Everywhere I turn, books of personal essays abound. Whether it’s Mindy Kaling’s latest literary offering, or Lena Dunham’s forthcoming book of essays Not That Kind of Girl, this is by no means a bad thing. Despite being the trending literary form of the moment, personal essays have been around for some time. Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) and Nora Ephron’s Wallflower at the Orgy (1970) are both seminal works which captured the essence of the Zeitgeist. And it is precisely this ability to perfectly encapsulate the Zeitgeist that makes the personal essay such a unique genre. The two aforementioned titles are worthy models to inform any young essay writers; indeed Man Repeller Leandra Medine cites Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem as her earliest inspiration to become a writer.
There is of course another appeal to the genre, and it is related to our dwindling 21st-century attention spans. In an age where thoughts have to be expressed in 140 characters or less, and content is increasingly delivered in list form to aid our wandering minds, are we hungry for tighter, more concise literature? Nobel-winning economist Herbert Simon asserted in 1977 that “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention”; a portentous statement that has certainly proved itself right. Attention spans are a victim of our information-rich digital age, but I can’t help but feel that in challenging traditional genres — both in literature and journalism — we will adapt to the changes brought about by digital advances.
The rise of personal essays is symptomatic of our digital age, but also reflects the no-holds-barred nature of sharing, a consequence of social media — in which users share thoughts, embarrassing moments, relationship details, and snapshots of their lives in a public arena. Surely literature too is a public arena? Why not carry forward the same no-filter level of sharing, lay all your cards on the table, and turn those Facebook likes and Twitter favourites into literary prizes?
Whatever the case may be, the rise of the personal essay is a very good thing. By sharing, and indeed oversharing, with the world, we express the thoughts and fears of our generation and define the Zeitgeist. Put simply, it is a voice, and we are no longer afraid to speak.