Que yo les cuente mis penas/me piden de tarde en tarde
A recent New Yorker piece tells me the personal essay is over. It's the politics, stupid. It seems that with the sound and fury released by the Trump presidency, two words that I never thought I'd see linked, never mind by me, we're not in the mood for navel gazing. So gone, or at least disappearing, are those embarrassing writings about, say, vaginas -- though their Monologues are still alive and well -- because, yes, most of the perps of this allegedly dying genre are women. Chick lit at the tipping point.
It's troubling, to say the least, to learn, particularly from such an august publication where journalism is presented as essays, that a genre one is cultivating, nay, barely getting started with, is like so over. And that it belongs to a gender I have no intention of transitioning toward, though all my life I've cozied up to it, but here I am getting personal in my essay. No, I don't write about a vagina I don't have, though I do write about all the ones I've loved before (who now are someone else's grandmas). But I have written about my penis, though I hope there's more to it than that, in a very personal book-size essay titled Pretty to Think So: Eros and Prostate Cancer, to be published by Books & Books Press, hopefully next year. Dick lit.
My initial problem with the New Yorker's diagnosis lies in the words "personal essay." I thought the essay was personal by definition. Otherwise, it's something else, like reportage or instruction manual or peer-reviewed article. Aren't the essais of Miguel de Montaña, as an academic Spaniard I knew called the Frenchman because he had a Spanish mother, aren't these beginnings of the genre personal? I think what's meant by "personal essay", in the New Yorker article and elsewhere, is the too-personal essay. Says who? Why, the Puritan ethic, of course. The same one that brought us the phrase, applicable to the genre, of "too much information." As if TMI weren't the only kind worth sharing, the only kind we hunger for, what piques our curiosity. But "too much" is anathema to the Puritan ethic, and its esthetic derivatives, like minimalism.
But my objections to the label aside, why write personal? Why navel gaze? (I enjoy gazing not at my own navel but the ones in the middle of comely bodies, and once again I'm getting personal and disclosing TMI.) I ask myself that when I write, troubled as I am by the insecurities and unease that haunt practically anyone who writes. I could reach for the hootch, in the Great American Writer tradition, but it doesn't agree with me. Or for the needle and the damage done. Instead, I come up with a justification that I hope, but never really know, is not a rationalization. The human condition.
I guess, though I have no way of knowing for certain, that we humans go through more or less the same shit. I have a way of gazing at it in public: writing. And perhaps someone out there, the reader, will recognize the commonality of our shit and say, oh shit, that's what I go through, let's see what this guy has to say about it. That's it. Cursed by extreme introspection, which in everyday life is called self-absorption and is the doom of relationships, I can interrogate myself. Maybe the reader, a healthier specimen, doesn't do that as easily (compulsively, obsessively), and I serve as a ventriloquist's dummy for his less accesible self-perusal. Good essays, like those of Phillip Lopate or Richard Rodriguez, do that. Mine? I'm trying.
Women who write about their vaginas have vaginas in common with other women. I wrote a book about prostate cancer (not a self-help or even vaguely inspiring book): all men have prostates and the fragile sexual organs and even more fragile egos linked to them. Many men get prostate cancer -- second cancer killer of American men. And learning you have it and deciding what to do about it and then living with what you've done magnifies that fragility that's linked to our sexuality. Was I self-indulgent in dwelling on my own woes? Is it a First World problem? Well, death is an All World problem. And consciousness of our impending death is one of the things, perhaps the thing, that makes us human.
So I write in this dying genre. As I lay (and walk and talk and even get laid) dying. Like you, reader, mon semblable, m . . . oh you know.