Here’s a teaser from an essay on, yes, the personal essay by a delightful Australian writer and editor Ellena Savage, an essay that takes a critical theory view of the position of the personal essay as it is structured within the culture, a step back, as it were, from the usual shallow debates about “truth” and self expression, etc. that cloud the current N. American workshoppy atmosphere. The essay originally appeared in the magazine The Lifted Brow and now resides on Savage’s own site where you will find many other delightful texts.
We acknowledge the personal essay as an ideologically conflicted genre; that as genre, it necessarily deals in the ideograms of dominant culture; and that the genre, born of Enlightenment conditions, is interested in the maintenance of democracy and the valorisation of the individual. The personal essay is an attempt to transpose personal histories over collective ones.
This conflict we speak of arises from the historically instructive nature of the personal essay; that while valorising the individual, is culturally embedded in what Frederic Jameson names the linguistic representation of the dialectical process. It is a catalogue of a collective identity. To understand the personal essay, we are forced to read it within its cultural history.