Why The Women’s Confessional Essay Is Here To Stay
Recently, there’s been a lot of debate about the value of the personal essay – especially the women’s personal essay – a genre which has taken over online media publications with vigor in the last decade.
Jia Tolentino, in her New Yorker essay in May, “The Personal Essay Boom Is Over”, wrote about the increasing luridity of the genre as writers suddenly had to compete for the reader’s attention with as intimate detail and as horrific a life-altering event as possible. Jia is in good company: Along with others like the New York Times and LitHub that cite this darker aspect of the genre, the editor of my local Jewish newspaper, Elizabeth Kratz, recently took the genre to task, wondering aloud, “But we seem to have entered a new age of the “common woman” memoir; everyone and their daughter/sister/mother must unburden themselves somehow in order to “help others.” But are we proud of this in every case? Is this activity always to be applauded, and does “going public” with a private story somehow make it more legitimate or relevant to all? Is it possible to share too much? Is anyone else a little embarrassed by all this TMI?”
As a woman who’s written more than one confessional piece in my sporadic writing career, and as one who deeply enjoys reading stories that share diverse anecdotes from women’s lives and contribute to a larger collective of the female experience – lurid as some of them may be – I feel the positives of this genre, as a whole, far outweigh any negative aspects. Of course it is possible for one to share too much, as Elizabeth suggests, but I also contend that the question is a personal issue a writer can only answer to herself.
I came of age before people Instagrammed their breakfast plate, but around the time when they went on MTV’s Real World and started taking pen to virtual paper, otherwise known as blogging. Since I was a child, I loved to read and write, though I wrote mostly articles about things and people other than myself, and the most personal I ever got was discussing which book I liked and why in my college newspaper.
When I finally published my first personal essay in Tablet, which discussed covering and then uncovering my hair during my marriage, the essay went semi-viral. I received e-mails and messages for weeks; a popular online figure posted it on his Facebook wall, yielding thousands of comments in response; and I was even told the essay garnered a less-than-glowing mention in a Shabbat sermon by a rabbi of a large congregation (and my parents thought I would never amount to anything!). It was immediately intoxicating to realize that I could write things that elicited such visceral reactions from others but, more than that, I loved the letters from people who told me I gave voice to their experience and, subsequently, lessened the loneliness they felt. The experience confirmed for me that all of us have doubts, secrets, and inner turmoil about things most frequently left unsaid.
I published more personal essays chronicling a former illness, religion, parenting, feminism, and, later, the dissolution of my marriage (one commentator: “I knew that wig essay two years ago was the death knell of their relationship”). Then I ran out of things to say, and after caving to the pressure to continue to produce personal pieces that didn’t say much of anything, I finally realized that no, not everything I can say, I should say, and nobody was holding a gun to my head to keep writing these pieces or extending a nice wad of cash, either. Unless you are a boldfaced name, no outlet, not even the New York Times, is paying top dollar for your personal essay. So I stopped this kind of writing – for years, save for an essay or two about adjusting to single parenthood. My increasingly busy life played a role in this decision, but I also ran out of relevant things which with I was comfortable sharing.
But that was just me.
When women’s voices have been stifled for far too long – in the voting booths, in the boardroom, and in the media with which we engage – I would hesitate before trying to suppress a woman’s right to express herself in any way, shape or form. It might be my right to opine strongly on the comfort level other women should feel with regards to their personal writing, but ultimately, it’s unseemly of me to issue broad statements that suggest I know better about everything from the comfort level they should feel with sharing specific things to the intent they have when sharing these opinions with an audience. Women have enough people issuing opinions about what we should do, how we should do it, and when; I certainly don’t need to add to the chorus when I value as many women’s voices as possible.
In fact, the rallying cry of the women’s movement – “the personal is political” – can perhaps be an attributable reason why personal essays are so very interesting to us, as women. For many of us, to publish a personal piece in which we exercise the right to state an opinion and be heard is a small political act in a larger struggle for equality. The subject matter might not be to my taste, but I don’t have to buy what they’re selling. I don’t even need to read what they’re writing. But to suggest that they refrain from doing so is deeply anathema to me as both a writer and as a woman.
And I’m unsure why women are so frequently taken to task for oversharing via personal essays, and not men. It’s true that of late, the essay market has been skewed toward female authors, but men have been doing this kind of confessional writing for years, long before the Internet even existed. Veteran memoirist David Sedaris has written entire chapters about the seemingly most inconsequential matters, like his family’s beach house or his brother’s juicing habit. He does it well because he is an excellent writer, but the premise for the content is surely just as vapid, if not more so, than many of the topics women write about. I’m disappointed to see women being constantly taken to task, but not men, and if the critics of this genre of writing truly place their distaste in the unseemly element of oversharing, then the gender of the oversharer matters not at all. Why focus, then, on women?
I agree that much of the content of these essays has grown too lurid for most civilized people’s liking. XOJane, may it rest in peace, was perhaps the worst offender of this trend: a feeder for the random thoughts of any girl with dreams of becoming the next Carrie Bradshaw, the website published several essays that made one pause in astonishment and begin to ponder the impending death of American culture and civilization. “My Former Friend’s Death was a Blessing” (Summary: my friend was mentally ill and it’s good she’s dead so my energy is no longer drained from her drug-fueled antics); “There are No Black People in my Yoga Class and I’m Suddenly Uncomfortable With it” (summary: I resent this larger-sized black woman for making me feel self-conscious for my skinny body and white privilege as I attempt the Downward Dog pose); and “I Did Not Cut My Baby’s Umbilical Cord for Six Days So We Could Have a Natural “Lotus Birth” Just Like Chimpanzees” (summary: none needed).
Other, less frequent offenders: Tablet Magazine, I’m sorry to say, which published an essay by Anna Breslaw that took Holocaust survivors to task for, well, surviving. Kveller, a site I used to write for back when it published thoughtful pieces on Jewish parenting but which has since devolved solely into a mouthpiece for editors’ political views, recently published an essay from someone exalting Baby Houseman from Dirty Dancing over Anne Frank as a role model for Jewish women. Anne’s martyrdom complex was unrelatable to the modern gal, the writer argued, but Baby’s sexual reawakening and gumption in standing up to her strict father are much more contemporary. At least I think that was the thesis – many readers tried to parse the article for subtext but were ultimately unable to extract any substantial alternative meaning from this terrible piece.
While nobody can deny the vaguely voyeuristic and navel-gazing qualities attached to this form of writing, to suggest that women should refrain from sharing their innermost thoughts that don’t always seem to serve some larger purpose suggests that there is value in censorship. Those of us who care deeply about the Jewish community and the way women function in it are frightened by the increasing number of Haredi publications and websites that have taken to extreme measures to remove women from purview of the public. The Flatbush Jewish Journal, a popular newspaper from my hometown, publishes something like two pictures of women – Rebbetzin Pam and Rebbetzin Kanievsky, I believe – on their yartzheits each year. A woman has to be dead, in other words, for this newspaper to publish images of them. If that’s not some astute commentary on how Haredi culture, for all its positives, has taken a surreal and frightening turn, I’m not sure what is. I’d suggest that those of us in the greater Jewish community who celebrate women’s voices do all we can to encourage them — overly revealing as some of them may feel.
I emerged from my self-imposed semi-retirement of personal essay writing to participate in Shira Lankin Sheps’s The Layers Project. This photojournalistic initiative aims to help shed light on things often left unsaid in our Jewish community – but also in greater society – and is a direct response to the fact that women are being increasingly scrubbed from more Orthodox media.
When Shira asked me to write about divorce in the Orthodox community, of course I left certain things unsaid out of respect for my ex-husband. In any piece I write, I try and consider the factors at play: My desire to share my opinion, to exercise my love of the written word, and my respect for the people in my life whom I love and who have varying levels of feelings regarding my tendency to be so forthcoming in writing about themes that I believe to be universal. Where the line is drawn between wanting to express oneself comfortably, respect for the people who matter to you and recognition that there will always be alternative points of view, is a question that any woman, any person who writes, has to answer for him or herself – not because he or she has to answer to someone else.
If you don’t like the personal essay trend, then don’t read them. If you read them but disagree with them, then consider engaging in a larger conversation about the issues at hand with respect for the other side, recognition that not everyone believes as you do, and determination to participate civilly in a larger dialogue about issues that touch many people, if not you personally.
I, for one, look forward to reading more personal essays of wisdom and nuance, ignoring lesser ones, and perhaps occasionally commenting with derision on the ones with truly ridiculous premises, like how a fictional character from an overhyped movie about sexually-charged dancing can teach modern Jewish women more than one of the most inspirational Jewish women who left an enduring legacy of hope and Jewish ethics amid the ashes of the Holocaust.
But above all, I welcome all the essays and all the voices, whatever they might say, and especially if they are by women, because they help continue to confirm that we do not live in a vacuum but, on the contrary, the human experience is a universal adventure in which we can find comfort in our commonalities.
Let’s keep that conversation going.
Tova Stulman is a communications professional and freelance writer with experience in drafting creative and development content for a variety of clients. She has contributed to the New York Times, Washington Post, Tablet Magazine and the Forward. She currently works as the Director of Communications at a private day school and lives in New Jersey with her family.