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Who's Afraid Of The Personal Essay?

The conversation over the viral New Yorker short story “Cat Person” is reiterating the same old bias against personal essays as a frivolous, artless, and feminine form of writing.

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I read the New Yorker short storyCat Person” as I read most things these days: in the bathtub with a beer, after my daughter had gone to bed. I enjoyed it. It was eerie and resonant and it brought up unsettling memories. Then I went online and realized that there was a significant literary conversation on Twitter lamenting how Kristen Roupenian’s story — about a brief online relationship that turns bizarre, creepy, and upsetting in person and ends badly — was being read as an “essay” or a “piece” or an “article.” Some people just seemed bothered that fiction wasn’t getting its due credit during its viral moment. But many seemed indignant that the essay — a form troublesome for its femininity and popularity — was tainting the purity of literary fiction.

I can understand a fiction writer’s frustration at her work being read as autobiographical, and at the way that particular obsession with the personal ignores the craft that has gone into the writing, the way a story moves toward a bigger truth instead of simply recounting life events, the way it exists in its own aesthetic universe outside of whatever “real” incidents might have inspired or been incorporated into it. Why, though, is some of the irritation over the reaction to this story being expressed as contempt for the essay, which in its highest expression works in the same way?

An essay, too, transcends the experiences it depicts to explore larger concerns, questions, ideas; it, too, exists in its own world, which isn’t identical to the world of the writer. It, too, involves a character who has been constructed from carefully selected details and descriptions. Why is it that so many writers responding to “Cat Person” assume that there is a direct, literal translation of experience in the personal essay — this is what happened to me exactly as it happened, an unfiltered representation of my life as it is and me who I am — and simultaneously that fiction should be seen as utterly divorced from the messiness of human life, perfectly constructed, perfectly immune, perfectly pure?

I don’t mean to suggest here that we should all engage in the game of trying to guess which parts of fiction are “true” and which may have come directly from the author’s life. But the notion that fiction exists in some lofty netherworld of capital-A Art, utterly separate from morality and autobiography and politics — while the essay is slavish to all of them, guilelessly moral and shamelessly confessional — seems antiquated at best and paranoid at worst, an attempt to lionize certain women writers while painting others as hacks or amateurs. In an attempt to preserve the literary seriousness of a fiction writer, the essay can always be trotted out as the real feminine form, the true culprit, lowly and childlike.

The notion that fiction exists in some lofty netherworld of capital-A Art seems antiquated at best and paranoid at worst.

Earlier this year, in a piece for the New Yorker, writer Jia Tolentino declared that “The Personal-Essay Boom Is Over.” Tolentino characterizes the personal essay as a form for young, eager female writers who are willing to suffer low pay and a high risk of shame and criticism in order to “try to figure out if they [have] something to say.” From the way Tolentino writes about the personal essay — as “the commodification of personal experience”; as “cry[ing] out for identification and connection”; as an “on-ramp … accessible to first-time writers and young people who haven’t developed experience or connections” — it seems evident that it’s a form most writers who consider themselves serious or mature or experienced would run screaming from.

Yet personal essays continue to thrive, and essay collections are in fact experiencing somewhat of a golden era: look at Belle Bogg’s The Art of Waiting; Angela Morales’s The Girls in My Town (winner of the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay); Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, not to mention the work of Leslie Jamison and Roxane Gay, who have found a massive following. A roomful of people came out to see Scaachi Koul (who is a staff culture writer at BuzzFeed News) read from her collection One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter on a Friday night in Wisconsin this fall; I stood in a long signing line to meet her.

One response to Tolentino’s criticism might be that personal essays as they existed at the sites Tolentino wrote for, read, and edited were not exactly representative of the genre as a whole, and that, like any genre, the personal essay might encompass a million painful, extravagant examples of artistic failure along with its acclaimed successes. Soraya Roberts, writing in the Walrus, makes the compelling argument that the personal essay boom is not dead — it’s just no longer white. Yet it seems no matter how popular essays become, no matter the accolades they receive, the bias against them as an amateur, artless feminine form persists. This is nowhere more evident than in the response to “Cat Person.”

In a Twitter thread retweeted hundreds of times, writer Larissa Pham wrote, “When you treat a short story like a personal essay, you end up in a weird place where you ask for morality from characters, rather than considering the architecture of the story, its devices, and its world. Instead of thinking critically about it, you’re asking it for lessons.”

This critique presumes that in reading personal essays it is normal and just fine to demand lessons, to not think critically, and to judge the characters for their morality. Personal essays, it implies, are essentially just like real life. There’s no divide between them and their writers; they’re not literature. We can read Leslie Jamison’s “The Empathy Exams” then, and conclude that the lesson is that medical students need to learn to be more empathetic. Done! It’s hard to imagine a nonfiction teacher who’d let her students spend a class debating whether Jamison should have had an abortion or was bad for doing so, but the assumption here seems to be that this is a perfectly acceptable way to think about essays. And, in fact, this assumption is often borne out in popular criticisms of essay collections, which tend to attack the writer’s life decisions rather than the work itself (just read any set of Amazon reviews, or listen to Ayelet Waldman or Rachel Cusk discuss the blowback they’ve faced).

The main takeaway from Pham and others’ dismay at the miscategorization of “Cat Person” seems to be that fiction should be discussed not in terms of morality or political prescience or relatability but rather as “an imagined world that has its own rules,” as Josephine Livingstone put it in the New Republic. This suggests that we are supposed to talk and think about fiction only as if we were all in an MFA workshop, and many writers seem genuinely outraged that some readers are not doing this. It appears in this purview yucky to talk about the fact that the narrator of “Cat Person” represents a girl, just like many girls in the world right now. No, these writers declare, this is FICTION! FICTION! It’s incredibly complicated!

A piece by Emily Temple at Lit Hub decries, “In fact, the very thing that made so many people love this story—that it is relatable, that it feels true—is also skewing the conversation around it, and with the conversation, our expectations and judgments.” She provides no examples of how the conversation has been skewed other than the fact that some people thought the story was an essay. Nor does she declare what “our expectations and judgments” should be, and the whole warning sounds to me a great deal like an MFA syllabus that instructs writers on how to dutifully respond to workshop stories in a language carefully divorced from any real-world concern. It also seems to suggest that there is something icky and lowbrow about fiction being relatable: that it should be held to such a higher standard, talked about as “text” in its own special ways, and kept preciously removed in its distinct sphere of extra-special all-made-up-ness.

Most people I know read fiction at least in part because they want to see their lives, or the lives of their contemporaries, reflected in sharper, more poignant form.

Except most people I know read fiction at least in part because they want to see their lives, or the lives of their contemporaries, reflected in sharper, more poignant form. They want that truer-than-true punch to the gut that can come from exceptional fiction, and that “Cat Person” delivers. To put fiction in a realm where it can and should be appreciated only via a sophisticated toolkit of literary hermeneutics seems to me to ignore some of its most basic pleasures, one of which is recognition or, in certain cases, relatability: No, we shouldn’t expect to relate to every character, to every story, but I would venture that many readers’ favorite moments in fiction seem to eerily, uncannily capture a sensation, an emotion, an experience they have lived.

This is not true in every case: I loved Anna Karenina, I loved Lolita, I loved The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle in spite of the fact that their worlds are very different from mine. But some of my favorite moments from these books — the birth scene in Anna Karenina, the evocations of American life and landscape in Lolita, the descriptions of cooking spaghetti in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle — are transcendent because I can recognize my world in them, but my world refracted so as to be beautiful and powerful and mysterious. The same pleasure can be found in essays.

I want to come up with a brilliant new criticism here, but ultimately the unvarnished condescension toward the personal essay that has resurfaced in the “Cat Person” conversation is a reiteration of the same old theme: The personal essay is and long has been a genre dominated by women, and thus it is frivolous, inferior, silly. The Atlantic’s Megan Gerber writes that literary fiction is “one of the few remaining fields to which terms like genius and transcendent are still unironically applied,” and yet, she bemoans, some of the readers of “Cat Person” understood it not as transcendent genius but as “An essay. A memory. A woman, dreamy and sad, telling the internet about her bad date.”

As an essayist, I am certainly biased in my interpretation, but it seems hard not to read the heavy womp of “an essay,” coming right after the lofty evocation of transcendent genius, as intended to invoke a sort of “quel horror” moment at the highest of art forms being brought so low. It is unfortunate that to celebrate one woman writer, to associate her with genius, Gerber has to go through the tired ritual of separating her from and belittling more “feminine” work (as “dreamy and sad”). It is a common theme, though, in a literary landscape in which women are constantly struggling to get their work taken seriously and to have it viewed as equally powerful as men’s: They need to distance themselves from the forms taken the least seriously, from the most female of genres and themes.

This is part of what drives the “Cat Person” fury: Here is a woman writing in a serious, predominantly male literary world and people are assuming she’s writing in a feminine one! This response reveals how deeply threatening the essay still seems to be. It is ironic that much of the panic about essays echoes a similar 18th-century panic about novels, which women — endowed in the burgeoning industrial era with enough leisure and privacy to read — devoured. Novels’ association with femininity at that time meant they were seen as, to quote one academic paper, “obscene and silly,” “execrable stuff,” or “amorous nonsense.” Over time, of course, the novel became a form associated with and dominated by the great literary man, while women turned to the essay.

Like many of the writers of “Cat Person” think pieces explaining why the story is not and should not be considered an essay, Gerber points to its complexity: “So while ‘Cat Person’ is a story about so many things related to #MeToo … the story is also about something less directly related to #MeToo: its limits. Its impediments.” This argument seems to insinuate that the essay cannot encompass contradictions and tensions and multiple layers, that it must point directly to a single lesson. I’d also venture that if readers don’t seem to grasp the complexities of “Cat Person” in the way that writers think they should, that’s the nature of having literary work reach an audience other than professional critics. Readers, especially the thousands of readers of a story that’s gone viral, may misread, or read differently. The fact that the blame for this lands on the essay as a form seems to speak more to a writerly fear of the feminine — and of the essay’s popularity among women — than to the nature of the essay itself.

A few years ago, I wrote a piece for Vela about the gendered way in which personal writing is defined as trivial and flippant, whereas literary journalism is positioned as “serious.” I argued that women should be given more opportunities to do the work of reporting and journalism, but that it is equally important that they are empowered to write essays — and particularly personal essays about feminine experience — without fear of being marginalized and demeaned. It would seem, at such a glorious moment for women essayists in particular — Eula Biss and Samantha Irby and Rebecca Solnit and more! — that we might be moving closer to this goal. Yet the “Cat Person” moment has clearly shown how far we have to go.

The problem, I believe, is not the essay itself. It is that women, as well as many other categories of writers whose voices, styles, and experiences don’t reflect that of a particular cultural elite, continue to be marginalized in publishing. There remains a significant byline gap at major magazines between men and women. Women writers pay a price for writing about traditionally “female” subjects, such as birth. Women are vulnerable to having their work trivialized by sentimental book covers and marketing campaigns. Women’s work is considered personal whenever it employs an “I” in a way that men’s is not. Much of the canon taught in literary programs is male. Men like Gay Talese baldly state that they cannot name any inspiring female writers, expressing pervasive but now mostly hidden sentiments. All of the discrimination women face in the workplace exists in publishing, and takes on its own idiosyncratic forms there as well. The essay is a persistent, tired, and easy scapegoat. But also, perhaps, the cure. ●

Sarah Menkedick is the author of Homing Instincts: Early Motherhood on a Midwestern Farm (Pantheon, 2017). Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Harper's, Pacific Standard, the Kenyon Review, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, Oxford American, the Paris Review Daily, Guernica, and elsewhere.