The Personal Essay

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Taking an unapologetically snobbish tone in her 1905 essay “The Decay of Essay Writing,” Virginia Woolf lamented how the nineteenth-century democratization of literacy had flooded the literary marketplace with personal essays.

“You need know nothing of music, art, or literature to have a certain interest in their productions, and the great burden of modern criticism is simply the expression of such individual likes and dislikes—the amiable garrulity of the tea-table—cast in the form of the essay,” Woolf wrote, scolding those middle-class writers who would dare leave their grubby prints on the windowpane of good prose.

If one can set aside her disdain, there is a larger point: too many people writing have nothing interesting to say and no interesting way in which to say it.

Lucky for us, the universe of the personal essay is not as young as Tolentino believes it to be, and not everyone who inhabits it hounds their readers into choosing between a total lack of purpose and an interesting prose style.

• • • The antidote to , a collection of her reviews, essays, and short memoirs from the past two decades.


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