— Sylvia Plath
I READ A lot of memoirs. And I read a lot of memoirs by women.
Over the past two years, I’ve read memoirs by women who call themselves girls: Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl; Carrie Brownstein’s Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl; Kim Gordon’s Girl In a Band. I’ve read memoirs by writers whose work I’ve followed on the Internet for years: Lindy West’s Shrill; Sarah Hepola’s Blackout. I’ve read memoirs by comedians: Amy Poehler’s Yes Please; Tina Fey’s Bossypants; Mindy Kaling’s Why Not Me? I’ve read memoirs by people who have had unthinkable, frightening things happen to them: Susannah Cahalan’s Brain on Fire; Piper Kerman’s Orange is the New Black.
Predictably, I am also a devourer of online personal essays. Those mini-memoirs that, at their best, are nuanced, self-aware reflections that make us laugh out loud (or cringe) in recognition, or teach us something about our world — and maybe something about ourselves, too. (If you’re looking for recommendations, might I suggest LITERALLY ANYTHING by Nicole Chung, Scaachi Koul, Durga Chew-Bose, Roxane Gay or Ashley C. Ford, women whose poignant writings on race, gender and identity I revisit over and over again. And, of course, there’s Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half, whose childhood remembrances rendered in artistically crude MS Paint drawings are now among the Internet’s Greatest Hits.)
I also read the raw, intentionally provocative, “I’ve been a bad, bad girl” stuff — the stuff of xoJane’s reviled It Happened To Me series — with a mixture of voyeuristic curiosity and, sometimes, abject horror. And then I read the pieces about all those bad girls, the pieces that worry about the women who blow up their lives and then write about it on the Internet.
Back in 2012, roughly three years before her own harrowing memoir about her alcoholism came out, Sarah Hepola wrote such a piece about former xoJane beauty editor/self-described disaster Cat Marnell and, more broadly, first-person writing. She had some complicated feelings about Marnell — who chronicled her drug abuse in vivid detail and in 2013, landed a much-publicized book deal — that mirrored my own. It’s a love/loathe thing.
Like Hepola, I also got “funny zaps of envy” reading Marnell’s writing — which I did, all the time. They aren’t the same zaps of envy I get when I see an article I did not write being shared everywhere with that one-word Internet endorsement: “THIS.” Rather, I internalized the idea that only women like Marnell — women whose lives (seem) thrillingly shambolic — get to write about their lives. That the only stories worth telling are the most shocking, and that those writers were the ones who got book deals. I mean, no one wants to read Everything in Moderation: A Memoir.
Hepola — who also used to edit first-person essays — was already worried that we had “tipped the scales too far” when it came to writers excavating their skeletons and putting them where they could be instantly retrievable:
Way too much skin on display. People are too readily encouraged to hurl their secrets into the void. Maybe it’s how old-school feminists feel when they see half-naked girls grinding on a pole in a dark bar: Really? This?
I worry about anyone who is lighting themselves on fire for our enjoyment. I worry about the bloggers and viral stars who have burned up so much of themselves for the prize of a few thousand followers.
I used to worry about that, too. And then I realized I was worrying about the wrong thing.
• • •
In my Winnipeg Free Press review of Melissa Broder’s searing collection of personal essays So Sad Today — named for her popular (and formerly anonymous) Twitter account — I made a two-sentence observation about how the cultural concern about Women Writers Oversharing on the Internet often mirrors the cultural concern with promiscuity and virginity — right down to the paternalistic language used as well as the assumptions made about agency.
“Don’t give it all away.”
“Don’t reveal too much.”
“Do you have no shame?”
“You’re going to regret this.”
This phrasing — to “reveal” or “expose” the most vulnerable, intimate parts of yourself for clicks, likes, shares, followers, validation (you know, the only reasons people write anything) — makes the whole thing sound transactional, shameful and dirty. There are so many ways in which women can be branded sluts. It’s attention “whore”, after all.
Notice, too, that it’s women who do the bulk of the “oversharing.”
I believe, as a person who reads (and occasionally writes) first-person essays, that there is tremendous value in women writing about their lived experiences, and making art about their lived experiences. I want to read essays about difficult subjects written by difficult women. “Oversharing” — whatever that means — doesn’t bother me.
Besides, we’re in the post-overshare era of Internet. We’ve all read the cat-hair-in-the-vag piece (which has over 30K shares, BTW).
I am far more troubled by websites that prioritize clicks and traffic over quality, accuracy and humanity. I am concerned that sensitive personal essays are going out into the world — FOREVER — too quickly, with what seems like barely a glance, let alone a thorough edit. It angers me that too many first-person verticals are continuing to centre the voices of the white and blonde. It frustrates me that this industry pays women a pittance, or nothing at all, for their labour and then has the audacity to insist that they be grateful for the “exposure.” It saddens me that so many websites don’t prepare women for what it means to go viral.
It’s been said time and time again that first-person essays are cheap to produce, saving stretched editorial teams the time and expense of reported features. Funny, because they tend to cost the writer a lot. Just ask anyone who has had her life upended by telling the truth. Not for the clicks or for the “fame.” Because it needed to be told.
• • •
In 2015, Slate’s Laura Bennett wrote an excellent reported piece called The First-Person Industrial Complex: How The Harrowing Personal Essay Took Over The Internet. In it, she explores the recent boom of first-person writing online, as well as the huge costs to writers. You should read it, but the tl;dr summary is this: it is the best of times for online personal writing, it is the worst of times for online personal writing.
There are a ton of powerful personal essays written by a diverse cross-section of women online, right now, that I’d happily share with a resounding THIS.
There’s also a lot of garbage. Bennett writes:
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… This is a key problem with the new first-person economy: the way it incentivizes knee-jerk, ideally topical self-exposure, the hot take’s more intimate sibling.
Bennett also notes that despite the many variations on the first-person vertical, “it’s striking how many of them read like reverse-engineered headlines, buzzy premises fleshed out with the gritty details of firsthand experience.”
Well, that’s because SOMETIMES THEY ARE NOW. In 2015, magazine giant Hearst debuted The Mix, a “contributor network” that works like this: writers choose from a daily list of headlines and write stories to match them. If their story is chosen, it’s published at one (or more) of the websites in Hearst’s stable — ELLE.com, seventeen.com, cosmopolitan.com, etc., and the writer gets paid $100. Don’t get chosen? Don’t get paid.
The headlines are, er, very specific: “I Didn’t Immediately Love My Baby” and “I Have Extreme Adult Acne (Body or Face).” It’s how the content sausage is made, and it’s not pretty.
Half-baked and dashed-off is one thing, but many legitimately irresponsible and damaging essays that do real harm to others are now seeing the light of day — like the Dumpster fire that was Amanda Lauren’s callous “essay” My Former Friend’s Death Was a Blessing at, where else?, xoJane and, very recently, Louise Linton’s white-saviour memoir/possible work of fiction How My Gap Year in Africa Turned Into a Nightmare at the Telegraph. I’m not linking to either of them.
This is what happens when you decide that traffic is THE MOST IMPORTANT THING.
We’ve arrived at a strange, counterintuitive point in the evolution of the first-person Internet. On its face, the personal-essay economy prizes inclusivity and openness; it often privileges the kinds of voices that don’t get mainstream attention. But it can be a dangerous force for the people who participate in it. And though the risks and exploitations of the first-person Internet are not gender-specific, many of these problems feel more acute for women.
Maybe that’s because women are the ones providing all that “cheap” grist for the content mill.
• • •
Women’s stories have been devalued long before the arrival of Internet. When women write about their lived experiences, it’s often dismissed as confessional, trivial, narcissistic, fluffy, quaint, domestic, shameful or gross. The stuff of diaries and journals. As though diaries and journals are unimportant.
In a piece for Vela, Sarah Menkedick writes about taking herself out of a book she was writing, “adhering to this absorbed formula that personal writing is somehow easier, weaker, cheaper, more feminine, more frivolous, and ‘serious journalism’ is strictly objective, hard, complicated, male.”
Of course, men publish personal writing all the time. It’s just not called that, as Menkendick points out:
It’s called “criticism” or “putting yourself in the story” or “voice-driven” or “narrative,” or “travelogue” or “history” or “new journalism” or simply a “literary journey,” as The New York Times referred to Tom Bissell’s The Father of All Things: A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam.
…the “I” in a woman’s writing has the alchemical effect of converting it into traditional women’s work–personal essay, memoir–whereas the “I” in a man’s work is a rhetorical device, a detached or quirky or “gutsy” narrative decision. It’s a wily craft choice for men, a solipsistic indulgence for women.
I believe this attitude is changing, albeit slowly. I am encouraged by the fact there’s an appetite for stories about women by women, as evidenced by the fact that so many memoirs — like many of those listed above — have dominated best-seller lists.
Online, many women are now eschewing traditional platforms — AND WHO CAN BLAME THEM — by publishing directly to audiences they’ve cultivated, via TinyLetter (an email newsletter service) and blog-length Instagram posts. Lenny Letter — Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner’s newsletter — delivers a curated batch of excellent personal essays directly to my inbox every Tuesday and I look forward to it every week. Zines and anthologies are also making a comeback; two women in my hometown of Winnipeg have launched a wonderful twice-yearly anthology of personal writing, perfectly called Dear Journal.
Newsletters, zines and anthologies will never go viral. But they will be read, shared and, perhaps most importantly of all, valued.