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Against (Certain) Thinkpieces


“We should not ‘feel like,’” writer Molly Worthen argues in a New York Times opinion piece against the expression “I feel like,” when used as a synonym for “I think.” “We should argue rationally, feel deeply and take full responsibility for our interaction with the world.” While I can’t get worked up over the expression itself, Worthen is right to preserve “the distinction—and even in our relativistic age, there remains a distinction—between evidence out in the world and internal sentiments known only to each of us.” We are living in a feelings age, where it’s increasingly frowned upon to express opinions that don’t have the ballast of sentiment behind them. And that’s a threat to journalism. 

Readers may think they want an author with a personal connection to a topic—and editors may encourage that assumption—but that kind of connection is, by definition, not representative. (Nor are the topics that thinkpiece writers will have personal connections to in the first place, which is its own problem.) While this is still less troubling than that other genre, where journalists “report” on the feelings of people other than themselves, it’s still less than ideal.

As an example, take Helaine Olen’s recent Slate piece, a snarky response to journalist Neal Gabler’s Atlantic story about financial insecurity. Gabler’s article was about the 47 percent of Americans who’d have trouble coming up with $400 in case of an emergency. The twist: He, big-shot writer, author of several books, and occasional television personality, was one of them. Gabler’s point is that “financial impotence” (his term) is unspoken, and therefore invisible.

Olen devotes her column to pointing out that Gabler is, in certain respects, quite privileged. Which she admits he admits, but when has that ever stopped a conversation between op-ed writers? But highlighting privilege here is missing the point. Yes, on the surface, Gabler doesn’t seem like someone who’d have money troubles. But evidently he does! That was the point of his piece. Sometimes apparent advantages don’t translate to financial stability; Gabler was discussing the unique and specific shame of that predicament. Olen’s problem with Gabler’s piece is at the level of his own failings—not budgeting, but self-awareness.   

I’d say it failed elsewhere. Specifically, in the flawed, ubiquitous journalistic template Gabler chose to use: a fusion of societal analysis with reflections on a highly personal and idiosyncratic situation. In other words, every article needs a personal angle, and, conversely, every personal essay requires outside scientific or sociological qualification, as though an author’s story is valuable only if it’s connected to something larger. The author’s experiences likely won’t be a flawless example of a broader social phenomenon—both because these essay writers are likely more privileged (culturally, if not financially) than the general population, and because experience is subjective.   

What’s especially frustrating about the privilege argument, in this case, is that the personal aspects of Gabler’s story do illustrate a bigger picture, if not quite as Pew-level universal as he was aiming for. As Noah Berlatsky pointed out in his response, if Gabler’s financial predicament is the situation for successful writers, that’s a reminder of the dreadful state of the profession more generally. Status, however cherished, doesn’t pay bills. And likewise, tales of flawed, unlikeable characters don’t usually hold up well when channeled into an argument.

In Gabler’s piece, the differences between his situation and that of other struggling Americans was simply so stark (the Hamptons house!) that he opened himself up to this criticism. Moreover, bringing up his own case leads to a certain contradiction: “I don’t ask for or expect any sympathy,” he writes. “I am responsible for my quagmire—no one else.” And yet the argument of his piece is precisely that the individual shouldn’t be held responsible.

While fiction is ideal, a straightforward personal essay is still better than argument-driven introspection. More recently, Jason Guriel made the case against confessional criticism—that is, writing myopic criticism, using the self as one’s only text. “A critic’s desire to ensure that she comes off as messily human may come from an honest place, but it’s hard to distinguish seemingly sincere moments of self-critique…from rhetorical strategies designed to win readers over,” Guriel writes. As he notes, some of this is just a matter of taste. But there’s something potentially dangerous about this sort of genre crossing, when bigger political and economic points are at stake. The danger is that we’ll wind up having a narrow and unproductive conversation about an individual’s failings, rather than about the bigger systematic failures that none of us, as individuals, can control.