The Exceptional Rise Of “I” And “Me”

According to a study published in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, in an analysis of literature published between 1960 and 2008, the use of first person singular pronouns (I, me) increased by a staggering 42 percent. An article published in The Atlantic Wire looks at this exceptional rise in first person pronouns and writer Eric Levenson theorizes that it may be attributed to the increase in women’s writing.

Levenson uses the quotes of women writers to support his theory. Sarah Burnside of The Guardian notes that op-eds written by women lean more toward the personal because women “write a majority of stories on relationship/parenting advice and gender articles” and that “these both easily lend themselves — demand, I might say — a first-person perspective.” Courtney E. Martin and Hannah Seligson called the increasing pressure for women to personalize their stories “The Carrie Bradshaw Effect,” meaning that women are subtly encouraged by editors and agents to share more personal stories in order to be commercially successful. Jessica Grose, formerly of Slate and Jezebel, says this personalization trend is concerning in the sense that it “affects women, who may feel boxed in to their first-person topics, separate from ‘serious journalism.'”

All of these points are valid if you are a woman writer who doesn’t want to personalize her work and feels pushed to. But what if you do want to write in the first person? What offends me is the implication that the personalization of stories is a negative thing. The “I” culture is upon us all. Whether or not women initiated the trend, it’s no longer gendered. Yesterday, I suffered through 5,000+ words written by a college student named Thor Lund who rambled on and on about his mommy issues and how you can tell what a woman’s vagina is like just by looking at her feet. It felt equally painful to read 5,000+ words by Elizabeth Wurtzel in New York magazine about how she’s stays so hot because she stays single.

This brings me to my main point, which is first person storytelling, essay writing and memoir is as much of a craft as “serious journalism.” When done well by people like Joan Didion or David Sedaris to name two heavy hitters, it has a  power all its own. It has the power to transform and inspire us. It has the power to expose us intimately to experiences and cultures different from our own. It has the power to make us laugh until we cry (or visa versa in the case of Didion). And when it’s done poorly, well, it’s 5,000 words on me me me me me and my mommy issues — no matter what the writer’s gender. [The Atlantic Wire]