In her 2015 Sydney Review of Books article ‘What the essayist spills’, Maria Tumarkin draws a clear distinction between ‘confessor’ and ‘essayist’. The first is a writer who spills everything for an audience primed to receive and ‘learn’ from it. The latter sees their material as an entry to wider discussions; ‘smashing the bottom from underneath the author’s experiences’ and steering them into a place where the experiences are simply given space to breathe in an approach driven by curiosity.
The style of personal writing Laura Bennett called in Slate ‘the harrowing personal essay’ and ‘the first-person industrial complex’ seemed to crescendo in about 2015. Having overcome this boom, the thrill of self-disclosure seems to have settled somewhat, and readers too are seeking something more solid than confession for its own sake. Those who do seek confession can recognise it by the tropes of its titles: ‘My X did Y’, ‘Everything changed when I …’; usually first-person statements that encompass a horrific or shameful experience. What does the essayist ‘spill’, as Tumarkin asks? Whatever it is now seems far more intentional and considered than it did just a few years ago. Australian personal essayist Kylie Maslen expressed this change in Kill Your Darlings as ‘a safe space to speak to the personal and how it relates to society more broadly. A place to develop as an artist by bending the rules. A form open to interrogation of the ideas and concerns of the day.’
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