The Soapbox: On Hugo Schwyzer, Personal Essay Writing & Redemption

Last week, the controversial professor, feminist blogger and personal essayist Hugo Schwyzer announced on his blog, in an interview with and again in LA Weekly that he was retiring his notorious public persona and quitting the internet for good (or— for the time being, he corrected himself some days later in yet another goodbye). Maybe you don’t know or care who this person is and that is just as well. He is a semi-big deal in the feminist blogosphere in the way that Serge Haroche is probably (hopefully) an even bigger deal among mathy-type people (he won the Noble Prize in Physics in 2012, according to this random website I found when I Googled “Nobel Prize winners”). And maybe we should all know more about Serge Haroche. But here we are talking about Hugo.  (For a complete list of criticisms of Hugo’s work, you can go here. Or here. Yes, there are entire websites created for the sole purpose of criticizing this man and his work.) [Note: A few of Schwyzer’s pieces on The Good Men Project were crossposted on The Frisky a few years ago.]

I can’t help it. Honestly, I’m kind of obsessed with him. As a freelance writer as well as a writing instructor — I teach courses in memoir, personal essay and opinion writing, the genres that both Hugo and I write — this whole brouhaha is pushing all my buttons. Some people are taking a certain joy in this character’s downfall — which I feel is mean but, yes, a little tempting. Like many, for me, the redemptive narrative of Hugo Schwyzer always rang less than true.

In Hugo’s defense, all successful personal essay requires some element of redemption. As I teach my students, the “narrator” of the essay must be different than the story’s “protagonist.” Think “Stand by Me” and the difference between the kid on the screen and the voiceover, telling you about the summer that kid he used to be saw a dead body. Even if the story took place just minutes before you sat down to write it, the reader expects a narrator who is different than the protagonist. You are no longer the bumbling, fumbling earlier version of you that walked into whatever situation you are now sitting down to recount. You, the protagonist, have become you, the narrator — a little older, a little wiser for having gone through what you did — but not so old and wise as to sound “all better” or as if they are throwing their old self under the bus.

And that is why Schwyzer’s narratives always fell flat. When you put too much distance between the narrator and protagonist— as Hugo necessarily does when he’s writing stories about, oh, that time the “old” him tried to kill his ex-girlfriend — you sound disingenuous. At worst, you sound like a delusional narcissist. At best, you come off as a wanna-be-know-it-all who thinks they’ve got it all figured out, which your readers will be certain you are not. People are wary of redemption narratives that don’t respect the fact that yes, life experiences change us but, in some ways, people never really change. Not that much. Narrators that too triumphantly declare themselves entirely different, or that are inhabiting stories that are simply too tidy, become suspicious. And so, in the case of Hugo Schwyzer, it is somewhat satisfying to see those suspicions pan out.

The inauthenticity of the narrator/protagonist paradigm is why some people prefer writers like former xoJane/VICE writer Cat Marnell or other confessional diarists, who are on the opposite end of the spectrum when it comes to this convention. And yet, if we look at the ways these writers’ work is received and they, too, illustrate my point: because we feel there is no authoritative narrator that is able to make meaning of the protagonists’ experience, people get frustrated with writers like Marnell. We criticize her work for feeling too sloppy and unknowing. We don’t like it because we can’t learn from an essay that’s all protagonist and no narrator.

Most readers desire the perfect combination of both— a narrator that has learned something, but that resists declaring themselves as all-knowing.

I suspect all writers struggle with these issues. I know that as a personal essayist with a pretty tightly defined brand involving a redemption narrative, I certainly do. Ultimately, Schwzyer’s undoing reminds all of us that readers don’t take kindly to writers and other public figures who present themselves as caricatures, personas or “brands,” particularly brands built on reformation. None of us want to turn ourselves into caricatures, and yet we know that turning our complicated stories into neatly packages 1,200-word essays ready for mass consumption means sacrificing nuance and coming to conclusions about ourselves and our world we might not entirely know or have the authority to say. We say it anyway. We speak loudly, obscenely loud from the platforms we have so diligently built. From these privileged platforms we speak on behalf of ourselves and others, declaring ourselves older and wiser again and again.

It’s worth mentioning that I also knew Schwyzer — personally? Professionally? I don’t know. I probably knew him no better than his other thousand something Facebook friends, but I did reach out to him once, personally, and we communicated privately about work-related stuff. I say that mostly as a way of saying that I didn’t hate the guy. I didn’t hate him personally, but I didn’t care for his work. I felt mostly sorry for him, actually — probably in that way that women are conditioned to feel sorry for troubled men. And I resented him, a little, for his success. I reached out to him one time for a connection to a place that he frequently wrote for, that I also wanted to write for until I found out that the site didn’t pay its writers. Schywzer had tenure, which means he didn’t have to worry about getting paid for his writing or be too concerned with how his online footprint might affect his future candidacy for other forms of employment, two things that I worry about constantly.

And therein lies what is truly interesting about Hugo Schwyzer: the fact that he is no more or less interesting than the rest of us — those of us putting our personal lives and selves on blast on the internet every day and those of us who, for whatever given reason, don’t. And see, the narrator (as opposed to the protagonist) was right, all along, from the beginning: we shouldn’t be talking about Hugo. We should be talking about more obscure writers— writers who write in the margins of their workweek or from the margins of reality, who tell their complicated stories without too much self-conscious glean of having told their stories again and again. Pseudonymous writers who haven’t dedicated their lives to building a platform— those who don’t have the power or privilege to risk it all. And while we’re at it, maybe we have ought to have paid more attention to the work of writers like Lena Chen or Flavia Dzodan, both made so uncomfortable with the impossible task of turning themselves into characters that they say they’ve given up altogether — and quietly, without a press release on the matter. (Hugo Schwyzer, take note). There are some who only write privately. They don’t go about documenting their every brilliant thought, or give themselves permission to be so candid about their private lives because they have other things in that life they value more than self-expression: their relationships with their families, their professions, their reputations, their sanity. Humility— maybe the most redemptive character asset of all— is perhaps what we’re all, as protagonists, clawing towards. And maybe we find it, sometimes, for a second. But then the second we put it down in print, it’s gone.

Certainly, I’m obsessed with the Hugo Schwyzer thing because I question my own platform. I problematize the power and privilege I have in order to have it, and the power and privilege I will never have as its result. Figuring out what it all means to me is my job as a writer, and it makes me so dizzy and tired I sometimes want to quit blogging altogether and go work as a barista. But, then, I’d probably just write about that.