More than the lack of conviction or the preciousness of prose, it is the peacocking of the author that chafes.
It is the literary equivalent of the ill-mannered man who, thinking himself to be very mature, declares, “I may be an asshole, but look how self-aware I am about it.” It is precisely the gimmicky quality of authorship that Jia Tolentino registers—albeit somewhat unwittingly—in a recent piece titled “The Personal-Essay Boom is Over.” Around 2008, Tolentino claims, the personal essay began to “harden into a form defined by identity and adversity—not in spite of how tricky it is to negotiate these matters in front of a crowd, but precisely because of that fact.” If Woolf had mass literacy to blame, then Tolentino has the Internet, which, she argues, seduced American narcissists with the same siren song of self-assertion that penmanship drills did for the British middle class.
Her argument draws on a strangely truncated history of the personal essay, beginning with the collapse of Live Journal in 2008 and ending with the 2016 presidential election—the last stand of American “identity politics,” she claims, before the emergence of a new, more thoughtful political consciousness that exiled the personal from the republic of letters, possibly for good.
Sort of.” “Is there anything better, more truthful and sublime than what cannot be communicated?
” she concludes in “Heart Museum.” “The marvelous, hard-to-spell-out convenience of what’s indefinite.” These are pretty phrases that mean nothing and teach nothing.
But one can see no reason why her readers might want to share in either this experience or the many other experiences of bourgeois living chronicled in “Heart Museum”: dinner parties and dates, travels to Machu Picchu and Kolkata, ritualized anxiety attacks about the relationship between writing personal essays and pointless self-indulgence—an occupational hazard, she suggests, suffered by only the most tender-hearted initiates of New York City’s creative class.
For Chew-Bose, this isn’t a problem—indeed this is her point.
“I never got tired of coming across a writerly style that seemed to exist for no good reason,” Tolentino mourns.
“I loved watching people try to figure out if they had something to say.” It’s not an especially persuasive argument—a selective history coupled with a wide-eyed faith in the writer’s desire (or ability) to stop thinking about herself.
A new class of writers, blinkered by the “amazing and unclothed egoism” that came from asserting one’s importance through reading and writing, thought nothing of sacrificing “their beliefs to the turn of a phrase or the glitter of paradox,” Woolf complained.
Theirs was a mass demonstration of newly acquired cultural capital over and above any aesthetic or political purpose they may have had for putting pen to paper in the first place.