Since Montaigne first wrote about the absurdity of the French class system by describing bathroom habits, the essay has been a heterogeneous mix of philosophy and autobiography. With loftier goals than mere memoir yet easier to digest than a dry brick of text (I’m looking at you, Hegel), the essay has functioned as the means by which smart people comment about the human condition by staring in the mirror. However, when women write essays in today’s media climate, the gates of narcissism are apparently thrown open, civilization is eroded, and we are all left yearning for the days when old white men wrote about the serious world in clear, terse prose.
Elizabeth Wurtzel’s recent essay in New York magazine is pretty awful. But it’s not awful because Wurtzel writes about own concerns (some of which could be valid if expressed more coherently); it’s awful because it sounds as though it were written by someone who has yet to figure out how to order words into something that resembles a sentence. While critics have noted the poor form, more have used it as an excuse to attack our “culture of narcissism.” Because the publication of this essay coincides with the return of Lena Dunham’s Girls—a series about a young female essayist—the Internet is once again wringing its hands about the decline of art into masturbatory navel-gazing. I’m sorry, but what exactly does non-narcissistic art looks like? When Louis C.K. works his own children into his show, few people claim that he is being self-indulgent. When National-Book-Award-winning novelist Kevin Powers uses his experience in Iraq as the basis for his fiction, I don’t hear critics saying, “The book was great, but it would have been so much better if he had never been to war.” But apparently fatherhood and war are real issues (like baseball and superheroes) while women simply write about trivial topics like sex and friendship. Despite the fact that some of America’s greatest essayists (e.g., Joan Didion, Susan Sontag) used memoir in their work, today’s cultural critics love to connect contemporary female memoir with the rise in reality entertainment—as though no one ever wrote about themselves before the first Real Housewives aired. Wurtzel is certainly no Sontag, but her work isn’t any less self-involved than Jonathan Franzen’s endless pieces about bird watching. Let’s criticize bad writing when we see it, but critiquing an essayist for writing about herself is like criticizing a poet because she writes in verse. It says much more about the failings of the critic than the writer.