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Indie sites known for cultivating first-person writing—the Toast, the Awl, the Hairpin—have shut down or changed direction.Thought Catalog chugs along, but it seems to have lost its ability to rile up outside readers.
“First-person writing should not be cheap, and it should not be written or edited quickly,” Gould wrote to me.
“And it should be published in a way that protects writers rather than hanging them out to dry on the most-emailed list.”There are still a few outlets that cultivate a more subtle and sober iteration of this kind of first-person writing, some of them connected to book publishing.
Sarah Hepola, who worked as Salon’s personal-essay editor, described the situation to me in an e-mail.
“The boom in personal essays—at Salon, at least, but I suspect other places—was in part a response to an online climate where more content was needed at the exact moment budgets were being slashed.” When I worked as an editor at the Hairpin and Jezebel, from 2013 to 2016, I saw up close how friendly editors and ready audiences could implicitly encourage writers to submit these pieces in droves.
For the first two years that I edited personal essays, I received at least a hundred first-person pitches and pieces each week.
But an ad-based publishing model built around maximizing page views quickly and cheaply creates uncomfortable incentives for writers, editors, and readers alike.Attention flows naturally to the outrageous, the harrowing, the intimate, and the recognizable, and the online personal essay began to harden into a form defined by identity and adversity—not in spite of how tricky it is to negotiate those matters in front of a crowd but precisely because of that fact.The commodification of personal experience was also women’s territory: the small budgets of popular women-focussed Web sites, and the rapidly changing conventions and constrictions surrounding women’s lives, insured it.personal: the topics seemed insignificant, or else too important to be aired for an audience of strangers.The essays that drew the most attention tended to fall within certain categories.There were those that incited outrage by giving voice to horrible, uncharitable thoughts, like “My Former Friend’s Death Was a Blessing” (xo Jane again) and “I’m Not Going to Pretend I’m Poor to Be Accepted by You” (Thought Catalog).Finally, there were those essays that directed outrage at society by describing incidents of sexism, abuse, or rape.Of course, published a first-person cover story by Alex Tizon, with the provocative headline “My Family’s Slave.” But there’s a specific sort of ultra-confessional essay, written by a person you’ve never heard of and published online, that flourished until recently and now hardly registers.The change has happened quietly, but it’s a big one: a genre that partially defined the last decade of the Internet has essentially disappeared. To answer that, it helps to consider what gave rise to the personal essay’s ubiquity in the first place. In preceding years, private blogs and social platforms—Live Journal, Blogspot, Facebook—trained people to write about their personal lives at length and in public.Personal essays have evidently been deemed not worth the trouble.Even those of us who like the genre aren’t generally mourning its sudden disappearance from the mainstream of the Internet.