Monocycle: Episode 54
Is the Personal Essay Dead?
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There was an article that ran in The New Yorker a couple of weeks ago called “The Personal Essay Boom is Over.” In it, writer Jia Tolentino reflected on the genre’s heyday, citing sites that no longer exist, like xoJane and Gawker, as having heralded the uncomfortably intimate or curiously insignificant style of storytelling. The headline alone, of course, scared the shit out of me, given that I don’t think I even know how to have a thought about a third party without somehow bringing it back to me. So much of what I write rides on the events of my life — I wear my guts on my sleeve. I can’t help it. I’m not even sure I want to help it. And when it comes to the writers who are enlisted to represent the Man Repeller ethos, it is my belief the best kind of editorial leader is willing to let her writer explore their identities — to express what’s on their minds within a controlled environment.

This week on Monocycle, our editorial director, Leslie Price and I talk about the personal essay boom. Is it over? Perhaps. What does that mean for properties who thrive on it, who believe their best content is personal? Good content, of course, can’t ever be “over.” So what makes it good? How are we serving it? Are there ways we can do it better? Listen in and share a thought and if you’re curious…

Here are our all-time favorite personal essays:

This episode of Monocycle is edited by Nicholas “Quazzy” Herd. Logo illustration by Kelly Shami. Photo by Mel Finkelstein/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images.

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  • This is scary to think about but I agree with Leslie, I think personal narratives are incredibly powerful. As long as we have websites like Man Repeller and remember to evolve with the mediums then there should be no issues. I think that now more than ever it’s important for writers and artists and everyone to continue to express themselves and tell their stories.

  • EP

    Racked has been putting out some long format articles that are well researched, original, and really informative. They are refreshing and so much better than their old content. Still like a personal perspective, but there is definitely fatigue there.

    As far a MR covering politics, I think you should stick with your current model where you live in reality but don’t necessarily have political coverage. Refinery has political coverage and it is so whatever. I don’t go there to get my political news or opinion pieces. In fact, I go there less and less for just about anything but #sponsoredcontent.

  • Louise

    Ever since November I have been very active in distancing myself from that kind of personal essay and the type of internet I consume. I don’t just go to websites willy-nilly and take in everyone’s neuroses or essays or whatever. I have journalists–not necessarily essayists– I like (like Jia, Anne Helen Petersen, Heben and Tracy) so I guess I’m at a place where I’m okay with being “stuck” in what I like (for a fancier word, “curated”, haha!) I definitely got fatigued with everyone’s takes and need to center themselves in everything, especially if I didn’t know that person’s writing very well. I think there is a folly in centering yourself in a situation that does not apply to you and there are other ways to learn or stand with a certain situation without making it personal.

  • Adrianna

    I think between Twitter, Facebook statuses, and long Instagram captions, we’re all fatigued from being bombarded with everyones’ opinions and hot takes on issues and their own lived experience. I went from feeling a sense of solidarity (such as the #YesAllwomen) to realizing I was co-dependent with my newsfeeds and taking on others’ anxiety and anger.

    • gracesface

      I totally agree with you. I don’t HAVE to use social media for work and therefore lately I’m wondering just how much I actually need to use it.

      • Adrianna

        I never got into Twitter, and I deactivated my Facebook in November. I highly, highly recommend it. It’s amazing how many books I’ve read and how many things I’ve done since then.

        • jules_js

          yes to this! I got rid of my twitter a couple years ago, deactivated my fb shortly after and now I’m having an instagram-less summer for a true social media detox… I have never felt better tbh!! it really does free up more time for other things

          • Adrianna

            I also freed up a lot of mental space. After deactivating FB, I was able to sit and read 200 pages of a book in one sitting because I was no longer reading the internet

          • jules_js

            oops I never see these notifications but I am SO with you on that… I am nowhere near as good at focusing on long chunks of text as I used to be in my book-filled childhood but I’ve slowly but surely been retraining my brain to focus that way again, after all the overstimulation of different social media accounts had affected it so much! it’s wild

        • gracesface

          I didn’t have wifi for the whole of last summer and definitely read a ton of books. I still use Facebook messenger a lot for keeping in touch with folks as of right now (though my Dad deleted it this year and says he doesn’t miss it one bit). And while I used to LOVE Twitter and still get most of my of-the-moment news there it’s just so oversaturated and I just don’t think I’m gonna stick around much longer. I worry about not having a social media presence but do I have to? Thx for writing me back Adrianna!

  • BarbieBush

    I think we lump a lot in with the term “personal essay”. Because it seems multi faceted and like it is just the basic telling of a personal experience in essay form. I am an academic minded person and believe there are standards. Just because you can upload something to Medium doesn’t (to me) make it a personal essay, even if it is upvoted a million times. A personal essay is still a form of narrative and there are still conventions utilized. Something I have enjoyed, and also think is corny, about MR is the personal essays always end with like a neat little wrap up sentence about having learned something or a conclusion about whatever the subject is. I think this forms a more complete piece and brings it back to a literary form.

  • I think a lot of things have morphed into casual personal essays, but I mentally separate a blog post, tweet, or an Instagram in my mind. To me, a personal essay is a more substantial writing piece that is reflective and comes to some kind of bigger conclusion. It’s interesting that a lot of people are commenting about the stress from other people’s posts – that’s so counter intuitive to me! I think a personal essay shouldn’t make you stressed, it should help you solve problems in your life or expand your mind based on someone else’s experiences. I’m with @barbiebush:disqus on this one!