Dodo Bird or Bedbug? The Personal Essay in the Age of Facebook

Monday, April 11, 2011

This essay, adapted for TriQuarterly Online, was originally presented at "Status Update: The Personal Essay in the Age of Facebook," a panel discussion at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Conference on February 3rd, 2011. It was hosted and moderated by Jen McClanaghan, resident scholar at The Southern Review. A podcast of the entire panel is available here.

We are always trying to sneak a peek ahead at the effects that new technologies might be having on us, and it is always fruitless to do so, as fruitless as for a patient to expect to analyze her situation while under the knife while receiving anesthesia, or the hapless victim of floodwaters being swept away, or, to use perhaps a more apt comparison, the dodo bird unwittingly undergoing Darwinian evolution. So now we personal essayists, the true dodo birds of the literary species, are gathered here to examine our plight and prognosticate. Can we stand up to the onslaught of Facebook and Twitter? Can we co-opt the dark powers they have set in motion and use them to prolong our own precarious existence? Do I know the answers to these questions? Of course not. But as one of the chief dodos, having edited the anthology Art of the Personal Essay and taught the form for many years, I have a certain proprietary interest in the personal essay, which I hope gives me the right to prattle tediously on the subject for fifteen minutes, at most.

First I would like to say that part of what drew me initially to the personal essay was that it was an underutilized, low-status genre, neglected by both the academy and commercial publishers. It flew under the radar, giving its practitioners more freedom to go anywhere they wanted. It may have become a tad more popular or conspicuous in the last twenty years, but let us not get carried away: those gifted personal essayists who are trying to get their first collections published still face daunting odds. All this I offer by way of assurance: the personal essay is not headed for a great fall, because it never rose very high to begin with. Such a minority taste, involving small numbers of occult alchemical practitioners and even smaller numbers of devoted readers, has nothing to fear from mass communication techniques promoting interchange, above all, between teenagers insecure about their popularity, such as Facebook or MySpace. We are like druids to them, old fuddy-duddies; they ignore us and we can return the favor.

The true personal essayist is not only antiquated but an antiquarian who gladly draws on and plays with the historical traditions of the form. It has been that way ever since Montaigne quoted and jousted with the ancients, Seneca, Plutarch, and Cicero, or since Lamb invoked in his mannered prose the shades of Thomas More, Robert Burton, and the duchess of Newcastle. Personal essayists are in a conversation with their ancestors, trying to renovate or improve on the same subjects of friendship and manners, the same preoccupations about how to live, while paying homage to their dead betters with sly winks toward the past. There will always be cultivated readers who respond to these historical palimpsests, these archaeological layerings of prose, the pleasurable irony of an archaic diction or complex syntax.

We frequently make the error of believing in aesthetic progress, as though artistic expression were required to follow an agenda that points in only one direction. So modernism ostensibly taught us that after Pound there was no going back to Swinburne, and after Hemingway, no possible return to Henry James. But see what has happened to the contemporary prose sentence. Many confidently assumed that the telegraph and typewriter had had great impact on Hemingway, leading to a more stripped-down sentence, a cutting away of clausal ornamentation, and the post-Hemingway sentence became even more streamlined in the hands of Raymond Carver and the other Minimalists. It looked as though all prose sentences were going in the direction of the tweet, with its limited number of characters. Then along came David Foster Wallace and his mighty confusions and perplexities, and Nicholson Baker, piling clause on clause, and Rick Moody’s postmodernist flourishes, not to mention foreign writers such as W. G. Sebald, Thomas Bernhard, Milan Kundera, Roberto Bolaño, José Saramago, Javier Marias, all of whom took the sentence in ever more baroque directions. They were acting out of their own individual obstinacy and literary learning, and perhaps also responding to an unconscious taste on the part of the culture for more variety and a denser ideational complexity. Because some thoughts cannot be expressed in the Strunk and White “keep it simple and clear” recipe: they require a more sinuous, self-reflective, devious syntax.

All this is good news for the personal essay, so dependent on reflection, so free to tell as well as show. And it is no surprise that many of the authors I just mentioned—Wallace, Kundera, Baker, Moody, Bernhard, Bolaño, Marias—have been as drawn to the essay as they were to the novel; and in a sense, their chief innovation was to smuggle into fiction the voice of the ruminative personal essayist. If they could do it—resist the siren song of the bare, text-message sentence—and be so successful in the process, we should take heart. We can also take heart from the resurgence of the lyrical essay: the exquisitely wrought poetic prose of writers such as John D’Agata, Lia Purpora, and Eula Biss, to mention a few. In short, there is more life in the language of prose than just Twitter’s 140 characters and Facebook’s emoticons and LOLs.

But I do not want to represent Facebook as some sort of opponent to the personal essay when it could very well be an ally. The accusation that Facebook encourages its users to wallow in self-absorption and narcissism has also been frequently leveled at the personal essay and the memoir in the last twenty years. And it is not automatically true in either case. Any first attempt at self-definition is a useful step on the way to effective autobiographical writing that keeps the ego in perspective. The same thing is true for blogs: there are sharply written, well-shaped, self-aware blogs on the Internet as well as self-indulgent verbal diarrhea. With the paucity of publishing outlets for personal essays, we should welcome the bloggers and Facebook writers who are trying to out their ideas without necessarily getting paid for them. (Some of them have already figured out a way to get paid, the lucky devils.) Eventually the quality will sort itself out; that is already happening to some extent.

What of our fears that the new technologies are causing the next generation to mutate into cell phone–transfixed or Blackberry-addicted zombies? I am certainly as annoyed as the next geezer when I have to get out of the way of a young person crossing the street who has not bothered to look up from his iPhone, or as bothered when I have to listen to a pretty young woman laughing on the cell phone when I could have flirtatiously been catching her eye. But I am not sure I agree with those who warn that a tragic atrophying of the ability to notice the physical world is under way. Even before the invention of cell phones, most people (myself included) failed to notice 95 percent of what was going on around them. Henry James may have famously advised the prospective writer to be someone on whom nothing is lost; but I rather think that even the best writers select out most of what is going on in their daily environments and work with only those details that stubbornly stick to them. Future personal essayists, brought up on Facebook, will undoubtedly notice other things than we did; in any case, they will have no shortage of things to notice.

And so the personal essay will continue—maybe not thrive, but persist. We are like bedbugs, hard to see, harder to kill off, sucking at the blood of the larger culture. Which is it to be, personal essayists: dodo bird or bedbug?

I’m sure the other panelists will have the answer.