Of course, published a first-person cover story by Alex Tizon, with the provocative headline “My Family’s Slave.” But there’s a specific sort of ultra-confessional essay, written by a person you’ve never heard of and published online, that flourished until recently and now hardly registers.
The change has happened quietly, but it’s a big one: a genre that partially defined the last decade of the Internet has essentially disappeared. To answer that, it helps to consider what gave rise to the personal essay’s ubiquity in the first place. In preceding years, private blogs and social platforms—Live Journal, Blogspot, Facebook—trained people to write about their personal lives at length and in public.
Attention flows naturally to the outrageous, the harrowing, the intimate, and the recognizable, and the online personal essay began to harden into a form defined by identity and adversity—not in spite of how tricky it is to negotiate those matters in front of a crowd but precisely because of that fact.
The commodification of personal experience was also women’s territory: the small budgets of popular women-focussed Web sites, and the rapidly changing conventions and constrictions surrounding women’s lives, insured it.
There were those that incited outrage by giving voice to horrible, uncharitable thoughts, like “My Former Friend’s Death Was a Blessing” (xo Jane again) and “I’m Not Going to Pretend I’m Poor to Be Accepted by You” (Thought Catalog).
Finally, there were those essays that directed outrage at society by describing incidents of sexism, abuse, or rape.There were the one-off body-horror pieces, such as “My Gynecologist Found a Ball of Cat Hair in My Vagina,” published by xo Jane, or a notorious lost-tampon chronicle published by Jezebel.There were essays that incited outrage for the life styles they described, like the one about pretending to live in the Victorian era, or Cat Marnell’s oeuvre.Personal essays cry out for identification and connection; what their authors often got was distancing and shame.Bennett deemed the personal-essay economy a “dangerous force for the people who participate in it.”By that point, writers, editors, and readers had become suspicious of one another, and the factors that produced the personal-essay boom had started to give way.Indie sites known for cultivating first-person writing—the Toast, the Awl, the Hairpin—have shut down or changed direction.Thought Catalog chugs along, but it seems to have lost its ability to rile up outside readers.“First-person writing should not be cheap, and it should not be written or edited quickly,” Gould wrote to me.“And it should be published in a way that protects writers rather than hanging them out to dry on the most-emailed list.”There are still a few outlets that cultivate a more subtle and sober iteration of this kind of first-person writing, some of them connected to book publishing.These essays began to proliferate several years ago—precisely when is hard to say, but we can, I think, date the beginning of the boom to 2008, the year that Emily Gould wrote a first-person cover story, called “Exposed,” for the , which was about, as the tagline put it, what she gained and lost from writing about her intimate life on the Web.Blowback followed, and so did an endless supply of imitations.