Can We Please Not Resurrect The First-Person-Industrial-Media-Complex?

Hi! You may have noticed that this newsletter is coming to you from Substack. I have begrudgingly moved everything back over here because it’s just easier to navigate and streamline. This should not impact you or your subscription, except now you can read me where you read the rest of your Substacks.

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I am a published author and award-winning journalist. The fact that I have managed to carve out this career for myself is miraculous, to be honest. I have no formal journalism training and am entirely self-taught by Facebook groups, Slack channels, and pure hubris.

My writing career started the only place it could have: with personal essays. I came up in the blogosphere of the early aughts, learning how to hook a reader, frame a story, and tell it in under 2,000 words. These were valuable skills to learn for a digital world and while many professional writers turn their noses up at blogging, I truly believe that my time with a blog helped me to establish my voice as a writer and taught me how to write for an audience.

That is exactly the experience that helped me make the leap to becoming a published writer with bylines at digital media outlets. It also set me up to fall victim to the exploitative world of first-person essays that ruled the internet for about a decade. Often known as the “first-person industrial complex,” it refers to the kinds of personal essays that will generate clicks, often stories involving shock value or trauma of some kind. Writers—often newer writers or marginalized writers trying to break into the industry or get published for the first time—are encouraged to mine their lives for their deepest, darkest secrets and share them with the world for $150. Selling your trauma for pennies is bad enough, but publishing these essays often came with little to no institutional support once the internet came for you—and it always came for you.

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“On its face, the personal-essay economy prizes inclusivity and openness; it often privileges the kinds of voices that don’t get mainstream attention,” Laura Bennett wrote in 2015 for Slate. “But it can be a dangerous force for the people who participate in it.”

As a writer who came up during this boom, I know this double-edged sword well. As a blogger I overshared on the internet, but I was doing it for a fairly contained audience. And while I did face some fallout when people I knew discovered my blog (and the things I’d written about my life, including them), I wasn’t opening myself up to the whole world and the fact that I had a pseudonym meant that none of the writing was associated with a Google search of me.

The first published byline I ever had was at Cosmo. It was an essay titled, “What It’s Like to Have Genital Herpes When You’re Pregnant.” It’s still the essay I get the most reader mail about, to this day. And while I don’t regret writing it because I’ve never been ashamed of having herpes, there’s no denying that it was commissioned because it’s clickbait. From there, I published a slew of other hyper-confessional writing. I wrote about being a recovered pathological liar, about my alcoholism, and about my sex life. I popped out 1200-word essays for Ravishly dot com for $50 a pop. I’d write them in less than an hour.

I remember being thrilled when Hearst invited me to be part of their program they called “The Mix.” They’d ask for hyper-specific essays and contributors could write something to fit the prompt with no guarantee they’d be selected for publication (essentially, writing on spec). If your essay was chosen to be published, it was $150 and they could syndicate them at all Hearst publications with no extra compensation.

You’d get an email with a list of “assignments” with headlines like “No, I’m Not Pregnant – I Just Have A Belly,” “We Schedule Time For Sex Once Per Week/Month,” and “I Settled Down And Got Bored.”

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Screenshot from one of The Mix assignment emails

The prompts often made me angry. One time I responded to a prompt that was requesting an essay about having sex with your husband even though you don’t want to with essentially the opposite—how I was never going to have sex out of obligation again. The essay went viral, the Daily Mail wrote about it (including taking photos from my Facebook page) and I got a ton of threats and messages saying they hoped my husband raped me. Hearst’s legal team told me their hands were tied, but wasn’t it great that it had gotten so many clicks? Never mind the fact that didn’t earn me any actual money besides the $150 (minus taxes, ofc!). As for my husband, he was so angry that I’d written an essay alluding to the fact that we didn’t have a ton of sex that he nearly divorced me (though now I kind of wish he had lol) and spent two nights in a hotel.

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The Daily Mail headline about my essay

This is not to say that I’m against personal essays. I still write them, but I don’t write them in response to a hot take anymore. I write them when my brain wants to write them and I spend a long time on them, focusing on craft and storytelling and making sure there’s a point to the essay I’m writing. A lot of good came from my oversharing on the internet and a lot of people have reached out to tell me that my work made them feel less alone or less ashamed. All of that is positive.

Eventually, I was able to use my experience writing these first-person quick hits to leverage into reported essays. For example, that very first Cosmo essay about having herpes transformed into a piece for Marie Claire called “What to Expect When You’re Expecting—With Herpes” which used my personal experience as a jumping-off point but talked to experts and other people with lived experience. Finally, once I knew how to report, I was able to pitch straight journalism pieces and build the career I currently have.

In 2017, Jia Tolentino declared the personal essay boom “over” in a piece for The New Yorker. “For some writers, these essays led to better-paying work,” Tolentino wrote. “But for many the thrill of reaching an audience had to suffice. And placing a delicate part of your life in the hands of strangers didn’t always turn out to be so thrilling. Personal essays cry out for identification and connection; what their authors often got was distancing and shame.”

Which is why I’ve been seeing pitch calls lately that have my Spidey senses tingling. As journalism faces massive layoffs and freelance rates plummet (truly, it’s bleak out there, you guys), it seems that publications are returning to that very specific kind of first-person content. Frankly, it worries me.

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One of the most recent essays HuffPost published was titled, “I Hugged My Son Goodbye And He Began His First Week Of College. Then I Never Saw Him Again.”
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I am a firm believer that sharing our stories can change lives—both our own lives and others. I want writers to continue writing about their experiences. But there is a difference between making art out of the things that have happened to us and mining our lives for content and selling it for pennies. I worry for the writers—and it will disproportionately be marginalized writers—who could get caught in this vicious cycle of exploitation. We absolutely deserve better, but the industry needs to give us more in order for that to happen.

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Let’s leave the XOJane narratives in 2012, where they belong.

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