Here at The Lifted Brow, we’ve noticed writers increasingly insert themselves overtly in their work, framing their stories with the first-person personal pronoun, with little thought to the consequences.
Ellena Savage’s essay below, originally published in The Lifted Brow #22, dissects the personal essay as a genre and challenges us to recognise that the ‘I’ is ‘not automatically honest’, that all writing—even the seemingly subjective—is ideological, whether it wants to be or not.
The Lifted Brow #23: The Ego Issue is a sally into the territory beyond ideologically loaded personal pronouns. Here’s where it all started.
Vile Flusser writes that the gesture of writing is not about construction, but rather an act of taking away: “It is, both structurally and historically, closer to sculpture than architecture. It is a gesture of making holes, of digging, of perforating.” We read this statement in awe of its negative truth.
The personal essay is a vestige of liberal humanism, and liberal humanism the birthplace of capitalism. Yet the personal essay maintains a radical possibility for resisting the status quo. The pedagogue Joel Haefner writes that “the essay is essentially subjective but ameliorated by the concept of social dialogue.” We agree. The remedy for simply venerating the individual in the personal essay lies in attempting, as Haefner writes, to balance “the individualistic, expressive view of knowledge with a social, collective perspective.” Writing collectively, for example, or denying the “I” pronoun in favour of “we”.
We want to see the discarded truths, all of them, how they pile up invisible to the naked eye. Yet always plainly visible.
We acknowledge the personal essay as an ideologically conflicted genre; that as genre, it necessarily deals in the ideograms of dominant culture; and that the genre, born of Enlightenment conditions, is interested in the maintenance of democracy and the valorisation of the individual. The personal essay is an attempt to transpose personal histories over collective ones.
This conflict we speak of arises from the historically instructive nature of the personal essay; that while valorising the individual, is culturally embedded in what Frederic Jameson names the linguistic representation of the dialectical process. It is a catalogue of a collective identity. To understand the personal essay, we are forced to read it within its cultural history.
Gould’s ‘How Much My Novel Cost Me’ was trending. We had read, and player-hated on Gould’s 2010 book And the Heart Says Whatever, but remained captivated by the beautiful spectacle of former Gawker editor Emily Gould. We found her essays middlebrow and narcissistic, but saw misogyny in the critics who said her essays were middlebrow and narcissistic—there’s nothing wrong with accessible prose, and the personal essay is, after all, concerned with the self. And so we definitely read the essay on our lunch break.
‘How Much My Novel Cost Me’ meanders through the young writer’s career, how she was given a hefty advance on her book and then struggled to finish it, how she frittered away her money on bourgeois conceits, and spent thousands keeping alive a demented cat called Raffles. How she went on to live, effectively, in poverty, supported only by the care and financial stability of her partner, New Yorker writer Keith Gessen. Predictably, we felt vindicated by the essay, by her. She wasted all that money, yet had the gall to write about how one time she uncharacteristically gave money to a beggar, an act so confusing she wrote of it: “What, I thought, as I waited for the uptown 6, was that? […] I didn’t want to alienate [my friend] by crying or acting strange or giving money to homeless people.”
In the same essay, Gould brags about how her “feminist, socialist education” gives her the guilts. The fact that there is nothing feminist or socialist about spurning the poor escapes her, and so we can only assume that the inclusion of this bizarre claim is an attempt to confirm her status as member of a deluded bourgeois class that has thrown off its obligation to others, and immersed itself in what Karl Marx describes as the “icy water of egotistical calculation”. In other words, Gould presents her voice as that of a model capitalist citizen: one who believes she is on the outside, but lacks any form of outsider lens through which to critique herself.
And yet we appreciate Gould’s (feeble?) attempts to understand her own conceits: knowing of how little consequence her first book might be, she admits to suggesting that her publishers dub her “a voice of a generation” in the jacket copy. This is cute, a generous admission, but we conclude that the narcissism that courses Gould’s work was never about it being confessional; it was always because she was never critiquing herself, not truly. She was self-admonishing the cute things that could make her seem honest.
We are concerned with the how truth exists in the personal essay. Is it singularly the search for self-knowledge, or is it self-production? Gould writes of her struggle to move away from the “I” speaker in her essays:
[W]ithout that dose of “I” I’d reliably been able to inject before, [my essays] were dry and boring, and suddenly my lack of real expertise or research skills was glaring—I’d always been able to fudge it before, compensating with feelings and observations when facts weren’t at my fingertips.
We are not interested in saying things like the “I” speaker is lazy. We hear it often, and usually from white men. They, of course, don’t need “I” as much as the rest of us; they have authority with or without the pronoun. The rest of us have to live it for it to become true. The personal essay is formless, it is constructed by the lives and texts consumed by the hands and minds of its authors. But I is not automatically honest.
How do we know who we are when we write ourselves? We know that we are muliplicitous, duplicitous, that we are deceitful and in denial. James Frey, of auto-fiction infamy, writes his excuse for largely fictionalising his addiction-survivor “autobiography” A Million Little Pieces, that “one way people cope [with adversity] is by developing a skewed perception of themselves that allows them to overcome and do things they thought they couldn’t do before.” Frey’s “skewed perception” is one way of putting things. Another way of saying this is that extreme self-production is pretty much the cornerstone of liberal democracy, and so of course that’s why personal essays and conversations and real life in general feels like bullshit a lot of the time.
It’s ok, we like bullshitting as well. We like the option of running away to New York City and making it in the big league by forging a newer, sexier identity. We do this in our writing, constantly. But the identity fails, of course it fails. Our culturally-manufactured desires limit us to a set of tropes.
Of holes, of chipping away and telling stories from the remnants: William H Gass’s brilliant personal essay, ‘Emerson and the Essay’ makes a pile, digs a hole and leaves these morsels for our consumption:
But life is not all eloquence and adulation: life is wiping the baby’s bum; it is a bad case of the croup; it quarrels with one’s spouse; it is disappointment, distraction, indignities by the dozen; it is the death of friends, wife, son, and brothers, carried off like fluff in the wind; it is alien evenings, cold stairwells, frosty sheets, lack of love; for what does the great spirit need that touches the body but the touch of the body, as oratory needs silence, and revolution peace? We are nourished by our absences and opposites; contraries quench our thirst.
When we first consumed these words, we were in the midst of romantic crisis: why doesn’t he love us? et al. How trite, to cry at a list of sad things while pining for some random and forgettable man who loves drugs, loves his oblivious and charming naivety more than he loves our vision of things. But it is for us that these words exist. We are reader, we are audience, we are interpreter of the universe. To paraphrase Heraclitus, every cosmology begins with self-knowledge. And self-knowledge is seeing what confirms us—we are bereft, we seek love, we identify with emo passages—and discarding the rest.
Hilton Als writes in ‘GWTW’ (acronym of Gone With the Wind), “Too often we refuse information, refuse to look or even think about something, simply because it’s unpleasant or poses a problem, or raises ‘issues’—emotional and intellectual friction that rubs our heavily therapeuticized selves the wrong way.” He is writing about photographs of lynchings in America. The essay is brilliant and grotesque, pained and savage. It constructs from the discarded knowledge we’d rather not confront; throws back at us what was taken away by the dominant history written.
‘GWTW’ examines the provenance of Als’ personality, too: his transformation from a person who, raised on the wholesome stock of Gone With the Wind and identified with the whites in it, to a conscious black man, made conscious by the living history that engulfed him. The essay is a terrible and alienating one. Als’ consciousness arises from the facts of race in America: he is looked at, he is persecuted, he is lynched, slowly, and invisibly: “Now I know from experience that the world has been limited for me by people who see me as a nigger.” The exacting knowledge he possesses of himself and the culture that produced him is what makes his words so painfully satisfying. He has an outsider lens, and he clubs us with it brutally, lovingly.
The idea that the personal essay is inherently democratic is extoled by many scholars. John Dewey wrote that the very idea of ‘Personal Essay’ in education—foundational in the American university system—is “a freeing of individual capacity in a progressive growth directed to social aims.” To unravel this claim is to question whether it is possible to unburden democracy from the rampant individualism of capitalism. In our western context, we think not. Not right now.
But if, as we might have suggested, the personal essay is a tool of power which supports and reproduces the status quo—western, bourgeois, liberal, white—then why do so many outsiders pick up the form? Contemporary masters of the personal essay are largely women, queers, people of colour. Is this an effort to access some form of dominant power? To claim “voice” from injustice? Or it is because the inherent formlessness of the genre allows for visions to be cut from discarded knowledge, and discarded knowledge holds the key to injustice?
What separates Als from Gould is his awareness of the writing process: what stays and what goes; and the cultural context from which a personality who writes is drawn. The finest personal essays are savage in their search for self-knowledge. They do not simply construct, but acknowledge the hidden information, expose it as judiciously as possible. They build from the intellectual graveyards of refuse.
Ellena Savage edits Middlebrow and writes the books column contained therein. She also edits politics for SPOOK Magazine, writes a column about cultural politics for Eureka Street, and has had essays and criticism published in Overland, Right Now, Arena, Australian Book Review, and elsewhere. Say hi at ellenasavage.com.