I was just about to let loose with my latest personal essay when I encountered this buzzkill in The New Yorker: “The Personal-Essay Boom is Over.”
I know I shouldn’t let my New Yorker reading pile up. This essay news was published in May. I have proceeded merrily, reading personal essays almost daily and, blissfully inattentive, writing a few, too.
I had heard rumblings of the essay crisis even before the May 2017 New Yorker piece by Jia Tolentino. And Tolentino’s piece led me to another personal essay critique, the amusingly titled “First-Person Industrial Complex” by Laura Bennett in 2015. Bennett’s piece in turn led me to an essay written in 1905 by Virginia Woolf, “The Decay of Essay Writing.”
With all due respect to Michel de Montaigne, I don’t want to think about life without E.B. White and Calvin Trillin. Currently, I am enjoying Charles D’Ambrosio and his collection called “Loitering.” I have read and reread an essay by Martha Mendoza in 2004, called “Between a Woman and her Doctor” — some of the strongest writing I’ve ever encountered. These are just a few of my favorite writers and many of their efforts you could call personal essays. I admit that I was vaguely aware of what might be called an essay epidemic, maybe because I’ve been nicked by the fever myself. With computers, the internet and maybe half of your neighbors operating their own publishing houses, approaching the personal essay horizon makes me think of a deep space debris field.
I first read Martha Mendoza’s essay because I met her when she worked for The Associated Press in Albuquerque. I discovered D’Ambrosio because he wrote an essay about Richard Hugo’s great poem, “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg,” which I learned of through my sister, Hope, who lives in Montana. E.B. White always seemed to be around the house when I was growing up and he has remained in mine. Calvin Trillin is a byline I discovered in the New Yorker decades ago and is an essayist I return to often, especially when I’m hungry or start taking Santa Fe too seriously.
I am very happy with those who already are my essay friends, personal or otherwise. I visit with them often and harbor their names in my hideout in the hills. But I would make a lousy starfighter pilot, unsure of how to make it through the internet barrage.
Maybe I need something like a dating website to winnow the field. But I’ll probably just keep stumbling across them like shiny rocks on my morning walks, picking up ones I like, leaving plenty behind for others to find.