By Study Hall staff writer Allegra Hobbs (@allegraehobbs)
ICYMI: Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein wrote about a J-school scam for us — a study found journalism schools are emphasizing entrepreneurship and packaging the industry’s precarity as an "as an exciting opportunity, suggesting that instead of fighting for a better system, students should simply expand their idea of what journalism is” — i.e. including tech and PR.
Our Caroline Calloway Obsession is a Hangover of the Personal Essay Boom
Jia Tolentino declared the end of the personal essay boom in May 2017. Over the previous decade-plus, digital publications of varying levels of repute had solicited and furiously cashed in on a wave of maudlin confessionals almost exclusively from young women and people of color — i.e. people with traumatic experiences that could be exploited for profit. As the boom started approaching burnout, the content factories at fault were subjected to increased scrutiny for exploiting inexperienced writers, many of whom had handed over either harrowing tales of personal trauma or embarrassing overshares for $50 and the hope they were building a writing career. Well, that, and the thrill of recognition and affirmation we came to crave in the early days of blogging. This made the mockery all the more upsetting. “Personal essays cry out for identification and connection,” Tolentino writes. “What their authors often got was distancing and shame.”
Shame seems to be the prevailing emotional response to remnants of what has been called the “first-person industrial complex” and the “‘pink ghetto’ of personal essay writing.” Confessionals associated with the genre are seen as cloying in their desperation for recognition — not so much vulnerable as they are simply naked. They do not require a satisfying narrative arc or a “point” — it is enough just to say “this happened to me” and to lay it bare. Even if a piece of personal writing demonstrated skill, a lack of resolution frustrated critics. In a 2010 New York Times review of Emily Gould’s “And the Heart Says Whatever,” the reviewer, Maria Russo, questions whether Gould’s ambivalence regarding her past misdeeds is truly “brave and honest,” and criticizes her for her lack of moral transformation: “At times she comes across, confusingly, as a character in a coming-of-age novel — but alas, no novelist arrives to explain her to herself.” I imagine this is because excavating your interiority while you are living it does not lend itself to the intentionally crafted revelations of a made-up life.
I thought of all this as I read the essay by Natalie Beach that has consumed our attention for the better part of the past week. The early Instagram influencer Caroline Calloway, along with Beach as a co-conspirator and ghostwriter, dreamed up writing a memoir via social media and began amassing followers at the height of the personal essay boom. Calloway’s craft has stayed true to the spirit of the movement. Her dispatches are raw and unfiltered; she is more a blogger than an influencer, documenting her interior life in real time. Her posts are not building towards any resolution — it is important for her to just say these things because they are (or at least feel) true. She has taken the core lesson of the personal essay boom, Commodify Thyself, and has attempted to build a career out of it — as many freelance journalists have as well. But the way in which Calloway and Beach have done so is distinctly feminine, and appears as a form of expression the broader culture has already deemed graceless and crass. The “influencer” has simply taken that form of expression, previously seen in the personal essay, and adapted it for the age of Instagram.
Beach’s literally confessional essay for The Cut is, by contrast, literary, polished, and thoughtfully packaged for the large audience of a national magazine. If we are to treat this as some grotesque game, then, ironically, Natalie has won — her contribution meets our standards of the day. But the rabid excitement around its release and the foaming-at-the-mouth response is due to Calloway’s unearned notoriety as a scam artist for some clumsy attempts at cashing in on her industry of personality.
Calloway, already accused of exploiting her followers, is now accused of exploiting Beach. And just as Calloway’s motives are presumed nefarious, Beach’s motives for writing the essay were called into question. Some insinuated the piece was meant as an attack on Caroline, or accused her of lying, or concluded that she comes across just as manipulative and vapid as her foil. Others felt Beach ultimately didn’t have much to say, or failed to say anything meaningful. For her part, in a Times interview, Beach cops to manipulative behavior and says she was initially drawn to Calloway as a “literary figure.” But she had to tell it all, because it is true.
At the end of the day, what makes the saga of Caroline and Natalie so intoxicating is its banality: the heartrending ordinariness of an unbalanced friendship; the ways we use each other, whether intentionally or not; the pains of self-creation in young adulthood; and the way the glowing affirmation of someone who represents everything you lack can be a potent drug. Then there’s the telling of that saga in public, in which we find the familiar frenzy of self-commodification and the familiar structure of the personal essay. The heyday of Thought Catalogue and xoJane may be over, but the incentives for self-invention live on. And we are continually revisited by the anxieties that pop up around the self-expression of young women, wondering aloud whether they are fit to speak for themselves and whether they have done the proper soul-searching to warrant our interest.
LONGREAD OF THE WEEK: New York Magazine’s cover story, released this morning, is especially relevant to conversations in media over the last week: Tavi Gevinson explores her identity in relation to Instagram and building a personal brand online. “Who would I be without Instagram?” she asks. “The fact that it’s impossible to parse its exact influence on me indicates that it runs deep. I can try to imagine an alternate universe where I’ve always roamed free and Instagram-less in pastures untouched by the algorithm. But I can’t imagine who that person is inside.”
— “Having a penis thrust in your face at a drunken dorm party may seem like harmless fun.” It most certainly does not! But that was the first sentence of a now-deleted tweet from the New York Times Opinion account, regarding a piece reviewing a new book from Times reporters that provides new evidence to back up allegations against Brett Kavanaugh. Aside from the tweet, the piece’s framing isn’t great, focusing on how accuser Deborah Ramirez felt out of place at Yale (apparently the penis-thrusting is an example of that more than horrific sexual harassment) rather than on the allegations and corroborating evidence.
— Kickstarter has fired two union organizers in eight days, while claiming the firings had nothing to do with union organizing. Both employees refused to sign the contract required to collect a month’s severance because it contained an NDA clause, and claim the company is engaged in a union-busting campaign.
— The Washington Post, which is owned by mega-billionaire Jeff Bezos, is folding its free daily newspaper the Washington Post Express. The Post’s union condemned the move, noting the Express staff of 20 were laid off with no warning and had contemplated unionizing earlier this year. The Post blamed financial losses for the shutdown, noting the dwindling circulation and an increase of commuters getting the news on their phones. But as previously stated, the paper is owned by a billionaire, who also owns Whole Foods and has slashed medical benefits for part-time workers. It seems part and parcel of Bezos’s practices rather than an aberration.
— Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s best-selling novel Fleishman Is in Trouble, which rivaled Trick Mirror for book of the summer, is being adapted into a series for FX after ABC Signature Studios won a TEN-WAY BIDDING WAR, per Deadline. Brodesser-Akner will be a writer and producer on the series. It seems everyone is writing for TV or streaming now.
— This party report from New York Magazine on Bari Weiss’s book party...I mean, where to begin? It is inherently hilarious to have that many people who whine about censorship in the same room, whining about censorship, and yet covered by a major magazine. What REALLY struck me was how combative and defensive Weiss’s employers were! “I think she brings a terrific and really brave voice to the Times. I’ll leave it at that,” said Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger. Well ok then! Opinion section editor James Bennet didn’t think asking about Weiss’s contributions to his sections was a “party question.” Why so cagey?
— Between writers emerging as social media stars of New York Fashion Week, per Vogue, and reporters starring in ad campaigns for suits, it seems the line between “writer” and “influencer” is becoming increasingly porous? It makes perfect sense — part of the job of being a writer now is self-promotion on social media. Viral fame is the new appearing on late-night TV.
— The Intelligencer takes a look at the state of things at Vice (very bad): The company cut staff at its HBO show Viceland earlier this year in a pivot to hard news. The TV show Vice News Tonight is getting a bigger block and budget, but questions abound about what exactly that will entail. Meanwhile, co-founder Shane Smith is still looking for a buyer to take the company off his hands. Good luck with that! If you’re worried about money, Shane, maybe sell your $23 million house.
— Anyway, also some great news on the editorial side at Vice! The site is launching a new features desk, and Jezebel reporter Anna Merlan is leaving Gizmodo to join the project. Harron Walker, previously of Jezebel and Out Magazine, was also picked up by VICE.