They’re everywhere these days: stories along the formula “I Am an X, and Y Happened to Me!” These kind of confessional articles long constituted the barbarians lurking around the gates of traditional newspaper culture, appearing on XOJane or blogs or niche columns like Modern Love, while the serious journalistic real estate remained dominated by authority figures like Larry Summers or Aaron David Miller pontificating on the economy or Israel-Palestine.
Now, though, they’re in the citadel. CNN has announced a new “First Person” project, a “series of personal essays exploring identity and personal points of view that shape who we are.” BuzzFeed has put out a call for first-person essays. This magazine, PostEverything, has excelled at the trend, promoting first-person takes from an undocumented immigrant who went to Harvard, a cop who advised civilians not to challenge him if they didn’t want to get hurt, and a Mercedes owner who found herself relying on food stamps. (I was schooled as a traditional political reporter, but I’ve written these pieces, too, musings on my experiences cooking and growing plants on a balcony.)
A New York Times editor told me his paper’s actively seeking more first-person essays — like “Why I’m Jealous of My Dog’s [Health] Insurance” — because “the reaction is great from readers.” “It used to be, ‘Let’s get a legislator who worked on gay rights,’” the editor went on. “But now we also say, ‘Let’s get someone who just got married! Let’s get somebody who has some unique personal attribute to talk about an issue. Let’s get somebody who has an identity that gives them authority.’”
In certain obvious ways, the first-person essay boom is a great thing. It channels our deep mistrust of elites in the wake of the Iraq catastrophe and the financial crisis, both wrought by distant experts who had little direct experience of the things — dictatorship, subprime mortgages — they claimed to understand so well. Now we want the reverse: to hear from the people on the ground, to get points of view we imagine are so anchored in personal experience they must be true.
The New York Times op-ed editor called the trend “a radical democratization of opinion,” and in some respects it represents a great triumph of democracy, fulfilling the promise in the realm of literature that everyone’s life, from the failed entrepreneur to the cop to some random guy who envies his dog’s health insurance, is of equal interest and honor. Charles Blow, in a recent New York Times confessional about his ambiguous sexuality, wrote that his personal journey has led him to discover “there [is] no hierarchy of humanity. There [is] no one way to be, or even two, but many.” This captures how I feel after reading the best of the new wave of first-person op-eds: in awe at the tremendous variety of human experiences, of the myriad ways people find, amid pain, to be happy, to love each other and their world.
I also think the personal-essay boom reflects our uneasiness with the slashing of budgets for in-depth reporting and the necessarily more superficial coverage that results. An essayist giving a personal take on an event in the news — for instance, this heartbreaking piece of deep personal history on how delays in unwinding the Defense of Marriage Act traumatized a family — may not result from a month of reporting with a big budget, as in the older days, but instead brings a whole lifetime of experience to the story. “Everything’s so quick and fast it’s nice to have these personal pieces to pause in a deeper moment,” Rachel Levin, an editor at the news site Ozy who’s about to start a new section she calls “First-Person Fridays,” told me when I asked her why she loved the new first-person takes.
It surprised me a little, because it’s a journalistic truism that memoir is actually faster and easier to produce than reporting. But perhaps in our new age of instant news deadlines and dried-up travel budgets, plumbing the depths of your own life seems to be the only way to spend time on a topic, to take a breath and say something slower and more considered, to draw “reporting” from a wider time frame than this morning’s press conference.
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Still, we lose something important in the rush toward first-person takes. First of all, while we have diversified the content on our opinion pages, the purveyors of the content fundamentally remain people who can write. Investigating the biographies of the first-person essay writers, I find most of them are journalists or writers of some sort, from the dwarf posting for CNN to the guy whose personal tragedy became a New York City tourist hotspot to the fellow jealous of his dog’s health care. So perhaps what we’re really seeing, with the so-called democratization of opinion, is how weird and variegated writers’ lives actually are, rather than a profoundly widened window into human experience. From Homer onwards, it’s always been the duty of reporters to tell stories about the lives of those people who cannot spin great stories out of their own astonishing experiences. (This long profile of an illiterate Cairo garbageman does it gorgeously, for example.) We need our reporters to investigate the stories of these people just as much as we ever have.
The second fantasy perpetuated by the first-person essay boom is that people’s own account of their lives are always the most interesting accounts. With confessionals, we imagine we are getting closer to truth, as evidenced by Ozy’s alternate name for its “First-Person Fridays”: “True Story.”
But if that were really the case, there never would have been such things as biographies, travelogues, or even novels, which function on the premise that an unseen narrator understands more truth about the often self-deluded main characters than the characters themselves do. There would be no such thing as advice columns, or therapists. Reading the wave of first-person essays, I often wish the writers had an interlocutor visibly present in the piece, someone to ask more questions and provide an outside view.
Take this confessional by a cynical New York-based writer who has an unexpectedly transcendent experience in a tarot-card reader’s salon — and secretly becomes a tarot-card reader herself. Inevitably, it’s very funny, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how much more fun and revealing it could have been if it had been written by a reporter who goes to the woman’s salon and probes a little deeper than she could probe herself on why, exactly, tarot was what enabled her to solve the kind of problems — difficulties with her career, an obsession with an ex — most of us flounder for lifetimes failing to fix. (Her answer: the tarot cards were “telling me a story about my life … I had been picking fights against everything in my life because I was dissatisfied.”)
Or look at it in the reverse. Consider one of the most brilliant short profiles published lately, of the disgraced former Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili puttering around with baristas and bike messengers in Williamsburg trying to make himself feel hip and relevant again. The portrait was a hilarious, heartbreaking, and utterly vivid revelation of the torment and ennui of a small-nation leader lionized by the West as a democratizer and then roundly rejected by his own citizens. “Williamsburg is part of the democratic transformation,” he portentously proclaims to the reporter, who simultaneously shows him racing around a hipster food market in neon green sneakers bragging to anyone who will listen about “my friend, one of the biggest sheikhs of the United Arab Emirates” and buying 50 clocks made out of old books for “my presidential library.”
Now imagine if this had been a first-person essay, written by Saakashvili himself. It might have been titled, “How My Country Abandoned True Democracy and I Found It Again in Williamsburg.” It would have been ridiculous. All that sad and subtle truth, all the disconnect between how we imagine ourselves and who we really are — the disconnect that underpins the whole tragicomedy of human life — would have been lost. Sometimes the deepest truths are the ones we cannot ourselves quite face.