I recently read the American poet Rene Ricard’s 1978 essay “I Class Up A Joint” and it reminded me what personal writing can do. How entertaining it can be. How fresh. How it can translate some deeply recognizable facet of the human condition across the vast axes of time, space, identity, and life experience. This quality of evoking recognition may make “I Class Up A Joint” sound like the sort of soul-baring work which is often described using words like “devastating” or “brave.” Not so — this essay is just very, very funny. Funny in that way which makes you feel like you’re the only one in on the joke.
It begins: “I’ve never worked a day in my life. If I did it would probably ruin my career, which at the moment is something of a cross between a butterfly and a lap dog. I never went to high school either.” An opener which made me laugh out loud. The best way I can describe how much I liked this essay is to say I felt like it had been written just for me. As if, somehow, long before I was born, Ricard knew the exact thing to write to make me, specifically, laugh. As if I was being told a great story by an old friend.
Good personal writing can create this strong sense of kinship with a stranger. Jamaica Kincaid’s essays on spending her twenties in New York in the ’60s have the same effect on me. I find them very funny, too. But personal writing doesn’t have to be funny to work like this. Donald Antrim’s recent essay “Finding A Way Back From Suicide” is as serious in tone as the title would suggest. On finishing it I had the feeling that some deep truth had been articulated for me. I immediately went back to the start and read it again.
Be it funny or serious, good personal writing is honest, confident, and singular. It doesn’t feel defensive or caveated or generic. There are sentences which read like the equivalent of a coyly raised eyebrow, and jokes which aren’t spelled out. Perhaps above all there is a sense of faith in the listener, the reader, the audience; in other people, really.
This is why I find so much of recent personal writing tiresome: It’s too often defined by melodrama, humorlessness, and excessive self-pity. I don’t mean personal writing about traumatic experiences — the sort of thing typified by the XoJane years, about which much has already been written — but rather the fashion for intensely melodramatic depictions of experiences, or feelings about experiences, which just aren’t that bad. The kind of pieces where the writer seems to have given up on the idea of writing something someone else might truly relate to and instead settled for the essay equivalent of standing in the street shouting “Pity me! Pity me!” at passing strangers. Rather than laughing or gasping or nodding while reading you mainly find yourself thinking: My god, will you get a grip.
One recent example is an Atlantic essay titled “The Things I’m Afraid to Write About” by Sarah Hepola. In this, Hepola describes her discomfort with voicing her opinion on topics, such as gender and politics, due to the threat of the “firing squads on Twitter” in the exaggerated fashion characteristic of this genre. The essay was purportedly about cancel culture but read more like an account of one woman’s neurosis and people-pleasing tendencies, and how a tryst with a younger man had prompted her to re-evaluate these inclinations.
As in all “Pity me!” writing there is a lot of dramatics here and no sense of perspective.
The threat posed by these “firing squads” is ludicrously over-dramatized. As Hepola frames it, writing honestly about gender, sex, or politics might get you “killed.” The word “exile” is used multiple times, along with similar terms like “banished.” Elsewhere she writes: “As jobs in the industry diminished, journalism had become even more cutthroat. Writers gathered around the long communal table of Twitter, and some days it felt like the last scene of Reservoir Dogs — everyone turning their guns on one another.”
Granted, a lot of people on Twitter are annoying and there is certainly a culture in media circles of certain figures meting out their professional jealousy, insecurity, and interpersonal beefs through the medium of bad faith call-outs (although it’s a stretch to say this is always the motivation). But…. the scene in Reservoir Dogs where everyone turns their guns on each other? I know, I know; some would say exaggeration has been used here for comic effect but, well, shouldn’t such a device be funny?
As in all “Pity me!” writing there is a lot of dramatics here and no sense of perspective. And by perspective I don’t mean the “anti-cancelation talisman” paragraph currently popular, in which a writer will haphazardly assert that the phenomenon they are describing is worse for X or Y group and then never further extrapolate on the experiences of X or Y group, but genuine perspective. Hepola doesn’t try to make fun of the enormous weight she gives to her predicament, even though giving too much weight to fairly silly personal predicaments is one of the most relatable human tendencies. The tone is pure misery; in place of honesty we have melodrama; instead of empathy this writing seeks acclaim for its author’s courage in the face of quite surmountable obstacles.
This lack of perspective and Eeyore-ish framing is fairly ubiquitous in writing about cancel culture (on both sides of the debate) . But this trend isn’t solely a “cancel-culture writing” thing. It is also widespread in the ilk of millennial cultural commentary that appears to have been inspired by Anne Helen Peterson’s viral millennial burnout essay.
In these, writers use or invent terms like “productivity dysmorphia” or “competitive exhaustion” to add a medicalized aura of gravity to their tirades detailing the demands of professional life in “our Capitalist hellscape” or whatever. Again, there is the humorlessness and lack of perspective: “I have realized that [productivity dysmorphia] is an inability to see my own success. It’s like I’m looking in the mirror of my professional life and I don’t see the published author staring back at me. All I see is a failure.” Again the theatrics, such as Peterson swearing at the concept of porridge as a time-saving breakfast: “overnight fucking oats”.
Of course, there is a grain of truth in this: Work is a drag. But exaggerating this sentiment to the point of self-caricature doesn’t make it more relatable; it does the opposite. And the pervasiveness of this style is such that even accounts of experiences which are objectively good are told in maudlin terms. My Body, the recent essay collection by Emily Ratajkowski, features a piece called “Bcos Hello Halle Berry,” in which Ratajkowski recounts her time on an all-expenses paid holiday that she was also paid to attend and post occasional Instagram content from. She glumly describes waking up in morning to rain, posting a photo to Instagram and then spending the rest of the day frantically checking the responses to the post; complains about the fellow guests (“rich people”); gets a headache drinking a pina colada; and then mopes around the pool muttering “My Bow-day” to herself in her “best Rhianna accent”. The aura of doom and gloom is palpable but the reason for it is hard to discern. Capitalism and sexism are nodded at vaguely, but the manner in which they relate explicitly to the holiday, if they do, is never really explained. Elsewhere in the book, incedents of sexual harrasment and assault are detailed with the seriousness and gravity which they should always be afforded. But a similarly grave tone applied to a better-than-all-expenses paid holiday is jarring.
Substituting the generic sentiment of feeling bad about life under capitalism in place of specific insight about the human condition is a cheap trick. Noting the existence of a near universally experienced external phenomenon is not the same thing as enunciating some shared element of internality: from almost everyone’s perspective the sky is blue, but you don’t need me to tell you that.
Worse, it’s insanely dreary. If this is how a better-than-free-holiday is narrativized, imagine how Ricard’s insouciant “I never went to high school either” would be framed. “Every day I look in the mirror and see the high school dropout: the failure” or “Unlike many folks, I never finished high school.” It doesn’t bear thinking about.
Substituting the generic sentiment of feeling bad about life under capitalism in place of specific insight about the human condition is a cheap trick.
When seeking to explain any trend in internet writing it is tempting to nod sagely and gesture at the influence of “the algorithm,” clickbait, and the demands of the attention economy. These factors do have substantial influence. Lots has been written about their role in the boom and bust of the lurid, intentionally shocking genre of personal essays which appeared almost constantly throughout the mid 2010s. The ones about daughters having sex with dads, or a trip to the emergency room to have a bizarre object removed from an orifice, or where someone would write about how they were happy somebody else had died. But I’m not sure the same analysis applies so well to this trend.
These essays aren’t lurid or shocking attempts to attract attention, whatever the cost. They aren’t about anything particularly bad or dramatic happening at all; these are banal experiences and observations reported in a maudlin fashion. Several of the writers here couldn’t fairly be said to be governed by the whims of the algorithm in the way that the average freelancer is. My sense is that this morose framing is instead linked to the prevalence of the trauma plot, as identified by Parul Sehgal in the New Yorker earlier this year.
These essays aren’t about traumatic experiences but in a culture “infatuated with victimhood,” as Seghal put it, we seem to have created a climate where even stories which aren’t particularly sad or serious are spun as if they are. The only stories worth telling are the serious and sad ones, this culture suggests, and so everyone is encouraged to tell their story in as serious and sad a way as possible. The infatuation with being put upon also has a way of neatly dividing the world up into victims and abusers. In such a world the appeal of self-identifying as a victim is obvious, but that’s not the world we live in: we all have far too much in common for that.
These essays make me more irritated than sad on an individual basis, but I think there is something genuinely despondent about the trend. An undercurrent here seems to be the idea that pity is the same thing as empathy. That, as a writer, you should seek to make readers feel sorry for you rather than having them relate to you. Or that this is more or less the same thing. This is a very shallow understanding of human nature. Pity is a strange emotion; close to (and not always easily separated from) disgust.
“I don’t want your pity” is, famously, a thing people say, so much so that the phrase is regularly used as a lyric in pop songs. On Quora, the home of folksy truisms, when someone asked why pity was so undesirable the most popular answer was one which said it was “filled with disdain or contempt.” There is a reason that people don’t generally tend to talk about themselves in the style of these pieces (it isn’t normal to return from a holiday and complain about it at the pub, for example): we know that this is an undesirable way for other people to relate to us.
Empathy is the recognition of something familiar in another person’s thoughts or experiences and so is really, at its core, about finding an equivalence between two people. Pity, on the other hand, is characterized by an imbalance. In “Pity me!” writing, the reader is angled into a position of superiority, asked to benevolently regard the exaggerated plight of a lowly protagonist. Maybe some people read to feel like this; I suppose it could feel, in a superficial way, almost heroic. But I don’t think most people do. There is, to put it plainly, enough going on in the world to feel genuinely bad about already.
Rachel Connolly is a writer in London who mostly covers cultural trends and technology.