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The Personal Essay Economy Offers Fewer Rewards for Black Women


Writing a personal essay can be a full-body activity, replete with tremors and tears and physical aches. Recollection is strenuous. Recreating a scene can be downright exhausting. In those instances, I prefer the tolls to be paid on my own terms. At my personal blog, I spent seven years writing lyrical essays about life as a black woman grappling with faith, love, her career, and, eventually, motherhood. I did it for free. I did it because, like Joan Didion, I don't know what I think (or why I think it) until I write it. Posting that work online holds me accountable to those thoughts and that reasoning. The responses are both challenging and affirming in ways that can be as informative as the experiences I’ve written. Even now that I’m regularly paid to write—and now that what I write isn’t so personal—I still blog. It’s how I check in with myself.

Recently, personal essays have moved back into the spotlight: Earlier this week, Slate’s Laura Bennett wrote about the rise of personal essay writing for online publications, aptly titled, “The First-Person Industrial Complex.” Bennett identifies a trend nearly as old as the internet itself that has become newly predatory; she posits that writing about one’s most troubling experiences can be exploitative. There’s not much money in writing about oneself, and many personal stories are packaged misleadingly for the sake of potentially going viral. Bennett also suggests that the growing trend of pegging personal stories to the news of the day may compromise journalistic integrity. "First-person essays have become the easiest way for editors to stake out some small corner of a news story and assert an on-the-ground primacy without paying for reporting," she writes.

But the driving force of her piece is the assertion that the recent proliferation of terrible, tragic personal essays online have lasting effects on the writers’ professional and private lives, and not necessarily favorable ones.

This is, more than anything, a labor problem—writers toiling at the whims of a system with hazardous working conditions that involve being paid next to nothing and guaranteed a lifetime of SEO infamy. The first-person boom, Tolentino says, has helped create “a situation in which writers feel like the best thing they have to offer is the worst thing that ever happened to them.”

I followed the ensuing debate silently on social media, seeking out women of color on Twitter first. Fusion’s Anna Holmes pointed out how gendered Bennett’s piece was—all of its examples of exploitative, “confessional” writing were women’s essays, while its examples of well-done personal essays were mostly written by men. Buzzfeed’s Bim Adewunmi stated that labeling writing as “confessional” in the first place is gender-biased. Latoya Peterson’s comments in a round-up of editorial voices—again, all women—at The Guardian hews closest to my own opinion and experience:

This overshare, gross-out phenomenon of “first-person writing” is generally a door that leads to more fame and work for white women. It is selling pieces of yourself to get bylines. This route to publication and a book/movie deal simply is not open for non-white women. Society sees women of color’s shameless writing as proof of deviance, not a relatable and fun story to share on social media.

Rarely is a black woman writer plucked from the world of online personal essay writing and offered a major publishing deal like Emily Gould, whose success Bennett attributed to her confessional blogging, or Cat Marnell, who famously netted a $500,000 advance from Simon & Schuster for a proposed memoir based on the self-destructive, drug-fueled exploits she once blogged about at XOJane and Vice for what was likely far less money. (Though Marnell was an employee at XOJane, they paid as little as $50 for 1,000-word personal essays in 2014, according to Scratch magazine.) Vice has also been known to underpay its freelancers and full-time employees, as noted in a Gawker profile on the company.

Peterson mentions just one example of a confessional, potentially scandalous memoir by a young black woman writer, Helena Andrews-Dyer’s Bitch is the New Black. “[T]he lingering notes from that work are not sexual, but rather about friendship and hollowness and the vulnerability of black women,” Peterson writes. “We always have to bring more to the table.” 

For my own part, I can think of just one other: Samantha Irby’s 2013 essay collection, Meaty, which belongs to the same aesthetic group Bennett and Peterson discuss. The book is a mortifying, deeply personal, humorous work about some of the worst and best moments of Irby's life.

Meaty was published by a regional, independent press, while Harper Perennial—a comparative behemoth—published Bitch Is the New Black. Both books enjoyed critical acclaim, and Andrews-Dyers’ book was even optioned for feature film adaptation. More impressively, neither author found herself pigeonholed as an “identity writer” post-publication.

That might seem obvious, but it’s shocking because in so many other cases, when women of color write about their personal experiences, they’re asked to make a cottage industry of their encounters with racism and sexism. It feels insidious: Place one successful, gut-wrenching piece somewhere, and then hear “no” until you write another one like it, until you exploit personal trauma for a byline. Often, like Bennett mentions, the pieces are tied to news of violence or discrimination due to race or gender. It’s an experience Cord Jefferson wrote about last year in one of the personal essays Bennett commends, “The Racism Beat":

If you’re black and your beat is to offer your thoughts and opinions on the degradation of black Americans, you’ll never want for steady work. A steady mind is not guaranteed.

Neither Irby nor Andrews-Dyers’s books marked the beginning of a renaissance in confessional memoir publications for young women of color. Typically, the ones that make it to mainstream publication are written by authors who’ve already earned fame in other arenas. (Consider webseries creator/producer Issa Rae’s The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl and trans activist, magazine editor, and MSNBC host Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness. Both were on the New York Times Bestseller list.)

Historically, the expectation of personal writing about black life seems largely rooted in exceptionalism. Some of the earliest black memoirs were narratives about escape from enslavement, and being relatively successful afterward. Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass, and Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery are just three of many early personal narratives about black life that center on horrific treatment or living conditions—and eventual triumph. They've each become a model of the genre, in their own ways. Publication of black memoirs and autobiography is usually contingent on prevailing over systemic bias, discrimination, or oppression.

In early summer, ThinkProgress published a short wish list titled, “If These 5 Black Women Wrote Memoirs, We’d Pick Them Up In A Second.” With the exception of Roxane Gay, no one on the list is known as a personal essayist. They’re history-makers: Bree Newsome, Laverne Cox, Ava DuVernay. A Goodreads list of 165 black memoirs also indicates that stories of heroism and changing the course of history predominate the small market.

No one’s paying us book advances to behave badly or to bare our souls—unless bad behavior involves trysts with married sports and music stars, as in the case of Karrine Stephens’s Confessions of a Video Vixen, which chronicled her impoverished childhood and rise to fame (or infamy) through relationships with famous men.  

By the same token, some of the most compelling personal writing—harrowing or otherwise—the Internet has produced is the work of writers of color. LaToya Jordan’s “After Striking a Fixed Object,” about life after a car accident that left her disfigured, is incredible for its ability to recreate a jarring, life-altering event and the way it chronicles the long process of coping that followed. Sara Bivigou’s "The Bad Blood,” about living with sickle cell anemia, is compelling in that it humanizes a disease that disproportionately affects black people while heartbreakingly describing the ways people with chronic illness "cheat" themselves into behaving as though they're well. Saeed Jones’ “How Men Fight For Their Lives,” written in 2012, before he was a National Book Critics Circle finalist, PEN Award winner, Buzzfeed’s literary editor, or publishing a memoir, was first published at The Rumpus as a standalone personal essay. Aside from its remarkable writing, the piece seems eerily prescient now for its lines on seeking out harrowing experiences in order to write about them: “You have to understand I had been passive aggressively trying to get myself killed for months," he wrote then. "I was also on a constant vigil for “writing material” which, I now know, is basically the same thing as passive aggressively trying to get myself killed.”

There are few exceptions to the rule that black confessional writing doesn’t get published. In a 2011 Publishers Weekly profile of 11 agents and editors of color, only one indicated that he’s looking for memoir submissions.

I dream of writing a book about motherhood. But if publication of memoirs by women of color lags significantly behind those penned by white women, the disparity is even wider for black mothers. In a 2008 piece for Bitch, Deesha Philyaw recounted one memoirist of color’s experience pitching a motherhood memoir:

Lori L. Tharps, author of Kinky Gazpacho: Love, Life and Spain, approached her agent with the idea of writing a mommy memoir. [...] "She told me, 'Please don't do that.'" The market was glutted with these books, the agent lamented—and Tharps [...] let it go. 
I can see the agent's point about the glut, but in the 15 years since the publication of Operating Instructions, why weren't black-authored mommy memoirs part of that oversaturation? [...] The absence of black mommy memoirs mirrors the relative absence of black women's voices in mainstream U.S. media discourse about motherhood in general.

In 2015, expecting to jump-start a longterm writing career based on the virality of one or more personal essays requires a good deal of privilege and delusion. As Bennett’s piece indicates, that ship is sailing. Easy, daily access to writers' most devastating experiences is decreasing the demand for full-length memoirs from the online personal essayist. But even when the stakes are lower and a writer is simply looking to raise her professional profile or earn extra money, personal essays aren’t always an advisable route. After a few days, discussion about those pieces wanes and after one bill payment, the money is a memory.

Despite the drawbacks, I still think there's a great deal of value in sharing our human experience with one another. Whether it shocks, evokes empathy, inspires, or infuriates, that writing connects and humbles us. It challenges us, not just to be better writers, but to be better people. And, no matter its reception, personal writing is instructive, reminding us as often which experiences should be shared as which we should keep for ourselves. No payment or publishing deal can replace that.