I’m sitting in my quiet bedroom, trying to conjure up some modern criticism on today’s journalism. After a long day working at a tuxedo rental store in Brampton, Ontario, for just over minimum wage, the last thing I want to do is spend what is left of my night hunched over my laptop.
Have I caught your attention yet? Maybe you’re wondering when I’m going to stop rambling about my life and start critiquing the way journalism is done. But, the critique has already begun. While most journalists try to remove themselves from the stories they write, there are still a few who can’t help but become the main character in their own work.
This has led to a sub-genre of journalism known as memoir, confessional, or personal journalism. Essentially, writing about oneself. Although it can be a great storytelling tool, personal journalism has recently become the subject of much criticism and debate online. This happened when New York magazine’s The Cut blog published Elizabeth Wurtzel’s mid-life confessional, in which she rants about how “wretched” her year had been. Critics from Slate and Gawker were quick to point out the narcissism, not only in her piece, but in much of memoir writing.
Wurtzel is not the only journalist who writes in this style. In one of her latest columns for The Globe and Mail, Leah McLaren details how her life before becoming a mother was similar to the wild escapades in the HBO show Girls. Now, she says, she spends her time “lactating on the sofa in a nightgown,” and identifying with the 20-something characters on the show. Former National Post columnist Rebecca Eckler blogs for Mommyish.com, and some of her most recent pieces discuss fighting with her fiancé about their son’s hair, and guilt-tripping her nine-year-old daughter for not emailing her when she was away. How are these details relevant to the reader? There’s nothing wrong with journalists sharing personal experiences, but it doesn’t have to become a self-absorbed rant.
There are plenty of writers who have found the balance between the personal and the relatable. Last June, Ian Brown, wrote a piece for the Globe about the death of his father. In the deeply intimate piece, Brown recounted his father’s life and the memorable conversations he had with him, but the article was able to communicate the bigger picture: what fathers represent in our lives. Although it is near impossible to be unbiased, Brown’s approach allows readers to relate on a personal level.
There’s a fine line between storytelling and over-sharing. Frankly, not every reader cares about the writer’s life, especially if it has nothing to do with the topic of the piece. Personal journalism can be a compelling and powerful way to add depth to a story, but it has to be done right.