Last year in The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino wrote that the heyday of the personal essay is over. Significantly popularized in a journalistic climate seeking to minimize budgets and maximize clicks, first-person writing saw an unprecedented boom in the early 2010s, which petered out when Gawker, Buzzfeed Ideas, and xoJane shut their doors in 2015/16.
Readers and editors had gotten sick of half-baked stories dashed off prematurely to platforms starved for content. Yet, considering the wave of internationally acclaimed collections produced in the first half of 2018 alone (among them Zadie Smith’s Feel Free, Lorrie Moore’s See What Can Be Done, and Roxane Gay’s Not That Bad), the personal essay seems to be in fine form – though it’s been hard to do away with the self-fetishizing, ultra-confessional sensationalism it came to be yoked with.
The personal essay is certainly getting on best kind in Newfoundland, where editor Robert Finley has published a collection of twelve pieces workshopped in Memorial University’s creative writing program.
Best Kind showcases a range of content: there’s a childhood summer vacation (Heidi Wicks’s “Fireflies”); a series of loosely connected, slice-of-life swimming scenes (Eva Crocker’s “Swimming Pools”); and an essay constructed entirely of quotations from other sources, in the tradition of documentary theatre (Joan Sullivan’s “Clive Wearing Writes (and Writes and Writes) His Autobiography”). Far from the unripe online essays slammed by Tolentino, these pieces wear the marks of experimentation and precision – they’ve clearly been drafted, revised, and reworked.
They also stand out because they’ve got better packaging. Best Kind’s cover design, modeled after the label of the Newfoundland Margarine Company’s popular Good Luck Margarine, evokes the intimacy of your nan’s kitchen. It also neatly positions the book in tandem with a 2015 collection of short stories edited by Lisa Moore, Racket, the cover design of which was inspired by Purity Factory’s Hard Bread label.
But beyond eliciting nostalgia through cover design, Best Kind refuses sentimentality. Difficult and shocking subjects – there’s hereditary cancer (Bridget Canning’s “Questions and Answers on Flight and Butchery”), childhood sexual assault (Michelle Porter’s “She Gets a Paper Route so She Can Save Up for a Bicycle”), and mental illness (Paul Whittle’s “A Sketch of Stephen”) – could easily turn the prose maudlin or sensational. Instead, such topics are handled with care and restraint.
In a first-person singular genre so often associated with introspection, self, and egoism, these pieces move beyond the “I” – perhaps a happy effect of the collective way they were written and revised. None of the writing slips into self-reflexivity, which suggests that the essayists are thinking beyond themselves, toward the reader.
In his introduction, Finley writes that this was part of the collection’s aim all along. He says that if the personal essay is meant to “assay” the self, the writer can do so only by looking outward – by creating “an encounter between an ‘I’ and the world in which that ‘I’ resides.” For all the self-indulgence of weaker examples of the genre, collections like Best Kind show that the personal essay is as adept as ever at staging such an encounter between writer and reader.