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The lure of the essay | On the Record

Authenticity is in short supply. We have become a society that is afraid to say the wrong thing and therefore chooses to exist in a mutually-agreed-upon silence, like those awkward blips in a conversation where both parties have run out of things to say and refuse to continue the exhausting ruse of conventional politeness. 

But amidst this universal self censorship, there seem to be a few voices free from this spell of fear. These voices have found their footing in several mediums — film and literature, to name a few — but my favorite has always been the personal essay. 

Annika Morris | Senior Graphic Artist

The personal essay can be traced back to Michel de Montaigne, one of France’s most celebrated artists of the literary genre. 

Often looking toward himself to generate subject matter, de Montaigne’s pieces on the ways he internalized the world — a feature that popularized his work and can be seen in the modern personal essay that exists today. 

One such essay published on Feb. 14, titled “The Lure of Divorce,” took the literary community by storm this Valentine’s Day. Written by Emily Gould, a novelist and features writer for New York Magazine, the essay focuses on how Gould’s mental breakdown coincided with her wanting to divorce her husband, a fellow writer. 

The essay itself is, frankly, just okay: Gould relies heavily on other female authors who have also written personal accounts of divorce. Despite reaching out for these accounts as a means of guidance, Gould does very little to direct the reader in any sense on what she really thinks of her husband, her marriage or herself. 

But what her essay lacks in intrigue, it makes up for in honesty. Gould — known for her daring unwillingness to hold back on, well, anything — airs it all out: her inability to budget, her infidelity, her husband’s ignorance towards her career as a writer and just about every other minute detail that lead to the downfall of her marriage. 

You would think that readers — for whom scathing honesty often becomes entertainment — would have responded to the essay with excitement. 

After all, the personal essay has, for many years, been in short supply: xoJane, a website famous for their primarily female personal essays, fizzled out years ago and well-funded literary magazines are dying faster than they can produce content. 

But the leading reaction to this piece, particularly by readers on X, formerly known as Twitter, was astonishingly negative. Not about the writing — but about Gould herself. 

“Thank God I didn’t marry a woman like you,” one user wrote.

“You are a breathtakingly evil person,” wrote another.

“All women are like this,” wrote another user. “One of many reasons [women] shouldn’t have things like suffrage.” 

What’s most damning about these critiques is that they aren’t critiques at all. You’ll notice that not a single comment listed above — and there were hundreds of others — has anything to do with Gould’s prose or even the way she went about telling her story. 

Instead, most of the backlash Gould received was intensely personal, overshadowing the material that the essay covered. It is a stunning example of why personal essays seem so few and far between nowadays. 

Readers are no longer interested in a core principle of what makes the personal essay great — writers who are not perfect people. 

The risk of publishing something so intimate is now excruciatingly obvious: These accounts are met with baseless, useless and overwhelming criticism, backlash that refuses to engage with complex writers. 

As we’ve rapidly moved away from being authentic, we have already been shown the next step of our demise: a total dissolution of writers who are willing to tell their truth.

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One Comment

  1. A disheartening but very real issue. I wonder if those people who commented have ever shared a piece of their own writing. Well said friend!