Are we in the midst of a personal-essay avalanche perpetrated by the cult of Joan Didion? Apparently so — according to this week’s literary chatter, anyway.
At Slate, Laura Bennett laments the rise of online media’s “first-person industrial complex,” with publications exploiting green writers’ harrowing experiences in order “to stake out some small corner of a news story and assert an on-the-ground primacy without paying for reporting.” And following the publication of Tracy Daugherty’s Joan Didion biography The Last Love Song, Christian Lorentzen at Vulture pushes aside the much-discussed fetishization of the author and demands a “unified theory of Joan Didion.” Which is to say, a reading of her work that prevents all those beloved, early first-person essays (or, to take a dimmer view of the Didion cult, all those glamorous, brooding photos of her from roughly the same period) from erasing everything else she’s written.
It’s jarring to realize that the worrisome trends Lorentzen and Bennett identify are both powered by the same type of people: young, female writers. They are the ones filling Jezebel and xoJane editors’ inboxes with remembrances of incestuous relationships and exotic gynecological emergencies. They are also the ones filling tote bags bearing Joan Didion’s image with Moleskine notebooks and elegantly worn copies of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, perhaps without ever thinking to pick up Political Fictions. They are moving to New York and reading “Goodbye to All That” and leaving New York and pitching their own essays about the experience to anthologies titled Goodbye to All That. The cult of Didion cannot overlap entirely with the throng of 20-something confessional essayists, but neither can they be wholly separate.
What these women love to read and what they end up writing are very different things, though we call them both “personal essays” — and though sometimes even the ostensible subject is the same. Surely, part of the explanation for this is that what works for Joan Didion doesn’t work for most people who aren’t Joan Didion; you don’t even have to love her writing to appreciate that she occupies a unique niche. But they’re also animated by wildly dissimilar assumptions about why personal essays should exist, what their purpose should be.
According to Bennett, the new wave of first-person pieces “read like reverse-engineered headlines, buzzy premises fleshed out with the gritty details of firsthand experience.” They command relatively small fees, even though they demand extreme self-exposure and often trigger ridiculous Internet-mob backlashes. They are highly specific — who had ever heard of getting cat hair stuck in your vagina this time last month? — but “despite the wide-ranging hardship these pieces catalog, they also share a tendency to reach for the universal even as they dig into the acutely personal.” And like most online writing aimed at a millennial audience, they tend to find that universal resonance in an uplifting, or at least consciousness-raising, politicized revelation about identity.
This seems a fair summation of the phenomenon, whether or not it bothers you as much as it does Bennett. (Her argument has been maligned in some quarters for discouraging young women from writing. I don’t think it does; it merely asks whether a business model that feeds on their intimate disclosures is exploiting them, and wonders whether the risks they assume in publishing these pieces pay off. Those seem like fair, and feminist-minded, questions.) Beyond economic considerations, what unsettles me about this type of writing is that it privileges shocking content over style or any other literary concern, and requires the writer to wring meaning out of even the most random, senseless ordeals.
Didion’s early personal essays don’t just differ from this template — they’re the diametric opposite. The very thing that distinguishes her most iconic pieces is the way she elevates style above content, and particularly performative self-exposure. What actually happens in “Goodbye to All That”? How many disconnected scenes does Didion connect (or is it, how many connected scenes does she disconnect) in “The White Album” before issuing a few tight paragraphs on being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis? Instead of a body sustaining damage or registering experience, the narrator of Didion’s essays is a sort of free-floating intelligence, gathering images and impressions. And instead of organizing those images and impressions into some easily digestible universal lesson, she most often surrenders to the impossibility of ever imposing meaning or even narrative. The endings of her essays are not happy. They’re certainly not empowering. Sometimes, they’re not even really endings at all.
These are not purely positive attributes, though I do often find them appealing. As Barbara Grizzuti Harrison argued in 1979, with a piece of criticism so scathing it would be known to posterity simply as The Joan Didion Takedown, “Didion uses style as argument” and her detached disdain for meaning-making could lend itself to a sort of fatalistic, self-absorbed conservatism. But it’s no wonder her writing is so attractive to a generation of writers (and readers) drowning in a sea of confessional moralizing. It’s liberating to admit that you don’t know what it all means, that you’ve come through an experience with nothing to show for it but confusion and disorientation. It can feel like freedom to make the ultimate meaninglessness of any given chain of events your only culminating realization. Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album might well feel more refreshing to young women in 2015 than they did to their original readers in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Still, I’m not convinced that an infusion of Didion’s sensibility is what we need. Perhaps this is just the pet preference of a writer who only rarely produces anything that could be called a personal essay, but I’m longing for a renaissance of first-person writing that prizes intellectual rigor above confession and style (though, of course, style needs to become more important than it currently is). Essays like Ellen Willis’ “Next Year in Jerusalem,” which appeared shortly before The White Album; Zadie Smith’s “Joy”; and Oliver Sacks’ recent meditations on dying — essays that struggle through genuinely difficult, inherently universal, not particularly salacious questions (faith, emotion, mortality) without surrendering the battle for meaning. They don’t always have to find that meaning, but it seems unfair to the origin of the word “essay” to not at least make the attempt.