The Personal Essay

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Six windows going up: three square, three rectangular.

I counted them and double-checked because extra-small things bring out the extra-small person in me who sometimes even triple-checks things; who still chances certainty might exist in asking, “Promise me?

Their only purpose is to “clinch” (to echo Chew-Bose) the author’s status as a beacon of complex selfhood. In a sense, there is nothing unique about the pose strikes—and this is the real problem.

For a certain breed of personal essayist at work today, there exists a necessary and desirable trade-off between aesthetic clarity and moral complexity; a bargain premised on the depressing notion that words are always insufficient to the task at hand and so we may as well stop trying to choose the clearest or most precise ones.

A new class of writers, blinkered by the “amazing and unclothed egoism” that came from asserting one’s importance through reading and writing, thought nothing of sacrificing “their beliefs to the turn of a phrase or the glitter of paradox,” Woolf complained.

Theirs was a mass demonstration of newly acquired cultural capital over and above any aesthetic or political purpose they may have had for putting pen to paper in the first place.The adjective that best captures the conditions of this bargain is Messy feelings, messy reality, messy relationships, the messy unfiltered stuff of life; the personal essayist evacuates all in one, big messy outpouring of repurposed clichés about love and life and pain and joy and men and women and whatever other themes readers of these essayists are, by now, primed to receive as universal human concerns.“Style is character,” Joan Didion proclaimed in her 1979 essay collection .But one can see no reason why her readers might want to share in either this experience or the many other experiences of bourgeois living chronicled in “Heart Museum”: dinner parties and dates, travels to Machu Picchu and Kolkata, ritualized anxiety attacks about the relationship between writing personal essays and pointless self-indulgence—an occupational hazard, she suggests, suffered by only the most tender-hearted initiates of New York City’s creative class.For Chew-Bose, this isn’t a problem—indeed this is her point.There's an emoji on my phone that I’ve never used, of a shell-pink tower-block building with blue windows.Smaller than an apple seed, crumb-sized—if that—it stands six stories high.“I never got tired of coming across a writerly style that seemed to exist for no good reason,” Tolentino mourns.“I loved watching people try to figure out if they had something to say.” It’s not an especially persuasive argument—a selective history coupled with a wide-eyed faith in the writer’s desire (or ability) to stop thinking about herself.All rhyme and no reason, she claims a little later in the essay, is preferable to “writing that clinches,” by which I take her to mean writing that too eagerly betrays its argument for the sake of some fidgety, faceless reader. Approximation is the mark,” she states—the first of many prescriptions about what writing is and what it is not; what can and what cannot be accomplished by paying careful attention to form or style.Most of these statements arrive as metaphors that substitute nonsense for sense, preciousness for persuasion.

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