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Sarah Hepola, who worked as Salon’s personal-essay editor, described the situation to me in an e-mail.“The boom in personal essays—at Salon, at least, but I suspect other places—was in part a response to an online climate where more content was needed at the exact moment budgets were being slashed.” When I worked as an editor at the Hairpin and Jezebel, from 2013 to 2016, I saw up close how friendly editors and ready audiences could implicitly encourage writers to submit these pieces in droves.And so many women wrote about the most difficult things that had ever happened to them and received not much in return.
These essays began to proliferate several years ago—precisely when is hard to say, but we can, I think, date the beginning of the boom to 2008, the year that Emily Gould wrote a first-person cover story, called “Exposed,” for the , which was about, as the tagline put it, what she gained and lost from writing about her intimate life on the Web.
Blowback followed, and so did an endless supply of imitations.
By September, 2015, online first-person writing was so abundant that Laura Bennett, at Slate, could refer to a “first-person industrial complex” in a takedown of the genre.
“Every site seems to have a first person vertical and a first-person editor,” Bennett, who also cited Gould’s story as a turning point, wrote.
There were those that incited outrage by giving voice to horrible, uncharitable thoughts, like “My Former Friend’s Death Was a Blessing” (xo Jane again) and “I’m Not Going to Pretend I’m Poor to Be Accepted by You” (Thought Catalog).
Finally, there were those essays that directed outrage at society by describing incidents of sexism, abuse, or rape.
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.
“First-person writing should not be cheap, and it should not be written or edited quickly,” Gould wrote to me.
“And it should be published in a way that protects writers rather than hanging them out to dry on the most-emailed list.”There are still a few outlets that cultivate a more subtle and sober iteration of this kind of first-person writing, some of them connected to book publishing.