NYRB: ‘The Illusion of the First Person’

In Merve Emre’s essay in the Nov. 3, 2022 edition of the New York Review of Books, she claims that the individual is a fiction.

Now, obviously, the individual is never only an individual. They have other identities. But Emre’s opinion on its face is absolutely bonkers. How on earth could a smart woman like Oxford scholar Merve Emre believe this? Perhaps the best explanation is that she has been overtaken by the insanity endemic to her intellectual class.

In his 1993 book, The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia 1880-1939, Oxford English Literature professor John Carey wrote: “…modernist literature and art can be seen as a hostile reaction to the unprecedentedly large reading public created by late nineteenth-century educational reforms. The purpose of modernist writing, it suggests, was to exclude these newly educated (or ‘semi-educated’) readers, and so to preserve the intellectual’s seclusion from the ‘mass’.”

The sub-head to Emre’s essay reads: “A historical survey of the personal essay shows it to be the purest expression of the lie that individual subjectivity exists prior to the social formations that gave rise to it.”

So there’s no individual subjective experience prior to society? What about those who grew up outside society? Did they have a genuine inner life? Who constructs a society? Is it not individuals with subjective experiences? Do these subjective individual experiences shape society in addition to being shaped by society? So there is no one direction path here. Individuals shape society and society shapes individuals.

Emre begins her essay with this quote by Theodor Adorno: “The essay form…bears some responsibility for the fact that bad essays tell stories about people instead of elucidating the matter at hand.”

Sounds like Virginia Woolf. Naturally, Emre is a Virginia Woolf scholar.

Shortly before she died, Virginia Woolf recorded this in her journal:

Wednesday, 26 February 1941 Yesterday in the ladies’ lavatory at the Sussex Grill at Brighton I heard: She’s a little simpering thing. I don’t like her. But then he never did care for big women. He has wonderful white teeth. He always had. Its fun having the boys … If he don’t look out he’ll be court martialled. They were powdering and painting, these common little tarts, while I sat, behind a thin door, p–ing as quietly as I could. Then at Fuller’s. A fat, smart woman, in red hunting cap, pearls, check skirt, consuming rich cakes. Her shabby dependant also stuffing. They ate and ate. Something scented, shoddy, parasitic about them. Where does the money come to feed these fat white slugs?

John Carey noted:

When Virginia Woolf wrote this entry in her journal, she had only a short time to live. Madness and suicide were soon to claim her. The harmless chatter she listens to with rage and loathing is curiously reminiscent of the women’s conversation that we overhear in the second part of Eliot’s The Waste Land . The topics are the same – men, teeth, the army. Even the phrasing is echoed (‘If you don’t give it him’; ‘If he don’t look out’). Perhaps she unconsciously altered what she heard, assimilating it to that great, central document of modernism.
But whether she did or not, the scene is, of course, invented. The women in Fuller’s are not ‘slugs’. ‘Common little tarts’ is an intellectual’s rewriting of the occupants of the Sussex Grill lavatory. The invention is strangely self-tormenting. Woolf imagines the women, and is infuriated by what she has imagined. Intellectual figurations of the mass are often, as we have seen, a stimulus to fury, loathing and fear. They are not comfortable things to live with, though they do afford the marginal comfort of assuring the intellectual that he or she is different.
Since intellectual phobias about the mass are, like Virginia Woolf’s, circular and self-deluding (for the ‘mass’ is invented by the intellectual whom the invention gives pain to), they seem, in extreme cases, to be a form of insanity.

Carey continued:

An intriguing illustration of this is Rayner Heppenstall (1911–81), the friend of George Orwell, Dylan Thomas, Eric Gill, Middleton Murry, etc., who worked for twenty years as a drama producer for the highbrow BBC Third Programme. Heppenstall was in many respects an archetypal early twentieth-century intellectual. He regarded himself as a failed artist, unjustly neglected by a philistine public. He had achieved brief celebrity with his first novel, The Blaze of Noon , published in 1939 – the story of a blind man who is also a Nietzsche-reader, hates the weak and disabled, scorns clerks and suburbs. But his later novels met with no comparable success, and his writing became defiantly ‘difficult’. Hélène Cixous described him as the founder of the nouveau roman. Though his BBC job assured him an ample income, he watched the dwindling proceeds of his writing resentfully. In 1973 he recorded his literary earnings as nil, calculating that the cost of stationery had exceeded his royalties.
In his journals and conversation he finds relief in élitist or racist outbursts against the welfare state, trades unions (‘enemies of civilization’), coloured immigrants, new universities and the working class. Like Nietzsche, Wells and other intellectuals, he enjoys contemplating the extinction of large sections of humanity: ‘There are a whole race, the Arabs, and a mongrel people, the Irish, upon whom, if it were possible merely by pressing a button, I would happily commit total genocide.’

Merve Emre begins:

The personal essay is a genre that is difficult to define but easy to denounce. The offending element is rarely the essay as a form, but its content, “the personal,” “a permanent temptation for a form whose suspiciousness of false profundity does not protect it from turning into slick superficiality,” writes Adorno. A list of counterparts to the personal essay might include more admirable imaginary genres such as the structural essay, the communal essay, the public essay, the critical essay, and the impersonal essay. Or, as Adorno insinuates, the good essay, which prioritizes “elucidating the matter at hand” instead of telling “stories about people,” as “bad essays” do.

Why is the personal so delicious to denounce? Maybe it is only delicious to denounce for people like Merve Emre. Why are structural, communal, public, critical and impersonal essays inherently superior? Where exactly is that established?

Emre’s arguments are largely subjective opinions presented as objective truths.

There is no inherent reason that the personal is of less importance than the structural and the impersonal. Who decreed otherwise and why should we listen to him?

John Carey wrote:

It was to cater for the post-Education-Act reading public that the popular newspaper came into being. The pioneer was Alfred Harmsworth, later Lord Northcliffe. In 1896 he launched the Daily Mail , the paper with the biggest circulation at the start of the twentieth century. Its slogan was ‘The Busy Man’s Paper’ – a hit at the idea of a leisured élite. ‘A newspaper,’ Northcliffe insisted, ‘is to be made to pay. Let it deal with what interests the mass of people.’ The principle of his new journalism was ‘giving the public what it wants’. To intellectuals, this naturally sounded ominous. Intellectuals believe in giving the public what intellectuals want; that, generally speaking, is what they mean by education.

Furthermore, the popular newspaper presented a threat, because it created an alternative culture which bypassed the intellectual and made him redundant. By adopting sales figures as the sole criterion, journalism circumvented the traditional cultural élite. In an important sense, too, it took over the function of providing the public with fiction, thus dispensing with the need for novelists. This development hinged on the emergence, in the later nineteenth century, of what became known as the human-interest story, a kind of journalism Northcliffe encouraged. In the Daily Mail , and its rival, Beaverbrook’s Daily Express , the concept of ‘news’ was deliberately extended beyond the traditional areas of business and politics to embrace stories about the everyday life of the ordinary people. As Helen MacGill Hughes points out, this level of journalism supplied for the masses essentially the same aesthetic pleasure that literature gave to the more sophisticated, and commercialized what had previously circulated informally as a component of popular culture – in gossip, ballad and broadsheet. The question ‘What are human-interest stories for?’ observes Hughes, will have the same answer as the question ‘What are novels for?’

Among European intellectuals hostility to newspapers was widespread….

But just as the spread of literacy to the ‘masses’ impelled intellectuals in the early twentieth century to produce a mode of culture (modernism) that the masses could not enjoy, so the new availability of culture through television and other popular media has driven intellectuals to evolve an anti-popular cultural mode that can reprocess all existing culture and take it out of the reach of the majority. This mode, variously called ‘post-structuralism’ or ‘ deconstruction ’ or just ‘theory’, began in 1960s with the work of Jacques Derrida, which attracted a large body of imitators among academics and literary students eager to identify themselves as the intellectual avant-garde. To establish its anti-popular status it was necessary for ‘theory’ to define itself in opposition to the prominent features of the popular media, such as television. Foremost among these is intelligibility . Whereas television must ensure that it can be understood by a wide and not necessarily highly educated educated audience, ‘theory’ must ensure that it cannot. Partly by copying the turns of phrase and peculiar verbal usages of Derrida and other practitioners, it has managed to evolve a language that is impenetrable to most native English-speakers.

A second popular feature it has succeeded in combating is human interest. A factor in television’s breadth of appeal is its focus on personality. In its cultural coverage this generally takes the form of interviews with writers, actors or directors, and programmes about authors’ and artists’ biographies. ‘Theory’, on the other hand, dismisses such biographical approaches as trivial and irrelevant. It denies that there is any ascertainable connection between authors or artists and the meaning of the works they produce. In these respects, ‘theory’ is in accord with early twentieth-century aesthetic treatises such as Clive Bell’s Art and Ortega y Gasset’s The Dehumanization of Art , which taught, as we have seen, that only people incapable of aesthetic emotion look for human interest and other such ‘ sentimental irrelevancies’ in artistic works, and that ‘the passion and pain of the man behind the poet’ is the province of the degenerate masses, not the specially gifted minority. ‘Theory’ (which, it is no surprise to find, often makes obeisance to Nietzsche) teaches that art and literature are ‘self-referential’ or ‘self-reflexive’ – that is, they have no relevance at all to the real world or to the life ordinary people lead. This viewpoint is, again, perfectly in accord with the Bloomsbury aesthetes’ horror of the ‘photographic’ realism that the ‘gross herd’ clamours for – a horror which led Clive Bell, for example, to disdain seventeenth-century Dutch art as a collection of ‘ chromo-photographs ’.

Roland Barthes, whose essay ‘The Death of the Author’ is generally regarded as a landmark in the late twentieth-century dehumanization of literature, shows other affinities with the old-style intellectuals. In The Pleasure of the Text he urges his disciples ‘to be aristocratic readers’ (Barthes’s emphasis).

Here are Merve Emre’s second and third paragraphs:

What makes essays that tell stories about people bad? For Adorno, as for Walter Benjamin, one of the essayists Adorno most admired, essays about people betray the true object of essayistic criticism: the private individual. The private individual is not a particular person with a particular story to tell, no matter how distinctive, original, or purely bizarre that story may be. The private individual is not a proper name—not “Virginia Woolf” or “Elizabeth Hardwick,” not “Joan Didion” or “Zadie Smith” or whoever it is you consider your favorite personal essayist to be. Rather, it is the idea that animates all these figures, the powerful, unobtrusive concept that gives the personal essay the appearance of ventriloquizing a singular and spontaneous subjectivity.

Most essayists and scholars who write about the personal essay agree that its “I” is, by necessity and choice, an artful construction. Watch, they say, as it flickers in and out of focus as a “simulacrum,” a “chameleon,” a “made-up self,” a series of “distorting representations” of the individual from whose consciousness it originates and whose being it registers. Yet having marveled at its aesthetic flexibility and freedom, few critics put this claim through its paces. What if individual subjectivity were as much a fiction as the “I” with which it so prettily speaks? What if stressing the artifice of the first person were, as Louis Althusser argued, a strategy for masking “the internal limitations on what its author can and cannot say”? What if the real limitation of the genre were its glittering veneer of expressive freedom, of speaking and writing as a self-determining subject? What if no performance of stylish confession or sly concealment could shake this ideology loose? What if these performances only intensified the enchantments of subjectivity?

There is nothing bad about essays that tell stories about people. To believe that this is inherently bad requires a leap of faith into an insane world.

I am so darn grateful that we have the benefits of piercing insights from such high IQ people as Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin. How else would we possibly know that the object of essays about people is the individual. That would never have occurred to me if Adorno and Benjamin hadn’t said it. Otherwise, I would have thought that the true object of essays about people was black hole physics.

When Merve Emre states that the “private individual is not a proper name”, she means that people count for nothing. They’re just useless eaters.

Emre writes: “Most essayists and scholars who write about the personal essay agree that its “I” is, by necessity and choice, an artful construction.”

You know what else are artful constructions? New York Review of Books productions. The pyramids. The Great Wall of China. Chichén Itzá. Petra. Machu Picchu. The Christ the Redeemer statute in Rio De Janeiro. The Colosseum in Rome. The Taj Mahal in India.

How is something bad because it is an artful construction? How is something reduced by being artistic and constructed? For many people, I suspect, artful constructions are of more worth than unartful deconstructions.

Emre continues: “Watch, they say, as it flickers in and out of focus as a “simulacrum,” a “chameleon,” a “made-up self,” a series of “distorting representations” of the individual from whose consciousness it originates and whose being it registers.”

So if the subject of the personal essay doesn’t flicker and remains in focus, then it is good? You know what stays in focus? Realistic writing, TV and movies.

What exactly is worthless about a subject that flickers, is created, and has chameleon qualities? Do only those objects that never change and always shine brightly deserve more of our respect? Why?

The individual does not originate from himself and does not only register in himself. The individual is always the product of two people and he is usually born and raised in a community and knows himself through his interactions with others.

Like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, Merve Emre regards the masses as a bunch of deplorables clinging to guns, religion and first-person essays.

Merve Emre begins her fifth paragraph: “Once labor had been cordoned off from life, once the productive activity of work had been extricated from the supposedly unproductive experience of dwelling, the private individual was born.”

Labor has never been cordoned off from life. Labor has always been a part of life. Many of our closest and most important bonds are formed at work. Many people look forward to going to work to see people they love and to take on challenges they find stimulating. Only an intellectual could believe labor has been cordoned off from life. People have always had times for getting and times for being and sometimes these times are not cordoned off but run together. This not an invention of capitalism. Emre argues the individual was only born in the 19th Century. That would come as news to the billions of people who lived individual and communal lives before then. Just because you identify with a group does not mean that you don’t have an individual identity. Group identity and individual identity are not a matter of either or. They are different facets of the one life.

The internet, for example, just like work, is real life. What happens online spills into the rest of your life. What you do online shapes you.

Emre: “He was, quite naturally, blind to his own history as a derivative creature, an artifact of political and economic processes that he had little incentive to question.”

We’re all blind, not just to political and economic processes, but to a whole host of things that we may have little incentive to question. There are many non-rational beliefs that serve us, such as an exaggerated view of our own significance. We’re all derivative creatures and simultaneously, many of us have original, first, basic and primary qualities. Nobody springs out of the ground. We all derive from others and in turn, others derive from us. Humans have had blind spots from time immemorial. Nobody has ever been all-knowing. So therefore because people have blind spots, they have no first-person subjective experience of any value?

Emre: “The domestic sphere was his incubator, his sanctuary from commercial and social considerations.”

Do you know what else is an incubator? A church. A coffee shop. A yoga studio. A school. A club. It’s not only the domestic sphere that incubates people. Do you know what else serves as a sanctuary from commercial and social considerations? A church. A coffee shop. A yoga studio. A school. A club.

Many people work from home. There are not necessarily clear dividers between the domestic and the productive. While changing his child’s diaper, a man may receive insights into his work and immediately transition to the productive.

Emre: “There he could retreat, wide-eyed and mewling, to probe what he believed to be his thoughts, lodged in his self, his mind, his body, and his home.”

Is Emre exempt from this description? Or is it only the masses who retreat, wide-eyed and mewling? Is it only the masses who “probe what [they] believe to be [their] thoughts” or do intellectuals ever do the same? Is it possible to retreat from the world without mewling and derivative thinking? When Paul, Mohammed and Nietzsche retreated from the world, did they have original thoughts?

Emre continues:

“The private individual, who in the office has to deal with reality, needs the domestic interior to sustain him in his illusions,” Benjamin wrote, explaining how the ownership of property mirrored the ownership of subjectivity. He continued, “From this arise the phantasmagorias of the interior—which, for the private man, represents the universe.”

So is it only people in offices who deal in reality while people at home only deal in illusion? That’s nonsense. There’s no sphere of life that is reliably divorced from reality and illusion. We take our delusions with us, whether it is the bedroom, the bathroom or the office.

Is the private man unable to divorce his subjective experiences from the reality of the universe outside him? Most people I know are able to combine subjective experiences with awareness of things outside of themselves. If you didn’t, you’d keep running into walls.

Was there no subjectivity prior to private property? Do people in communist regimes have no subjective experiences? On what basis would one argue that subjective experiences are limited to those who can own property? Only intellectuals believe such nonsense.

Emre: “For Benjamin, the best representative of the private individual was the collector of decorative objects, “the true resident of the interior” as an architectural and an existential space.”

So the private individual who loves his wife and his children, and enjoys having his friends over to his home for dinner, he is only collecting objects?

Emre: “For us, it might be the personal essay collection, which props up the same ideology.”

What ideology is that? The ideology that we need other people. What do you call that ideology? What heinous ideology is this? On what basis would one argue that this is the result of capitalism? Prior to the free market, people didn’t need to share their lives with other people?

There’s no strict dividing line between texting a friend, emailing a friend, and writing a first-person essay. Many of my first-person essays have developed from conversations and have been read and argued with by my interlocutors.

Emre: “The personal essay’s historical and aesthetic function has been to persuade us not just that personhood is beautiful or good, but that it is primordial—that individual subjectivity and its expression exist prior to the social formations that gave rise to it.”

If I write an essay telling you that I feel small in a big world, that does not mean I am ignorant of the role that society plays in my feelings. I might just want to share one thing in my life without the burden of examining all things. An essay doesn’t have to do everything to have merit. LeBron James is not a lesser person because he’s not a great poet. The movie director isn’t a piece of crap because he can’t do linear algebra. The psychologist is not worthless because he’s not conversant in particle physics.

After a man makes love to his woman, is he supposed to negate the power of the experience because they did not discuss gender stereotypes in capitalism while he was ejaculating?

I suspect that most stand-up comics are not the type of people I’d want checking the engines before the plane takes off. Does that make these comics useless? Tom Brady may not know much about the Jerusalem Talmud. Does that invalidate his accomplishments?

Emre: “This is a lie, the lie that subtends bourgeois individualism and all its intrusions into language, art, and education, as Adorno explains.”

Notice she does not say that Adorno claims. She says “Adorno explains.” She’s aligning with Adorno’s perspective that individuals in a bourgeois society have no important subjective experiences worthy of a first-person essay. The word “subtends” here is used to mean “invalidate.” In essence, Adorno and Emre argue that the masses are just product, never producer. They have no life force.

Let me tell you, friend, intellectuals sense my power and they seek my life essence (all the while denying its existence in their fancy impersonal essays). I do not avoid intellectuals, but I do deny them my essence.

By the way, a foreign substance has been introduced into our precious bodily fluids without the knowledge of the individual. Certainly without any choice. That’s the way your hard-core Commie works. I first became aware of this during the physical act of love. These was a profound sense of fatigue and a feeling of emptiness followed. Luckily I was able to interpret these feelings correctly. Loss of essence.

If you prick me, do I not bleed? How dare these intellectuals deny the power and value of my first-person essays and vlogs? I might not be curing cancer, but who’s to say that my shared subjective experiences on my Youtube channels are any less valuable that their literary effort?

Emre: “The personal essay appears as the purest, most unflinching aesthetic expression of the lie, for the simple reason that, for an essay to qualify as personal in the first place, the primacy of the private individual must be presupposed, “implicitly but by the same token with all the more complicity,” Adorno wrote.”

So if I publish an essay about one spectator’s experience of a presidential inauguration, I assume the lie that this individual’s experience is more important than everything else that happened on that occasion? Maybe I just want to tell one person’s story without making any claims to its primacy over other experiences.

So if I publish an essay about the first time I fell in love, I must assume the primacy of the private individual? Maybe I just assume that there are some people who will derive a small amount of pleasure from my words. Is it possible to publish something about your life without claiming that your life must have priority over everything else in the universe? Maybe one day I worked 15 hours in society rescuing the homeless, and then I came home and dashed off a blog post in 15 minutes about my summer of love in 1982? Gosh, I must be a delusional egomaniac spreading misinformation to share what it meant to me to first have a girlfriend.


By my account, the personal essay is a modern formation. It is a wholly different creature from the essay birthed by Montaigne in 1570 and nurtured through the seventeenth century by Sir Thomas Browne, Thomas Fuller, and Abraham Cowley. Each of these essayists is unwilling to disentangle the individual from the condition of man or nature, a commitment reflected by how their prose slides with graceful abandon through the various third-person singulars. The “I” with and of which the modern personal essay speaks proclaims its distinctiveness from the “we” that crowds the eighteenth-century periodical essays of Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, as well as the “they” that throngs the nineteenth-century metaphysical disquisitions of Leigh Hunt and William Hazlitt.

Sounds right to me.


“No one has approached the essays of Elia,” writes Virginia Woolf in “The Decay of Essay-Writing.” Published nearly a quarter-century before Benjamin began his Arcades Project and a half-century before Adorno’s “The Essay as Form,” Woolf’s lament about the aesthetic decline of the personal essay grasps the problem of telling stories about people not head-on but obliquely. She opens not by offering a history of bourgeois individualism but by decrying its most obvious institutional manifestations: first, “the spread of education,” and second, the proliferation of print culture. The churn of both schools and presses results, ultimately, in the flattening of much written matter, Woolf complains, and in a feeling of oversaturation, of boredom on the part of the reader who bears the onslaught. But the reader’s boredom is not the boredom one feels when confronted with an apparently infinite, depersonalized expanse of writing—the boredom of slogging through tightly packed columns in a nineteenth-century periodical, for instance. Rather, it is the boredom of having to attend to “a very large number” of people, all of whom demand public recognition through the projection of a private interiority.

Boredom is a subjective experience. It is not a divine revelation. What Woolf finds boring may be enthralling to another person. What Woolf and Emre truly loathe is the participation of the masses in culture. They hate this flattening and loss of status.

When one feels that one must attend to a “very large number” of people demanding public recognition, this is not boredom. This feeling is overwhelm, which is distinct from boredom.

No matter the number of first-person essays published, nobody outside of certain parts of publishing is forced to attend to them. Your first-person essay does not diminish the quality of my life. Only a person who rages against reality will lose his mind over this. A normal person will live his life undisturbed if a web zine such as XOJane.com publishes another first-person essay.

I haven’t played video games since 1984. That there is a multi-billion dollar videogame industry out there does not seem to harm my life. If a friend does not want to meet up with me for a walk because he’d rather play video games, then I have other things to do with my time. I’m not going to claim his life is a fiction.


The intimate connection between education, the bourgeois public sphere, and the specter of private individuality compels Woolf to judge the personal essay “a sign of the times.” It is the genre whose formal conventions—the “capital I” of “I think” or “I feel”—not only draw the individual into public view, but also insist upon the primacy of the individual. This insistence occurs regardless of the quality of the essayist’s prose. The personal essay’s significance “lies not so much in the fact that we have attained any brilliant success in essay-writing…but in the undoubted facility with which we write essays as though this were beyond all others our natural way of speaking,” with the “amiable garrulity of the tea-table,” Woolf writes. It is “primarily an expression of personal opinion,” with the stress falling on the “personal,” one’s “individual likes and dislikes,” rather than the strength or the stylishness of the opinion expressed. While these individual likes and dislikes certainly add up to a large “number,” a word that Woolf repeats with scornful amazement, they do not combine in any sensible way. They cannot be imagined as a mass, a totality, cannot be integrated and set to any collective social or political purpose.

Notice the complete inability of Woolf and Emre to mount a rational case against the potential value of first-person essays (as well as social media posts). All they can do is point and sputter against straw men. For example, what personal essayist insists that the personal essay is the most natural way of speaking? Nobody!

Must the first-person essay be primarily an expression of opinion? Is it not possible to relate something beyond opinion? Why is style more important than every other quality?

If art or entertainment can’t be combined into a mass and set to a collective purpose, is it useless? Why?

Writing a first-person essay does not insist on the primacy of the individual any more than if I watch an hour of football, I am insisting on the primacy of the NFL over every other way of spending time. I love the Dallas Cowboys. It has never occurred to me that everybody else should love this team. I vote Republican every time, but it has never occurred to me that other parties will never be more right than my own. I can choose to eat chocolate cake for breakfast on Monday without insisting that this is the primary way for everybody to eat breakfast. I can love my spouse without insisting that everybody else love her as much.


Woolf did not hold the desire for recognition to be unethical or untoward, nor did she believe that collective representation is the only purpose to which the essay ought to be directed. Rather, the essay had to maintain the contradictions between individual desires and social demands, between personal being and impersonal experience, to grant the form its unique ability to capture the texture of life—not a particular life, but the impersonal activity of living. “The Decay of Essay-Writing” thus concludes with two visions of potential essays, the first permissible, according to Woolf, the second unacceptable. “To say simply ‘I have a garden, and I will tell you what plants do best in my garden’ possibly justified its egoism,” Woolf writes; “but to say “I have no sons, though I have six daughters, all unmarried, but I will tell you how I should have brought up my sons had I had any” is not interesting, cannot be useful, and is a specimen of the amazing and unclothed egoism for which first the art of penmanship and then the invention of essay-writing are responsible.”

The tacit hope is that one day, the essay may be blocked from circulating stories about private, homebound people into the wider world.

What intellectuals like Emre and Woolf yearn for is total control over the cultural means of production. They hate the internet because here anyone can create and criticize without their approval.

People such as Emre believe they are objective truth-seekers when in reality they are just as partisan as the rest of us. Only we know we are partisans while these professors think they are above prejudice and petty folkways.

Emre: “Framed by teachers of writing as “conversational” and “chatty,” characterized by its air of “spontaneity,” the essay suggested the author’s “personality” as a specular structure. Its refusal to subject the writer to direct observation was an integral part of its signature.”

Some first-person essays suggest the author’s personality is a spectacular structure while other first-person essays reveal the author’s shame and delusion. That I am writing in the first-person does not mean I can’t open up this post to direct observations from other parties. If you’ve got a good observation, I’ll stick it here.


By contrast, the personal essay distinguished itself from the beginning by its failure to maintain the practice of triangulation between the essayist, her reader, and the object that shared their attention—its unwillingness to commit to inadvertency. It indulged the temptation to “fall into monologue,” Morley complained, allowing its language to curdle into disclosures that were “too ostentatiously quaint, too deliberately ‘whimsical’ (the word which, by loathsome repetition, has become emetic).”

So the only way to write a first-person essay is to triangulate between the essayist, the reader and the object? Why? That seems a tad totalitarian. If a bloke decided to write a first-person essay about his experience removing dead bodies from Auschwitz gas chambers, and he wrote without using this sacred triangulation method, should he be condemned to another gulag? Or do the professors want to gas him for this sacrilege?

None of the claims in Emre’s paragraph above stand up to examination.

Any word by loathsome repetition becomes emetic.

God forbid some author should fall into monologue! What have monologues ever contributed to the world?

God forbid some author not commit to inadvertency! What has direct address ever contributed to the world?


As many of the composition textbooks from the early twentieth century recognized, direct address could not be avoided entirely: it was inherent in the use of the first person. Yet its influence on essay writing and reading could be minimized, made to harmonize with competing forms of address that were more depersonalized in the kind of friendship they imagined—indeed, that held impersonality to be a sign of the essay’s aesthetic and ethical success.

So where is it in written in the heavens that the impersonal is always better than the personal? On what basis would one claim that the impersonal address in the first-person essay is more aesthetic and ethical? One can’t! It is an argument with as much objective validity as “Strawberry ice cream is the best!”

I don’t care that these intellectuals loathe the public. I care that they can’t say what they mean and mean what they say. To me, that is a more serious aesthetic and ethical shortcoming than any of the putative crimes of personal first-person essays.


Why are people attracted to stories about individuals? The answer is as obvious as it is petty and perhaps cynical. The fiction of private individuality projected by the personal essay allows bourgeois subjects to accrue various economic, cultural, and social rewards. These rewards are dispersed by institutions that are both constituted by the fiction of the private individual and responsible for reproducing it. The most obvious institution of this kind is the school and, as Adorno observes, its elevation of “pedagogical necessity” into “a metaphysical virtue.” Once the production of personhood becomes bound to and administered by pedagogy, its illusions gain in intensity and reach, as does the personal essay.

Forget stories. What we are talking about here is why are people attracted to individuals more than to literary deconstructions? Only an intellectual could hate that people care about people more than they care about literary theories.

The first-person essay is indeed a genre filled with illusions. Now please name me a genre not filled with illusions. I’m waiting.


Perceived by many critics as a rejoinder to New Critical ideologies of reading, the confessional generation appeared to turn away from the university, where the modernist idea that a work exists independently of its creator had been institutionalized. The confessional school, by contrast, squatted at the nexus of therapeutic culture, with its air of psychological self-seriousness; second-wave feminism, from which it drew its reputation as a genre of female complaint; and 1960s counterculture, which imagined literary production as a loose and spontaneous activity.

All work is created by individuals. Stating that work has nothing to do with the individuals who created it is an interesting artistic choice that comes with upsides and downsides just like any other approach, including the first-person essay. No one genre is set out by the will of heaven to rule other genres.

Emre: “While one could read individual essay collections to trace how the market emboldened the aesthetics of confession, parody presents a more fruitful opportunity for understanding the personal essay’s evolving commercial function through the 1990s and 2000s.”

Why? On what basis are parodies of the first-person essay superior to the real thing?

Emre: “Whereas the narrator of a personal essay draws our attention to the experience of a single individual, the Personal Essay Vannoy ventriloquizes channels the genre’s conceptual production of personhood as a salable commodity.”

Drawing “attention to the experience of a single individual” may well shed light on the under-valued experience of millions. From the particular, we often get a profound sense of the whole. A lab need only draw a vial of my blood to get important insights. It’s not the size of the blood draw that matters, it is the quality of the information derived from the blood. So too with the first-person essay. It is not the focus or the voice of the essay that matters most, it is the quality and importance of what it reveals.

There is no shortcut to assessing merit. There is no magic key to great writing.


This production takes place through a competitive practice of disclosure, a game of one-upmanship that promises access to publishing’s networks of mentorship, distribution, and circulation. And the conventions of confession, the shocking clichés that the personal essays in the clinic must mobilize to perform their singular and embodied personhood, depend so much on their content that they short-circuit any consideration of individual style on the part of either reader or writer. We have no idea how these essays are written; we only know what they are about. We see this in the naming of the personal essays at the clinic—not by the readability of the proper name, but by subgenre, a categorical descriptor that could belong to any number of individuals. (Certainly, more than one essayist has written on divorce.) One could imagine the clinic filling up with an infinitely receding horizon of subgenres that, for all their startling combinations, never get any closer to grounding the essay in the peculiarities of prose. The tension between personality and impersonality, essential to early understanding of the familiar essay, has gone slack, bloated by traumatic content.

That a genre has conventions does not invalidate the genre. Are there really no first-person essays grounded in the peculiarities of prose? What does “grounding the essay in the peculiarities of prose” even mean? Is there no tension any more in the first-person essay between the personal and the impersonal? It sounds to me that Emre might build a stronger case if she quoted from the most acclaimed first-person essays of the past two decades and showed how they were excrement. But then she’d have to make her case against something concrete rather than against straw men.


Under what conditions is content king? When the personal essay makes the production of personhood not only publicly legible but also monetizable. “Secretly…we each hoped to out-devastate the other and nail ourselves a freelance contract,” confesses Vannoy’s Personal Essay. Her confession is comic, cruel, and pathetic, revealing the mismatch between out-devastating another person through self-exposure and the rewards it yields. In a publishing industry that has largely done away with staff writers, an industry in which art and literature have dwindled into minor cultural forms and creative laborers must maintain appealing online personae to crowdfund their livelihoods, few things could be more coveted than a “freelance contract.” If there is something painfully anachronistic about buying every copy of Marie Claire, then there is something equally painful in the recognition that the Personal Essay’s performance of personhood only gives her access to exploitative labor conditions. But this is as good as it gets.

I put the phrase “content is king” into Google and chose the “meaning” search. I found: “The quote “content is king” is very often used in conjunction with content marketing and SEO. It implies that unique, high-quality, interesting and relevant content contributes significantly to the success of companies on the Internet.”

So there’s your answer, Emre.

Nobody, aside from students, is forced to write first-person essays. If one chooses to do so, it is hard to argue that one is “exploited.” But if you only want to retail cliches, then go with the “exploitation” angle. That is as good as it gets for the pedant.

Emre: “The Personal Essay’s appraisal of the economic situation reveals why the triangulation of reader, writer, and object secured by the familiar essay is no longer possible. Fewer places will pay for it; fewer people are trained to produce it.”

I suspect the triangulation of reader, writer, and object is still possible. I see no reason why it cannot be so, even though fewer places will pay for it and fewer people are trained to do it. Concern for the reader combined with an interest in the object does not require a graduate school education. Even a longshoreman can do it.

Emre: “The confessional has proved a highly successful strategy for extracting literary production from an increasingly deskilled workforce that needs to do little more than share experiences.”

And what is the evidence the workforce is increasingly deskilled?

Emre laments “the precarious conditions under which creative labor is performed.” How about the precarious conditions under which non-creative labor is performed?

Life is precarious. We can make it more or less precarious by our personal and collective choices. The power of collective choice to change conditions does not invalidate the power of personal choice to change conditions. The individual and his society do not live on separate planets.

Emre: “What we ought to mourn, then, is not the decline of the personal essay; its ethos and its aesthetics persist. Rather, it is the much longer, slower death of the conditions that gave rise to the essay’s unintimate friendship, a familiarity mediated not by a spectacular personhood but by the skillful cultivation of style.”

There are spectacular personhoods and sometimes these are more important than the skillful cultivation of style.

Anyone who thinks that style is inherently more important than the story lives in a rarefied world far removed from the concerns of ordinary people.

In 2021, Emre, an associate professor at Oxford, delivered a talk titled “The Impersonal Essay” to the Oxford Centre for Life Writing. Nothing says life writing like the impersonal essay.

When it suits her, Merve Emre enlists Virginia Woolf in her complaints about the first-person essay, but Emre ignores when Woolf argues for the superiority of writing that is interior and subjective. As the American Interest noted in 2018: “[Tom] Wolfe [took] an approach to fiction that Virginia Woolf disdained in her essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” (too much attention to characters’ external circumstances, she said of Arnold Bennett, and not enough focus on the interior workings of their minds) and burlesqued it into the stratosphere.”

People like Virginia Woolf were all for exploring the interior subjective experiences so long as it was only done by professionals like herself. Do you have a license for that memoir, prole?

Some first-person narratives are prized by professors and some are not. If you’re black and you’ve got AIDS, for example, the intellectual class wants to hear about your experience. If you’re a white clinger to guns and religion, not so much.

Why did Michael Cunningham’s novel, “The Hours,” win both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner award while Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full win nothing? As the Wall Street Journal noted in 1999:

The answer is, of course, that they [the judges] were thinking how exquisite and professional “The Hours” is. This was the stick John Updike used to beat Tom Wolfe in a New Yorker review that probably cost “A Man in Full” any literary prize. Producing what “amounts to entertainment, not literature,” Mr. Wolfe had “failed to be exquisite,” Mr. Updike pronounced.

Even Norman Mailer complained in the New York Review of Books about the author’s unprofessionalism. The journalist Wolfe never acquired “those novelistic habits that are best learned when we are young” and thus lacks “the most important and noble purpose of a novelist.”

Tom Wolfe may have invited such attacks. Back in the mid-1960s, he mocked Mr. Updike’s “thatchy medieval haircut” and dubbed Mr. Updike’s New Yorker “the most successful suburban women’s magazine in the country.” And then, in 1989, after the success of “Bonfire of the Vanities,” he took to the pages of Harper’s with a “manifesto for the new social novel.” In our “weak, pale, tabescent moment,” he argued, there’s no one doing what Dickens, Balzac and Zola did. We have lots of talented writers, but the “American novel is dying of anorexia” because they won’t go out and report on anything other than themselves.

But Mr. Wolfe, in fact, was only partly right. He saw a thousand heirs to John Updike, all possessing a professional prose so finely honed that it seemed capable of cutting to the heart of almost anything. And he couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t use it for anything important.

He missed, however, the extent to which a particular prose style requires a particular sensibility. It’s as though our authors have all been forced to absorb something as exquisite as, say, Annie Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” a book of semi-mystical nature-observation that has been mandatory at writers’ workshops for years. And once a writer’s been anniedillardated, the prose gets finer and finer, and the point gets smaller and smaller.

Mr. Updike hasn’t had to pay much penalty for his prose, and even Ms. Dillard occasionally says something interesting. But their children have all been ruined. They write like angels, of course; indeed, they are angels, so disembodied that an infinite number of them can dance on the head of a pin. Even while she’s denouncing capitalist America, Pulitzer runner-up Barbara Kingsolver sounds like an ethereal dove, gently expiring from consumption. Alice Munro — whose “The Love of a Good Woman” won this year’s National Book Critics Circle Award — has a prose so fine it can’t lift anything heavier than a small cup of tea. There’s a description of a china cupboard in her story “Cortes Island” so profoundly pointless it has to be seen to be believed.

And Michael Cunningham? When first reached with the news of his Pulitzer, he announced that he was going to sit down and “have a good cry.” His readers might have guessed as much. In truth, Mr. Cunningham’s “The Hours” deserves its prizes. Its exquisiteness is measured by such passages as: “But there are still the hours, aren’t there? One and then another, and you get through that one and then, my god, there’s another.”

And its professionalism is measured by its simultaneous use of all three of the tricks by which our angelic writers cobble up the appearance of a subject on which to shower their perfect prose. With Virginia Woolf’s suicide, Mr. Cunningham has found the mock gravity of historical tragedy. With his jumbled narrative, he’s indulged the faux sophistication of a literary puzzle that Michael Ondaatje worked up for “The English Patient.” And with his recasting of “Mrs. Dalloway,” he’s discovered the pretend literary density derived nowadays from retelling everything from Dickens’s “Great Expectations” to Nabokov’s “Lolita.”

With all this going for it, who wouldn’t pass up Tom Wolfe’s “A Man in Full” to give Michael Cunningham’s “The Hours” a Pulitzer? The prize novels of America ought to come with a warning: The author you’re about to read is a professional. Don’t try this at home.

Wikipedia has an entry on literary feuds, and includes this:

Arnold Bennett wrote an article called “Is the Novel Decaying?” in 1923 in which, as an example, he criticized Virginia Woolf’s characterizations in Jacob’s Room. Woolf responded with “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” in the Nation and Athenaeum. In her piece, Woolf misquoted Bennett’s article and displayed ill temper. She then significantly rewrote “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” “to ridicule, patronize, and actually distort Bennett’s writing without raising her voice.”

Though he didn’t respond immediately, Bennett later began an anti-Woolf campaign in a weekly column in the Evening Standard, giving negative reviews of three of Woolf’s novels. His reviews continued the attack on Woolf’s characterizations, saying “Mrs. Woolf (in my opinion) told us ten thousand things about Mrs. Dalloway, but did not show us Mrs. Dalloway.” His essay “The Progress of the Novel” for the journal The Realist was a refutation of “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown”. Of Woolf, he says “”I regard her alleged form as the absence of form, and her psychology as an uncoordinated mass of interesting details, none of which is truly original.”

Although the two writers met socially and acted with civility, each recorded the meetings harshly in their respective journals. On Bennett’s death, Woolf wrote in her diary, “”Queer how one regrets the dispersal of anybody who seemed—as I say—genuine; who had direct contact with life—for he abused me; and I yet rather wished him to go on abusing me; and me abusing him.”

John Carey wrote:

Arnold Bennett is the hero of this book. His writings represent a systematic dismemberment of the intellectuals’ case against the masses. He has never been popular with intellectuals as a result. Despite Margaret Drabble’s forceful advocacy, his novels are still undervalued by literary academics, syllabus-devisers and other official censors. Many students of English literature know of him, if at all, only through Virginia Woolf’s scornful estimate in ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’, and they naturally, though mistakenly, assume that Bennett, not Woolf, is diminished by that sally.
Bennett’s origins and upbringing provided easy targets for the intellectuals’ disdain. He came from the provincial shopkeeping class…
Later, when he had made his mark as a novelist, these humble antecedents were not forgotten by the intellectuals. He was ‘an insignificant little man and ridiculous to boot,’ declared Virginia Woolf’s brother-in-law, the art critic Clive Bell. ‘He was the boy from Staffordshire who was making good, and in his bowler hat and reach-me-downs he looked the part.’ According to Somerset Maugham , Bennett looked like ‘a managing clerk in a city office’, and was ‘rather common’. Wyndham Lewis sneered at his ‘grocer origins’; Virginia Woolf at his ‘shopkeeper’s view of literature’. Bertrand Russell found him so ‘vulgar’ that he could not bear to be in the same room. T. S. Eliot told his cousin in a letter of 1917 how annoyed he had been when he was discussing psychic research with W. B. Yeats and a red-faced man ‘with an air of impertinent prosperity and the aspect of a successful wholesale grocer’ came up and interrupted them, in ‘a most disagreeable cockney accent’. This, he discovered, was Arnold Bennett. It particularly aroused the intellectuals’ venom that Bennett should have presumed to make money from literature, as they could not. D. H. Lawrence described him to Aldous Huxley as a ‘sort of pig in clover’, and Ezra Pound satirized him as the corrupt, venal and philistine Mr Nixon, pontificating in the ‘cream and gilded cabin of his steam yacht’.

Tom Wolfe said, “I think the real future is non-fiction. Memoirs never die.”

In his 1989 essay for Harpers, Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast, Wolfe wrote:

The young person who decides to become a writer because he has a subject or an issue in mind, because he has “something to say,” is a rare bird. Most make that decision because they realize they have a certain musical facility with words. Since poetry is the music of language, outstanding young poets are by no means rare. As he grows older, however, our young genius keeps running into this damnable problem of material, of what to write about, since by now he realizes that literature’s main arena is prose, whether in fiction or the essay. Even so, he keeps things in proportion. He tells himself that 95 percent of literary genius is the unique talent that is secure inside some sort of crucible in his skull and 5 percent is the material, the clay his talent will mold…

I doubt that there is a writer over forty who does not realize in his heart of hearts that literary genius, in prose, consists of proportions more on the order of 65 percent material and 35 percent the talent in the sacred crucible.

There’s no substitute for merit.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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