A few weeks ago, Erin shared this New Yorker column about the demise of the personal essay with our staff.
It’s an interesting read that articulates the reasons why, in ways I never stopped to think about, but that I definitely experienced playing out and was particularly attuned to because of our work placing written pieces by faculty members.
In fact, in working with new faculty interested in writing op-eds this year (there were a lot, many inspired by the election and aftermath), I found myself pointing out the differences between personal essays and op-eds more often than usual – and encouraging faculty to pursue the latter (which require a strong opinion, rather than just a summary of facts or feelings) because there is still a market for them.
There simply hasn’t been an appetite by editors for narratives about personal experience without a bigger “so, what?” lately. And I can appreciate that. Slate writer Laura Bennett explained it to The New Yorker like this: “The political landscape has been so phantasmagoric that even the most sensationally interesting personal essays have lost some currency when not tied head-on to the news. There just hasn’t been much oxygen left for the kinds of essays that feel marginal or navel-gazey.”
Yet often that “so what?” is the hardest thing to get a writer to commit to. Strong opinions make people vulnerable to criticism, after all. They’re also what it takes to get people published in today’s media landscape—and, for better or worse, it’s a shift we need to adapt to and educate people about. Personal essays today end up on personal blogs. That doesn’t mean they’re not well-written or powerful. But if your dream is to publish your piece in a national media outlet, you’ll have to be willing to take more risks than were required a few years ago.
The explanations behind the slow disappearance of what once had been a fairly popular feature of media make a lot of sense, particularly during a Trump presidency, which is continuing to change (or perhaps refocus is a better word?) journalism. The continued popularity of Facebook (on which people can share whatever personal details they want), the clickbaity nature of many personal essays that has turned people off, the political realities of our country and world all played a role—and unlike The New Yorker columnist, I’m okay with the fact that personal essays are harder to come by. She “loved watching people try to figure out if they had something to say.” I’d prefer they be certain they do.