of essay in which someone, usually a young someone, informs us about the various degradations they have suffered at the hands of the world. You should read the whole thing (go on, I'll wait), but here's a taste:

Take a safari through these sections and the main impression—aside from despair at the exhibit of dire human experience on display—is that all the headlines tend to blur together. Sure, Vox’s essays are chopped up into scannable sections with instructionalheadlines ("How Medicaid Forces Families Like Mine to Stay Poor"); BuzzFeed’s are often more casual and chatty ("Fat Monica Wasn’t Just Courteney Cox in a Fatsuit. She Was My Truth"), xoJane’s tend toward the sensational and salacious ("I Was Cheating on My Boyfriend When He Died"); PostEverything’s have a newsier tint ("I’m a White Woman Who Dated a Black Panther. I Could Have Been Rachel Dolezal"); Rookie’s are hormonal and whimsically illustrated ("Why Do I Keep Writing About the Time I Got My Heart Broken?"). At Slate, we’ve published essays with headlines such as "Dating While Mentally Ill" and "I Could Have Been Elliot Rodger." But for all the different house styles these pieces accommodate, it’s striking how many of them read like reverse-engineered headlines, buzzy premises fleshed out with the gritty details of firsthand experience.

And despite the wide-ranging hardship these pieces catalog, they also share a tendency to reach for the universal even as they dig into the acutely personal. A Voxessay titled "How I Came to Forgive My Rapist" starts out as a powerfully specific story and ends with this: "All that endures now is my wish for an end to rape for everyone else." XoJane’s "Cheating on My Boyfriend When He Died" ultimately declares, "I hope someone can learn from my mistakes." A PostEverything essay about one man’s descent into, and emergence from, white supremacy is framed as a kind of how-to manual: "This Is How You Become a White Supremacist."

The issue with these essays isn't necessarily that they're boring (though they tend to be) or narcissistic (though they always are), but that they're fundamentally exploitative:

Rebecca Carroll, formerly an editor at xoJane, recalls reading one submission by a white woman about how few black people were in her yoga class that was "pretty tone deaf, just totally un-self-aware." It would have taken too much time to fully overhaul it. Still, Carroll published it, knowing that—brutally honest as it was—it was sure to be provocative. "There was an enormous backlash, and the writer was traumatized," Carroll says. "I felt like I just shouldn’t have run the piece at all, because I fundamentally misestimated how prepared the writer was for this to go public." So many of these recent essays make a show of maximal divulgence, but are too half-baked and dashed-off to do the work of real introspection.

We are raising a generation of young writers who are trashing their Google rankings in exchange for $100 and a tweetstorm, who are learning nothing about the craft of reporting except that their musings on incest go viral, who are generating #content without generating anything worthwhile or lasting.

Anyway. You should read that piece and weep for the future or something. Or not. As a wise man once said, my strong suspicion is we get the world we deserve. And we probably deserve endless rivers of first person pieces about the horrible things we have done and had done to us. Selfie culture is all-consuming.