The Personal Essay

More than the lack of conviction or the preciousness of prose, it is the peacocking of the author that chafes.

What should we make of writing that serves primarily, and sometimes exclusively, to present the author as a more admirably complicated type of human subject than others?

As Tolentino sees it, under Donald Trump’s threats to liberty and justice, even the most egoistic of writers suddenly developed an acute sense for their own irrelevance and scurried away from public exposure like mice fleeing a raucous cat.

Now the most poignant thing about the state of the personal essay was its loss.

However imprecise this statement of equivalence may be, one suspects that it has been thoroughly internalized by personal essayists today who elide aesthetic judgments—judgments about the formal or stylistic features of prose—with ethical and subjective ones that assess the character of the human being who would produce such prose.

The eager transposition of the aesthetic into the ethical is not new; nor is criticism of the personal essay’s manipulation of its readers (its intimate “grossness,” Ralph Waldo Emerson once sniffed).

“You need know nothing of music, art, or literature to have a certain interest in their productions, and the great burden of modern criticism is simply the expression of such individual likes and dislikes—the amiable garrulity of the tea-table—cast in the form of the essay,” Woolf wrote, scolding those middle-class writers who would dare leave their grubby prints on the windowpane of good prose.

If one can set aside her disdain, there is a larger point: too many people writing have nothing interesting to say and no interesting way in which to say it.

The form has always grappled with the many valences of the term “personal” and the kinds of authorial projections it allows.

Taking an unapologetically snobbish tone in her 1905 essay “The Decay of Essay Writing,” Virginia Woolf lamented how the nineteenth-century democratization of literacy had flooded the literary marketplace with personal essays.

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