A recent New York Times essay by Susan Shapiro about the merits of raw, risky nakedness in writing has ruffled some feathers. Perhaps the main reason is that Shapiro, in her essay, doesn’t distinguish between different genres of writing and their varying goals, conventions, etc. She says her first assignment for her journalism students is “write three pages confessing your most humiliating secret.” This gets at the core of Shapiro’s writing philosophy: if you portray your naked, horrendously flawed self and make yourself vulnerable to criticism, readers will be more interested in you.
Hamilton Nolan of Gawker, renown for his balanced, snark-free commentary (sarcasm!!!), weighed in on the piece by reminding us all that journalism is not about you before naming this very website and various others as perpetrators of damnably narcissistic writing. What Nolan and Shapiro do not acknowledge is that journalism is not synonymous with personal essay, but also, journalism is not limited to completely neutral factual reporting. This seems obvious, but these essays seem more interested in promoting or condemning, respectively, a close, unflattering examination of the self.
Another thing unaccounted for in these pieces is style: how it can increase the excitement, memorability, and specific excellence of any genre of writing. Just as with subject, focus, and perspective, there is no right style. Thus, it is not right or wrong to focus on the self, including the unflattering, ugly parts of one’s self. Rather, it is a choice, and the conventions and goals of the genre of writing involved are very relevant. Nolan seems to think that it is unforgivably narcissistic to focus on one’s self, but that it isn’t (?) damnably egotistical to smugly condemn those who choose to write honestly about themselves in a genre of writing — personal essay — that often values precisely such personal reflection. Hypocritical, one could say.
There is no right way to write, and there is no one set of criteria for critical analysis for every type of writing. It is ludicrous to approach writing honestly (and thus, unflatteringly) about the self as if it were the same thing regardless of context and genre of writing. Style can elevate any type of writing. Readers may be interested in hearing about you as you really are, or they may not. Furthermore, who are you, really, and what is there, really, to say about it. I’d be excited to see you try to tell me.