A Defense of the Personal Essay

Sunday Content #7: September 20, 2015

Sandy Allen
Sep 20, 2015 · 6 min read

Slate recently published an article about personal essays online. It argued that there are a lot of bad ones right now, and that publications favor them because they’re less expensive to produce than reported stories, and that people who publish tell-alls that are under-edited and then go viral regret doing so.

Now, I’ve edited a fair number of personal essays that were published — and occasionally very widely read — on this here internet. Some of them were confessional. Some revealed huge, horrible truths about their authors’ lives. Most were the result of months of dialogue between a writer and me. Often more labor went into these kinds of pieces than the majority of the stories I was editing, which were more traditional (read: first person-free) reported features. And that labor was emotional, in part. Which made things difficult at times, but difficult work often yielded stronger stories. One of the essay’s great potential powers as a form is that its writer is more likely to care, deeply, about it.

When I was editing features, on the other hand, I would sometimes sense a lifelessness in a draft, or a clutter, and it would occasionally be attributable to an author’s apathy toward his own material. Supposing for a second that I, as an editor, truly didn’t care about whether I was spending my days publishing good work or bad, supposing my interest was only in $$$eyeballs$$$: apathy is bad for business. Readers can smell it. You publish something even its author was apathetic about, I guarantee you it sinks to the bottom of the internet.

I would ask the writer who’d become apathetic: “How did you come to want to write this story?” which is a way of asking, “Why do you care about this?” which is a way of asking “Why would anyone care to read this?” If there wasn’t a good answer, my job became to help him find one (and usually we would). So this is all a way of saying: I like to think readers can tell when something came into the world because it actually needed to.

In my experience, whatever my experience is worth, it is simply not true that the essay is a cheap or light or lesser form. In fact, in the space of the internet, where so much of our behavior is emotional, the personal essay often has a better shot at actually communicating some important information to people who otherwise don’t care or don’t know to care. It’s not coincident, I think, that the best piece published in the last few years by The New Yorker — which still more often than not produces our culture’s best reported features — was a personal essay.

That said:

Yes, there is a lot of crap out there.

Most essays / all things published would benefit from further time and consideration. Many essays would benefit from reporting. If you’re an emerging writer, know that you don’t need to sell your biggest story to the first bidder; hang out in some tide pools before you swim into the bay.

And the Slate piece sort of says this, but it’s also really important that publishers be soliciting and publishing and promoting works —personal essays yes, but features, articles, short stories, poems, comics, videos, tweetstorms— by writers who aren’t white, who aren’t women, who aren’t straight, who aren’t cisgendered, whose points of view haven’t been validated by mainstream culture over and over and over. The essay is a particularly powerful tool with regards to our current revolution, which I might describe as a broadening of which kinds of peoples’ stories reach significant audiences, because the essay does not pretend as if the author and her experiences do not affect what she’s chosen to try to talk about. In other words, the essay acknowledges that she and her experiences do exist.

New York Times education reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones was on a truly great episode of Another Round this week. When asked whether she got emotional reporting her recent tremendous This American Life story about integration, Hannah-Jones said this:

“I haven’t subscribed to this idea that journalists are objective. Of course we’re not. None of us are. … White journalists’ experience going through white segregated schools that function well and living in high functioning white neighborhoods also absolutely impacts the way that they write about these issues. Their experiences with police harassing them absolutely affects whether they believe that police harassment is happening and how they report the issue. This is what I like about where journalism is going: I think people are much more up front about their biases and their experiences. Then it allows the reader or the listener to say, okay, I know this about this person, so now I can examine whether I think this person has actually reported this out, or whether it’s true or not. As opposed to this false sense of: I’m unbaised; this is the unbiased truth. I’m reporting this as a black woman who was bussed and who realized that getting out of her segregated school gave her a lot of opportunity. With that said, I’m also looking at all the facts and I’m very, very careful with my facts so no one can actually dispute what I’m writing, even though they know that about me. … I absolutely get emotional but I think it’s that emotion that allows you to write a compelling narrative and allows your listeners or your readers to feel that same emotion.”

If you have not already, please listen to her story, “The Problem We All Live With.”

Else you think I’m just being paid by the Essay Lobby (because ha ha of course that’s not a real thing *tugs at collar*), here are some great reported features from the last few weeks: Amy Harmon on a young woman with cancer’s decision to be cryogenically frozen; a terrifying portrait by Stephanie McCrummen of the people who Dylann Roof stayed with before he committed an atrocious act of white terrorism; Patrick Radden Keefe on FBI and Whitey Bulger; and of course the much anticipated and indeed excellent Ta Nehisi-Coates Atlantic cover story about the black family in the age of mass incarceration.

While you’re at it: (re)read Jill Lepore’s 2011 piece about Planned Parenthood:

Okay. Coupla short things then I’m out. Vintage cocaine ads were apparently a thing:


At The Awl, a meditation on loneliness by Joe Berkowitz and illustrated by Hallie Bateman:

And over at Lit Hub, an excerpt from a project that photographs tax havens:

The best part is the kids grow up to be good people.


p.s. In Philadelphia, someone found a crab with a cigarette and then people took photos of it with their iPhones.

Sandy Allen

Written by

Author of A KIND OF MIRRACULAS PARADISE (Scribner, 18) | Host of podcast MAD CHAT (www.madchatshow.com) | www.hellosandyallen.com | they/them

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