Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Laura Bennett at Slate on "The first-person industrial complex"

I've written about the various challenges and ethical considerations of information disclosure vs hacking in the last month. One of the threads in watchblogs "can" be personal narrative and it is a sign of the literary times. Laura Bennett has a long-ish but worthwhile piece on the first-person industrial complex, as she puts it.

As for Chenier, the original ending of her essay was: “What I want to say about all the women out there who have ever been victimized is you are beautiful and it’s not your fault.” Tolentino tweaked it in the edit to read, “To the victims of their abuse, I want to say what I have finally been able to understand myself: that my attraction, and what it led to, was not my fault.” As Tolentino explains, she “tried to cut everything that would trigger a ‘YEA girl!’ response”—hoping to strike a balance between reaching a broad audience and positing one extreme individual experience as a global truth.

But this is an inevitable feature of today’s first-person essays: the push to ensure that every story, no matter how narrow, will find an ardent audience of cheerleaders (or hate-readers) and a corresponding number of clicks—to dress up the personal in the language of the political. It’s a pressure that wasn’t nearly so intense back when Gould chronicled the aftermath of her breakup on Gawker or when Moe Tkacik cheerfully described removing a 10-day-old tampon for Jezebel in 2008, or when Cat Marnell detailed her drug abuse for xoJane in the early 2010s. “Back then,” Gould says, “I was just writing about myself because it was the thing I knew how to do. I was not thinking about traffic.”

Rebecca Carroll, formerly an editor at xoJane, recalls reading one submission by a white woman about how few black people were in her yoga class that was “pretty tone deaf, just totally un-self-aware.” It would have taken too much time to fully overhaul it. Still, Carroll published it, knowing that—brutally honest as it was—it was sure to be provocative. “There was an enormous backlash, and the writer was traumatized,” Carroll says. “I felt like I just shouldn’t have run the piece at all, because I fundamentally misestimated how prepared the writer was for this to go public.” So many of these recent essays make a show of maximal divulgence, but are too half-baked and dashed-off to do the work of real introspection.

This is a key problem with the new first-person economy: the way it incentivizes knee-jerk, ideally topical self-exposure, the hot take’s more intimate sibling. The mandate at xoJane, according to Carroll, was: the more “shameless” an essay, the better. Carroll describes how “internally crushing” it became to watch her inbox get flooded every day with the darkest moments in strangers’ lives: “eating disorders, sexual assault, harassment, ‘My boyfriend’s a racist and I just realized it.’ ” After a while, Carroll said, the pitches began to sound as if they were all written in the same voice: “immature, sort of boastful.” Tolentino, who worked as an editor at the Hairpin before Jezebel, characterizes the typical Jezebel pitch as the “microaggression personal essay” or “My bikini waxer looked at me funny and here’s what it says about women’s shame,” and the typical Hairpin pitch as “I just moved to the big city and had a beautiful coffee shop encounter, and here’s what it says about urban life.” [emphasis added]
The first-person boom, Tolentino says, has helped create “a situation in which writers feel like the best thing they have to offer is the worst thing that ever happened to them.”

There's a lot that could be said about this, too, but my thoughts are still incubating.


Eric said...

People like to read/hear personal stories. It is no surprise then to find personal stories shared even by people whose job it is to talk about other stuff - journalists and preachers.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Bennett didn't quite get this direct but an idea I think is latent within her piece is the question of whether when a publication like Jezebel runs with the "falling out of love with my dad" kind of story whether it's, to use the jargon, revictimizing someone who perhaps should get help before publishing a tell-all. The article does not quite go so far as to say there's a potentially terrible irony in the new first-person storytelling mode of online magazines that seems exploitive but it seems to get very, very close to saying that's a problem web-based magazine editors don't seem to have sufficiently grappled with. So I agree stories are always going to get shared but this seems like a piece proposing that maybe even the editors who are media-gatekeepers for social media these days may be so accustomed to clickbait and the "overshare" culture they're giving a green light to publishing stories that in an earlier epoch might not have been published so swiftly.

Coming at this as someone who's been dubbed a "watchblogger" over the years, I've seen a number of people spill everything online, have a change of heart, and then try to reverse what happened to little success.