What a Mess!

On the stakes of the personal essay

by Lisa Borst

Illustration by Gabriel Matesanz

published October 6, 2017



The personal essay, according to some, is in a tough spot. Last spring, Jia Tolentino wrote in the New Yorker that “the personal-essay boom is over,” pointing to the election of Trump as a catalyst for the end of a certain brand of overly personal “solo acts of sensational disclosure” that had found a home on the internet of the early 2010s. After the election, she writes, “many favored personal-essay subjects—relationships, self-image, intimate struggle—seemed to hit a new low in broader social relevance.” Tolentino’s argument presumes that individual-scale narratives like these have little to say about the wider systemic traumas brought into view by Trump’s election. In fact, a set of overlapping factors has left us primed to receive the personal essay as one of the most interesting contemporary sites for social and political critique.

The personal essay, as we know it today, hit its stride as the result of a combination of an explosive boom in trade memoir production in the 1990s and early 2000s (think everything from The Liar’s Club to Eat Pray Love) with the kinds of confessional writing enabled by social media. Cemented as a marketable trend in recent years by websites and magazines like Teen Vogue, Rookie, The Rumpus, and Lenny Letter, a specific kind of confessional, often literary first-person writing, has also seen a newfound degree of interest from academia: a growing number of universities, including Brown, have substituted undergraduate degrees in journalism for programs in ‘nonfiction writing,’ or have added tracks in creative nonfiction to existing MFA programs.

This is all to say that although the personal essay has existed since at least Montaigne, the form has undergone a kind of unprecedented institutional recognition over the past decade or so—and, contrary to Tolentino’s argument, the election has done little to change that. But as personal essays continue to find cultural purchase across online venues, trade-paperback markets, and creative writing departments, the genre—if we can call it that—has been met with backlash as well.

This summer, an article published in Boston Review called “Two Paths for the Personal Essay” ignited a heated debate, largely unfolding on Twitter. The piece, written by McGill professor of English Merv Emre, reviewed two books published this year, both written by women and both using the personal essay form to explore a hybrid space between memoir and cultural critique: Too Much and Not the Mood, a collection of essays by the young, social media-famous writer Durga Chew-Bose; and Somebody with a Little Hammer, an anthology of work by the established novelist and critic Mary Gaitskill. The joint review contends that recent first-person essay-writing might be grouped into two camps, represented by Chew-Bose and Gaitskill, respectively: on one hand, we have a spate of exploratory, “messy,” often somewhat self-indulgent first-person narratives, which might generally be grouped under the rubric of “creative nonfiction,” and which is having a moment among younger women writers especially; on the other, a brand of more “serious,” perhaps more traditional public intellectual-style essays, which generally take as their subjects artistic, literary, or political artifacts and which incorporate a first-person voice only as a kind of scaffolding. 

Emre’s issue with the Chew-Bose camp is its tendency—“premised,” she writes, “on the depressing notion that words are always insufficient to the task at hand and so we may as well stop trying to choose the clearest or most precise ones”—to celebrate its own “messiness” at the expense of saying all that much. “Messy feelings, messy reality, messy relationships, the messy unfiltered stuff of life,” Emre writes: “the personal essayist evacuates all in one, big messy outpouring of repurposed clichés about love and life and pain and joy and men and women and whatever other themes readers of these essayists are, by now, primed to receive as universal human concerns.” 

The intention of all this self-reflexive mess, in Emre’s assessment, is to communicate a sense of the writer’s ethical standing. Many “personal essayists today,” she writes, presumably alluding not just to Chew-Bose but to a whole class of young writers of her same ilk, tend to “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.” That messy writing would necessarily be the output of an ethical writer is Emre’s major sticking point, and as an alternative she points us to Gaitskill’s more precise, less interior project—with which, she says, “we can begin to separate the notion of the ‘personal’ from the adjectives that have clung to and muddied its coattails—not only ‘messy,’ but also ‘warm,’ ‘caring,’ ‘confessional,’ ‘emotional,’ ‘empathetic,’ and ‘sentimental.’” What if, she wonders, “personal writing were not a manifestation of intimacy or interiority? What if art were a dish best served cold?”

The truth is, I don’t much care for Too Much and Not the Mood. It’s evident from both Chew-Bose’s essays and from her bookish Instagram that she is sharply intelligent and widely read, but Emre’s lacerating critiques of her prose do, I think, capture some of the more tiresome aspects of Chew-Bose’s writing and of much contemporary creative nonfiction writ large. To Chew-Bose’s inscrutable assessments that writing is “a closed pistachio shell” and “a doubled-up glove,” for example, Emre responds: “Writing is losing yourself, finding yourself, falling in love, having your heart broken, getting drunk, having sex, thinking about some stuff then thinking about some other stuff that kind of relates to the original stuff you were thinking about but not really.” 

But one can find grating a given writer’s individual use of stylistic elements like messiness and sentimentality without calling for a total removal of those elements from the world of letters. What’s ultimately at stake in Emre’s polemic, I would argue, are the changing terms of who gets to claim interiority and all its attendant “messiness,” and the subtext of her argument is, by default, gendered and racialized, not to mention ageist: Chew-Bose, a 31-year-old Indian-Canadian, is pitted against not just the 62-year-old Gaitskill, who is white, but also against the cadre of 20th-century women writers profiled in Deborah Nelson’s 2017 book Tough Enough: Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil—a stunningly homogenous list of women who broke ground by writing, supposedly, like men. 
A caveat here: it seems ridiculous to essentialize the particular formal or affective qualities of ‘women’s writing.” But what’s true is that even as acclaimed writers like Susan Sontag and Hannah Arendt penned ‘tough,’ authoritative, and unsentimental work that was therefore read as ‘masculine,’ for a large part of the 20th century, confessional poetry and prose were integral to feminist politics—and popular conceptions of personal writing today refuse to decouple gender from genre. That whiteness would be bound up with a lasting anti-confessional understanding of ‘good’ writing is unsurprising, and Emre’s critique implicitly echoes ongoing debates about race, identity, and the role of voice in literary production. Here’s Cathy Park Hong, in a well-known essay, critiquing claims made by many avant-garde and Conceptual poets that poetry should be “post-subject” and therefore “post-identity”: “The avant-garde’s ‘delusion of whiteness,’” she writes, “is the specious belief that renouncing subject and voice is anti-authoritarian, when in fact such wholesale pronouncements are clueless that the disenfranchised need such bourgeois niceties like voice to alter conditions forged in history.”

We might apply Hong’s argument to nonfiction, too. Evacuate the “warmth,” the “confessional,” and the “empathetic” from personal writing, as Emre instructs, and see what’s left: an anti-identitarian and all-but-voiceless perspective from which any possibility of “altering conditions forged in history” has been emptied.



As is unsurprising for a proposal about “two paths” for anything, Emre’s essay mistakes a spectrum for a duality. There are compromises available here, and both Chew-Bose and Gaitskill seem to know this; later this month, the two essayists will join each other at the Vancouver Writers’ Fest in a conversation about writing nonfiction. But I want to argue that a perhaps more interesting and generative path for the personal essay—one, of course, of an infinite number, but one that can find particular political utility in the use of the confessional mode—might be found by looking beyond the domain of either Chew-Bose or Gaitskill, and looking, instead, toward an abbreviated history of two literary market trends from the past two decades. 

If the early 20th century gave us the so-called ‘novel of ideas’ in its fullest form, then by the turn of the millennium the genre had contracted in scope to what critic Nicholas Dames calls the “Theory Generation novel.” In a 2012 essay, Dames anatomizes a corpus of recent realist fiction that found success in certain engagements with the kinds of postwar continental philosophy and critical/literary theory that had had achieved tenure in US academia by about the 1980s. Rather than formally or ideologically incorporating the teachings of this academic theory, these texts took up theory as a plot device—often in the superficial form of something like a Marx text on a bookshelf, doing little but gesturing toward a kind of cultural capital that a reader is meant to feel included in. Beginning around the publication of Don Delillo’s White Noise (which concerns a group of “pop culture studies” professors at a midwestern college), these books stand as one particularly douchey iteration of that larger class of ‘campus novels‘—one that seems to have reached its arguable apotheosis in 2011 with Jeffrey Eugenides’ Brown University-set The Marriage Plot and, thankfully, petered out since.

But what the theory novel signified—and what, I think, has not been fully scrubbed from certain niche US literary market interests—is a standing fascination with what ‘theory’ can do when plucked from its ivory-tower origins and dropped into trade paperbacks marketed to a reading public who put down their Freud when they left college five or 10 or 25 years ago. I think that perhaps, in recent years, this lingering interest has coincided with the ensemble of dramatic personal memoirs published around the same time. And the collision of these twin turn-of-the-millennium trends has inaugurated the widespread proliferation of a curious form that, until not long ago, existed only at the margins of trade markets: the hybrid work of theory-memoir. Nonfiction texts by authors like Maggie Nelson, Hilton Als, Paul Preciado, Claudia Rankine, Chris Kraus (whose theory-informed 1997 autofiction I Love Dick has seen renewed interest, climaxing in a recent television adaptation), Fred Moten, Wayne Koestenbaum, Eve Sedgwick, Sara Ahmed, Eula Biss, Christina Crosby, and Brian Blanchfield have in the past decade or so shaped ongoing conversations about the relationships between trade nonfiction and academic theory, and about what the first-person voice can do for critique.

Little unites these authors but a shared tendency to be labelled as ‘genre-bending’ in reviews of their works and a commitment to intertwining theory and lived experience in a variety of ways. Some, like Preciado’s Testo Junkie (translated into English in 2013), Nelson’s The Argonauts (published in 2015), and Crosby’s A Body, Undone (2016), take up their authors’ bodies as sites for theoretical inquiry, doing what Koestenbaum—another practitioner—calls, in his essay collection My 1980s (2013), “self-ethnography.” Others, like Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life (2017) and various works by Sedgwick (like the essays posthumously collected in 2011’s The Weather in Proust), incorporate a first-person voice into what are primarily academic texts. Many have found utility in the brevity and capaciousness of the personal essay.

And like the personal essay writ large, these forms of theory-memoir aren’t so much new—we might look to essays by writers from Roland Barthes to Audre Lorde, bell hooks to Gloria Anzaldúa, for confirmation of the form’s longevity—as newly visible, newly marketable in trade circuits, and newly institutionalized. (At Brown, I’ve been assigned Maggie Nelson’s books in five different classes.) But texts of this particular, hard-to-classify sort—which Nelson, following Preciado, calls “autotheory”—have offered a recently legible alternative to the two directions for the personal essay proposed by Emre and other critics, as well as to the surface-level treatment of theory in novels like The Marriage Plot. In fusing claims to ethical subjectivity supposedly embedded in the first-person form with the kinds of textual engagement and precision of language typically associated with critique, many of these essays, I think, offer something better and more interesting than the sum of their parts: the best of them are invested with more warmth and interiority than much traditional theory, but are more engaged with substantive theoretical ideas than many theory-generation novels; in their reliance on self-exploration and autobiography, they avoid asserting the subjectless, unsentimental authority that Emre seems to admire in Gaitskill and her 20th-century forebears, but are less caught up with stylishly forfeiting precision than the Chew-Bose camp of creative nonfiction. 



This alternative path for the personal essay, as the above list of its practitioners might suggest, carries particular political promise for writers holding marginalized identities. In sharp contrast to the kinds of white, mostly male, MFA-darling authors who tended to write—and get rich from—the “theory generation novel,” many of the writers practicing what is in many ways that novel’s nonfiction corollary are those best poised to use theory to critique their own marginalization: queer people, trans people, people of color. After all, it wasn’t until the interventions of feminist, queer, postcolonial, and affect studies into the academy in the ’70s and ’80s that the old ‘personal is political’ adage really took hold in theoretical circles, and we might read these recent explorations of autotheoretical modes—many of which are deeply identitarian, and as invested in collective liberation as they are in individual self-expression—as perhaps that aphorism’s most elaborate articulation. 

Last spring, I asked the essayist Wayne Koestenbaum—whose writing occupies an exciting position at the nexus of personal narrative, art criticism, and queer theory—why hybrid-form nonfiction seems to be so important to contemporary queer writers. “If we could imagine a parallel conversation to ours taking place in 1970, and you were a young poet and I was a woman and an older poet, and you might have asked me the question: why, at least in the United States right now, and on campuses, why are feminism and poetry linked?” Koestenbaum responded. “And I would say something like, well, part of what it means to come to a feminist consciousness is, you have to take back yourself in some way. The forms of self-declaration and carving of inner space—that’s taking possession of a voice. And so the act of poetry becomes a metaphor and an enabler of feminist consciousness. And in the same way, I think there’s some kind of queer formation where complexities of living are found through theory, and through self-ethnography. It’s a similar sort of feedback loop. Between the books, the theory, the literary artifacts, the movies, the performances, and the living.”



Lisa Borst B’17.5 studies Nonfiction Writing.