How can the Journalism Industry Respect the Personal Essay?

Each year, more than two-thirds of graduates with degrees in media are female, and yet the media industry is just one-third women, a number that only decreases for women of colour. The ‘personal essay boom’ of the early 2000s seemed to be a viable way for women to make their voices heard on a public platform, writing on subjects that were authentic and relatable, but often exposing and intimate. Personal essays cry out for identification and connection, but what authors sometimes experienced was distancing and shame. Should women feel like they must bare their souls in order to have their voice heard, and what can be done to tackle inequalities that might be fuelled by this?

The ‘personal essay’ dates back to classroom days where mainly white middle and upper-class men practiced “self-critical introspection”; meanwhile, women tended to write private diaries, letters or family memoirs and were kept away from composing anything thought to be autobiographical. Women were not published in this sort of form until around a century ago, when they were given writing columns in which to talk about women’s topics, news and views.

The coming of the digital age changed things in the 1990s. Not only were personal essays becoming more commonplace in the public sphere, such as on Blogspot and Facebook, but they were being advertised by numerous popular literary, film and TV characters, most obviously Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City. These influences encouraged people to write about their personal lives at length: “People love to talk about themselves, and they were given a platform and no rules” – Silvia Killingsworth . For some, the internet led to better-paid work and often it allowed for more movement and potential for promotion. However, placing delicate life stories online wasn’t always as thrilling as it seemed to be, nor did it have the best implications for the editors, readers and writers.

Writers face countless pressures when publishing their personal essays, so much that Laura Bennett deemed the industry as a “dangerous force for the people who participate in it”. The boom may have been financially beneficial for publications but writers, particularly those on the cusp of the professional journalism world, would come away with little to nothing financially for sharing gut-wrenchingly traumatic stories; clout, exposure and the potential for virality were seen as payment enough. The intense public circulation that could be achieved by one of these pieces might have been enough to also let moral considerations slide. The question of whether it is morally acceptable that writers may feel the need to share these exposés in order to gain access into the industry affects the writers and genre more broadly.

Despite the fact that authors have willingly put themselves in the public eye, there can be a significant amount of backlash. Readers are asked to form a moral judgement about a situation, and yet it is easy to forget that at the core of these pieces lies a person, real and alive. Comments sections can quickly fill up with hate and disagreement, which can cause severe damage to the writer and publication’s emotional wellbeing and reputation. Furthermore, it is difficult to extract those implicated within the writing without drowning out the writer’s voice. Personal essays can place readers in the fallout of their situation and lead them to feel like they have a deep understanding of the situation’s dynamics, when in reality they are far more removed.

It is more common that the commodification of personal experience through the personal essay involves women. The rapidly changing conventions and constrictions surrounding issues affecting women such as abortion, marriage and the gender pay gap made their stories worth writing about, but they didn’t always receive much in return. Jia Tolentino, from The New Yorker, argues that female writers’ essays were too personal with topics sometimes being too important to be aired for an audience of strangers: body-horror pieces, lost-tampon chronicles etc. Attention flowed naturally to the outrageous, the harrowing, the intimate and the recognisable, and the online personal essay began to harden into a form defined by women’s identity and adversity; they can be life-changing and affirming at best, but exploitative at worst. However, it is possible to tackle this and Gal-dem, the online writing platform for women and non-binary people of colour, shows that it is possible to display and publish personal essays ethically and consciously. An important value they hold is they make their writers aware that they don’t need to tell-all, offering them support in order to tackle the hate that could come with online personal writing.

There are many ways of breaking into the journalism industry, and no way is necessarily the right way. However, if the ‘personal essay boom’ continues to dominate modern journalism, the genre must become more responsible in respecting the writers, editors, and readers, especially online.

– Mickey White

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