Most of us can recall the personal essay from our Leaving Cert English papers: that chance to write about our own lives and reflect on the world in all our eighteen year old wisdom. Who doesn’t love a bit of self-indulgence?
Though long accepted as a strong literary form used by writers as diverse as Virginia Woolf, Mark Twain, and Joan Didion, the essay has only recently begun to enjoy its moment in Irish literature. There came a flood of personal essays in the international sphere between approximately 2010 and 2015, with sites like the now-defunct Gawker and xoJane publishing seemingly endless personal perspectives on life, sometimes lacking in reflection of much depth (remember the time that white lady got upset because there were no black people in her yoga class?) The flow appears to have been somewhat stemmed now, with fewer essays published on popular sites. Last year, the New Yorker even published a piece claiming that the personal essay boom is over. We still see new work emerging from modern leaders of the form such as Rebecca Solnit and Ariel Levy, but less of the pop culture variety.
In the Irish literary world, the rise of the essay has been slower and steadier. Literary journals are now publishing more personal essays than in the past, with The Dublin Review and Gorse particularly championing the form. The Dublin Review hosted an event last November titled The New Autobiography, where Niamh Campbell, Kevin Breathnach and Sinead Gleeson, three emerging Irish writers who have had literary or personal essays printed in the journal, discussed the form and their practice of it. The event addressed the question of what autobiography is today, and how the rise of the essay has affected that, finding that the definition of autobiography has expanded thanks to writers testing the boundaries of the personal essay format. The essay is now having its day in Irish writing.
This raises the question: Can the personal essay be characterised as literary autobiography, or is it simply indulgent fluff, with little aim other than allowing writers a space to write about the self? I tend to lean toward the former, since the self is one of the richest sources of material for artists of all types. This is really a question of the validity of the essay as a literary form, and I would argue that it holds strong merits in giving readers insights into new ways of seeing.
This is why HeadStuff will feature the Irish Essayist series, a series of personal essays, over the coming weeks. Touching on subjects as diverse as mental illness, gender, music, growing up, and more, we will see writers explore the truths that their life experiences have allowed them to ruminate on. Essays will appear on the next few Wednesday mornings.
If you would like to submit a pitch for a personal essay for consideration as part of the Irish Essayist series, email [email protected].