The Case Against The Personal Essay

Phoebe Maltz Bovy argues that “only fiction can be about the trivial without being trivial”:

The miracle of fiction is less about its execution than its promise: a story, not a delivery of life advice or an exhaustive documentation of reality. While personal essays fail as news because the subject matter isn’t newsworthy, they fail as storytelling because of how the texts are classified. A first-person protagonist and author may share a name and every event described may have happened as recorded, but if the document is labeled nonfiction, we respond to it differently.

Imagine Lucky Jim presented not as a novel but as a personal essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education. We’d be chastising the writer for his poor work ethic and for not being appropriately appreciative of his good fortune to even have a job. Or compare Jami Attenberg’s recent novel, The Middlesteins, about an obese matriarch, with the New York Times’s health-blog series “Fat Dad.” Take a wild guess at which of the two inspired the following response: “Thank you for this very important piece about the importance of family meals.”

No matter how rich the storytelling, the online personal-essay format, with its subtlety-free headlines and comments-welcome presentation, reduces these texts from nuanced portraits of human behavior to straightforward arguments about how to live.