The Economics Of The Personal Essay

Ha ha, just kidding, who cares, am I right? This is not going to be some lesson about the basic economics of publishing personal essays online; although we could, of course, talk about the inflated perception of What The Personal Essay Means Today in the face of a publishing industry that literally pays per clicks. We could talk about, perhaps, the buckets of what I still think of as imaginary money (also known as “venture capital”) being poured into burgeoning media empires, the new and legacy publishers with their verticals and their promising young talent and their exclusive deals with like-minded sponsors, the pressure to deliver a certain level of pageviews and then, most terrifyingly of all, to keep that level indefinitely with regular, measurable gains. I might want to talk about the veil that falls in front of reasonable thought when we’re presented with the same kinds of headlines, the same kinds of bylines, the same easily predictable cycles of backlash on the same social media feeds, because to an eye doing a quick scan before committing to an even quicker skim before deciding if it is worth linking to or clicking “like” or whatever kind of low-impact engagement we’re placing the highest premium on, it would be very easy to decide that there are just too many personal essays these days, that the form is out-of-control self-indulgence at best, exploitative evil at worst.

Oh. I guess I did the thing I said I wasn’t going to do: I turned this into a lecture about economics. Well, that’s what I’m thinking about when I read Laura Bennett’s essay for Slate about what she quite correctly calls “The First Person Industrial Complex,” because it is an industry founded on the individuals who appear to be pumping out an endless stream of incendiary and attention-grabbing words. But I am not convinced by her central argument, which I think is that our “golden age” of personal essays published online is coming to an end because of both declining editorial standards and the sheer volume available. I think this is a common mistake influenced by the common fallacy that if something is readily available, it is cheap; if something is in high demand by the masses, then it is stupid; and that if there are so many people reading and writing these kinds of essays, then they must not need a defense.

Bennett says that:

First-person essays have become the easiest way for editors to stake out some small corner of a news story and assert an on-the-ground primacy without paying for reporting. And first-person essays have also become the easiest way to jolt an increasingly jaded Internet to attention, as the bar for provocation has risen higher and higher. For writers looking to break in, offering up grim, personal dispatches may be the surest ways to get your pitches read.

She explains that this is potentially a problem, because:

…these essays seem like a different literary species alongside most of the content of today’s teeming first-person verticals, and not just because they feel so much more fully incubated and carefully conceived. Even when they are graphic and raw, their self-revelations are strategically dispensed. They don’t merely assert the universality of their experience; they arrive at it by guiding us through the precise arc of their self-reckoning. In fact, the defining trait of the best first-person writing is exactly what is missing from so much of the new crop: self-awareness.

As well, she is concerned about the dangers of this kind of writing:

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. The reason — aside from the fact that the “confessional” essay as a form has historically attracted more women than men — is that so many of the outlets that are most hungry for quick freelancer copy, and have the lowest barriers to entry for publication, are still women’s interest sites.

This is untrue, for a lot of reasons! In my very personal opinion! I do agree that the risks of publishing a personal essay online are very, very real, and that there are many outlets that put a low premium on their writer’s health and safety and a high premium on a story that’s going to do really well on Facebook, but this kind of hand-wringing amounts to the cheapest, most abundant, and most widely-traded commodity in this industry: the business of telling women it would be better to just not write. Or, if they’re going to write, to make sure that they write better than everyone else; if they’re going to write, if they’re going to publish, then they have to bear the responsibility for what follows, whether it’s a day of really mean tweets or a confrontation in public or any other kind of reminder that your work is not really yours, that it is property to be traded among the people in charge, whether they are writers or sponsors or investors, for a bottom line that you will never see a penny of.

I am struck by how much this essay inspired me to want to defend the personal essay, a stance I didn’t really expect myself to take. I, too, am burned out looking at the charred offerings of personal tragedies available online; I am often concerned about young writers who mistakenly think they have to write in one style or one form in order to be read, since I think that lack of oxygen prevents anyone from growing or changing or, worse, even trying at all. But I want to remain open to the possibility of being surprised more than I want to put a dollar value on what an entire genre is worth. I do think, as a writer and an editor, that anyone is capable of a really great personal essay, and that the mistakes along the way are not reason enough to throw up our hands and declare ourselves done with the genre just yet, and that, as always, freedom is just a *closes tab* away.