Bringing grace to the first-person industrial complex

Bethany Keeley-Jonker

In an essay on Slate, Laura Bennett implicated herself, along with many editors on successful web magazines, in the phenomenon she called the “The First-Person Industrial Complex.” By this she means the growing popularity of essays based on the most harrowing or shocking or difficult experiences of the writer.

Of course, the relationship of vulnerability to writing has always been close. A frequently cited quotation about writing goes something like, “Writing is easy, you just sit at the typewriter and open a vein.” (Cursory research suggests this is likely from sportswriter Red Smith, but I saw a few other more famous names credited as well.) Yet while this tendency isn’t new, the realities of Internet publishing in the year 2015 are.

Bennett points to the pressures that led to the trend of revealing, first-person essays. First-person experience of the author gives insights that are only available this way or through (expensive) reporting and interviews. This immediacy makes for interesting reading, as well as eminently clickable headlines. Bennett also focuses primarily on the potential harm of this trend for writers. One, writers take a risk with their personal reputation by disclosing their own bad decisions or painful experiences, and are not always as prepared as they believe they are for the inevitable backlash. Two, writers sometimes take these chances as a way to get more writing opportunities that don’t necessarily materialize.

Of course, not every first-person essay is about harrowing or harmful experiences and choices, but it is a popular topic. It has me wondering, as a reader and as a writer, what my role is with these sometimes salacious disclosures.

Is reading this kind of writing a way to love the authors?

As a Christian charged to love others, is reading this kind of writing a way to love the authors? I’m reminded of how many first-person accounts about others' experiences of racism or poverty or other kinds of oppression have expanded my understanding and sympathy for people whose situations and experiences are different from mine. Reading and attending to the lives of others can be a way of honoring and appreciating their humanity.

But not every essay in this genre necessarily is about representing someone’s humanity in a way that helps me to see God’s image in them. I think the impulse to “hate read” is not necessarily my most neighborly. Bennett’s essay encouraged me to be more discerning about how my reading impacts my relationship with the rest of God’s children.

As a writer, I wonder how we can support both a (right) impulse to show others how God’s amazing creation is shown in us and a (right) impulse to be honest and vulnerable about our brokenness, even if we fear judgment. The extreme of the first impulse is the kind of “happy clappy” Christianity that sweeps problems under the rug. The extreme of the second is a kind of grotesque exhibitionism that exploits its subject and doesn’t help the reader become kinder, wiser or more thoughtful.

As is often the case, I guess we need to seek the wisdom of God and our community to make wise choices holding both of these values in balance. I’m glad the secular magazine community is confronting these same tensions in more secular terms.

Topics: Online, Culture At Large, Science & Technology, News & Politics, Media