Earlier this week, Slate published a piece by Laura Bennett titled “The First Person Industrial Complex.” In it, Bennett chronicles a controversial story that appeared on Jezebel in February. That story, Bennett argues, is indicative of a disturbing trend in which young writers share their traumatic stories with the Internet for paltry (or more often no) pay, cruel comments, and Internet infamy. She writes,
“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.”
As both an avid essay reader and aspiring essayist myself, this article caught my attention and held it. Of course, some young writers are being exploited by this model. The juicier the story, the higher the Internet’s interest will be. Obviously, editors want their stories to go viral. They want as many eyes on their respective publications as possible. And in this age of voyeurism, that often means personal tragedies.
However, the piece also rankled me in that it seems to be disparaging these pieces as somehow lesser because they are so personal:
“Take a safari through these sections and the main impression—aside from despair at the exhibit of dire human experience on display—is that all the headlines tend to blur together.”
Bennett smashes together sites like BuzzFeed, Vox, Rookie, xoJane, and Jezebel, arguing that they’re all jostling for the same readers with the same salacious content. While it’s true that many of the headlines of these stories DO tend to follow a click bait template (I changed the title of my essay from “Any Other Name” to “After My Husband Left, I Kept His Name” after all), that dismisses the often heart wrenching, interesting, funny, and smart stories behind those attention-grabbing heads. There are so many beautiful stories to tell. And yes, many of them are sad or horrific or rage-inducing. That’s just what life is.
I also felt the piece characterized editors as blood-thirsty word poachers, just waiting to harp on the unsuspecting victim by profiting from their stories. This has not been my experience. While I acknowledge that perhaps there is some exploitation of inexperienced writers taking place, these writers are also adults, and if they’ve seen the Internet, they’re aware that it can be an incredibly harsh, judgmental place. These editors are giving writers a voice, in many ways, and that voice is going to attract attention. Isn’t that why we write?
My editor at BuzzFeed gave me very thoughtful and respectful feedback. She didn’t try to shape the piece into something more salacious or “buzzy” than it was. In fact, she recommended that I cut out a portion of the essay that went into more detail about my husband’s affair–a suggestion that I took and am glad that I did. I’m thankful for all the work she did with me on the essay.
Luckily, these editors were given a chance to respond, and make some very good points about the nature of first person writing on the Internet. Perhaps most strikingly is the fact that many of these essays being viewed as “TMI”-type writing are being written by women. I was in Brooklyn this past weekend for the Slice Writing Conference (more on that to come) and during my time there, I took a nonfiction writing workshop with Erika Anderson. Titled, “Do It Your Way,” the workshop was structured to show us how to play with the traditional essay structure a bit. It was enormously helpful. The workshop was intimate–just four women. When Erika asked us what we felt our biggest challenges were in writing nonfiction, we all talked about the feeling that our voices are not adequate, that our lives are not important enough to write about. This is something I think many essayists struggle with. “Well, what makes my story worth reading? I’m just a white woman from Brooklyn/ Black woman from the suburbs/ Asian woman from the west coast/ etc. ” I received several comments on my BuzzFeed piece saying it was boring, that I should find something else to “write” about (“write” was in quotes–I think that was one of my favorite comments). But why should I? It’s not self-centered to reflect on your experiences and impart them to others. It’s an attempt to reach out and make connections, to share and try to make sense of why we’re all here. Many, many people have reached out to me and said they went through a similar experience that I did, or that they knew someone who had, or that they appreciated the story. That more than cancels out the skeptics who don’t think our personal experiences are valid enough.
In response to our fears at the workshop, Erika reminded us that though many people may have written about divorce or disease or loss or love or race or sexuality or whatever, but no one has told our story the way we tell it. And I think that’s a really important reminder, especially when we just want to give up because it feels like there’s nothing new to say, that no one cares, that why would anyone want to read about my stupid, boring life? Because your stupid, boring life is yours. Own it. Write it. Share it. (Or not! That’s also your choice!).