Criticism Criticism of The Ethics of Selling Children
I wrote about review writing the other day and I’m going to write about personal essays now. I hope this will still be interesting, because I’m taking just about the same approach as I took to the Dead Space 3 review. I’m a creative writer, so to me, everything looks like a craft problem, just as to academics, everything looks like a theory problem. I understand that theory is important, but so is craft, and since I have no understanding of what is right or wrong in terms of theory, all I can talk about is how clearly and effectively ideas are being conveyed through writing. For me, this is actually where personal essays break down whether they’re about video games or anything else, and if I had to define a problem in the way we write about games, I’d say it’s the connection between the personal and the games (or whatever the subject is) isn’t clearly established. There are plenty of personal essays (if you think about referring to them as confessional essays or confessional writing, please contact me immediately so I may imprison you in crystal for a thousand years) that contain very interesting ideas that never fully come across to the reader because their metaphors are buried and unclear and I want to hopefully help explain how that works.
Although this may get far too meta for anyone’s taste but mine, I’m going to look at a personal essay that critiques personal essays, Joel Goodwin’s post on Electron Dance called “The Ethics of Selling Children.” Though I like its attempt to open a conversation on a serious subject, I have problems understanding its extended metaphor, which is that a certain kind of personal writing can be compared to selling a child for profit. I say a certain kind of personal writing, because while the author distinguishes by example works he finds uncomfortable from those he doesn’t, we the readers never get to understand what his criteria are or the reasoning or feelings behind them.
We start off with his negative reaction to an issue of Kill Screen which dealt specifically with intimacy and personal stories:
“It made me uncomfortable. This urge to put such private details out there felt so alien and, as a reader, I was duped into prying. There were not just limits to how much I wanted to tell people about myself, but also limits about how much I wanted to know about others.”
Here are my questions: How was Goodwin ‘duped’ into prying? What about the writing made him feel this way? If there are limits to what he wants to reveal and what he wants to know, what are they? Why does he draw the line there? Where is the line anyway? I feel like Goodwin is assuming I will agree with him, but I don’t exactly. I’m a different human being with a different philosophy of life. I may never agree with him. Still, failing that, he can clearly and honestly explain to me what he believes and why he believes it, which is the closest anyone will ever get to writing something that might change someone else’s mind. I rely on him to convey or explain his feelings in some way, so that even if I disagree I have a reason to follow him.
“I confessed and was rewarded. It is what the internet hungers for and this taste of traffic persuaded me that personal stories are where fame is to be found.”
Here Goodwin’s language suggests, by depicting readers as a faceless networked maw, that these tastes are unwholesome. I am ready to believe that and I find his metaphor conveys that feeling well, but I don’t see the reasoning behind it. By way of counter example, there are times in which my personal writing have felt, far from the violation Goodwin continuously suggests, like I was finally able to be myself. Clearly this form of writing brings Goodwin misery, and he only does it because he feels forced. Why does he feel forced? What about it feels violating? I don’t share his experience, so it is the task of the writer to draw me towards understanding his feelings, even if I still don’t agree. His language disparages the subject but doesn’t explain where that feeling comes from, so he’s sort of just attacking a faceless target and making that attack acceptable because he has made it faceless (a sort of circular rhetoric). I’m not asking for a logical argument, just an understanding of where he is coming from. With the language the author uses I am guided into his reluctance at writing with emotion and his trepidation in doing so. “I was encouraged to write with emotion wherever possible” he say again, but I’m just not clear why looking for emotional connection is a bad thing.
“We treat these confessionals like videos of a cat doing funny things on a printer, something to consume then throw away. It may be YouTube comedy gold but we rarely stick around and subscribe to the uploader’s channel.
Still, I hope he is okay.”
I’m not sure I understand this. Goodwin appears to feel just reading a personal essay should not be the end of the reader/writer relationship, but I’m not sure why. Should readers care more about writers? What about writers that feel happy not wondering if their readers like them personally or not? Why isn’t it sufficient? What sort of relationship should readers have with writers? Is the problem that our engagement with subjects is not honest enough? That we don’t truly care about strangers, just stories about their lives? Is that bad? The author implies, with this last sentence, that he, at least, does truly care. But I don’t know what that means or why his emotions are any different than the faceless maw of the internet. How does he now that they not truly care? What makes him different? What is the difference? Does it matter?
“Susan Shapiro is an author and a journalism professor. She has been instructing her students to indulge in confessional writing, no matter who it hurts. In fact, if your writing hurts someone, you are doing your job well. Recently she wrote about her approach to writing in a New York Times opinion piece.”
“This brings me to my one caveat: while readers will applaud your brave, tumultuous disclosures, your relatives won’t. The first piece you write that your family hates means you found your voice, I warn my classes. If you want to be popular with your parents and siblings, try cookbooks.”
Do not just use yourself. Use friends and family if it can sell your writing.
Nolan Hamilton wrote an acerbic response on Gawker titled “Journalism is not Narcissism”:
“Writing about yourself can be part of a balanced journalism diet, but it sure ain’t a whole fucking meal. By plundering your own life for material, you are not investing in yourself as a writer; you’re spending the principal.”
This seems to be a core point of the essay, but the quotes don’t speak for themselves and Goodwin doesn’t clearly explain what I am supposed to bring from this discussion and then relate to his wider claims. Is the problem with confessional writing that it might hurt my family? Nolan’s metaphor also bothers me, for sentence and craft reasons: “You’re spending the principal” he says, but how? I’m not being purposefully difficult here. My life memories are not money. They are not gone when I write about them. So what exactly am I losing by talking about them? Is it the family relationships at stake that is morally indefensible? If so, why should that be anyone’s concern but the writer’s? What if the family I alienate is full of terrible people who abused me? I don’t understand because the author drops a metaphor and then doesn’t connect it to the rest of his larger points. An author can say “X is like Y” all he wants, but it doesn’t mean anything unless the metaphor is explained. A great metaphor builds both subjects up; a poor one loses the reader. I feel this way about a lot of personal writing, and it doesn’t require that much more explanation to clue me in.
“Just as I was about to send it, I realised I was selling my son for internet traffic and deleted the mail.”
There’s the extended metaphor again, in which Goodwin frames including his son in a trailer for Proteus as selling him. The author expresses how troubled he is by this, but does not frame it in a way I can empathize with. I can understand that someone might see this as wrong, but the author doesn’t tell me what the exact nature and texture of this wrongness is, and just as importantly, doesn’t show how this can be likened unto personal writing (or a particular kind of personal writing, the distinctions between the two I also do not understand).
Maybe this sounds dumb but I’m not sure if including his son’s voice in a trailer for Proteus is a bad thing or if it counts as “selling a child.” I could turn the TV to any given station and see kids being “sold” all over the place and I sort of take it for granted. Of course I can be convinced that this is a problem; it bothers me too. But the author must still do the work of explaining to me why this is a bad thing instead of assuming it will be obvious to me. Because it’s not just about the fact that it’s wrong, it’s how and why it’s wrong. That’s the real core of an essay; the understanding and exploration, not the recitation of (assumed) fact. The specific way, unique to the author, in which this act is transgressive is also necessary for us to connect this to the larger metaphor he’s attempting to use to connect to personal writing. It’s called “The Ethics of Selling Children”; the larger metaphor is that selling children is the same as a specific (but not clearly defined) kind of personal writing. So I’m not sure exactly what this kind of personal writing is (other than the kind that makes the author uncomfortable) but I know that it is like selling children.
That is another difficult point; I also don’t understand what the differences are between the kinds of personal writing are author likes and the kinds he dislikes. Goodwin does not fully commit to an explicit definition, which makes the essay frustrating and elusive, which I will go as far as to say is my personal problem with personal writing, which is to say it’s not a problem with the form or medium, but simply a problem with how it is written and how an author hasn’t done the work of connecting one metaphor to another. What is this particular kind of personal writing that makes the author uncomfortable, and why should it also make me uncomfortable?
“But it does not exorcise away the murky moral maze of confessional blogging that can become an addiction – for both writers and readers. How much of yourself are you willing to give away? What about those other people who may not have wanted to be sold for your benefit?”
These are interesting questions but I think I need to have some sort of answer to them, especially since they are followed by examples of essays that the author does feel are both personal and “moral” (or good) but there is still no clear difference between essays he likes and essays he doesn’t like, or essays that hurt people and essays that don’t. There is a hint that he finds the subject matter of essays he doesn’t like unsettling because they are too personal. I wonder what subjects he considers too personal and why. What might be the consequences of NOT talking about difficult subjects, such as Brendon Keogh’s anorexia? That’s a question that pop immediately into my mind when he argues that it shouldn’t be, seemingly without an understanding of why anyone would think otherwise.
Traditionally I suppose stories about abuse and sex and personal suffering are considered too personal, exploitative, obscene. I wonder then what the larger cultural implications are for having those subjects considered taboo while others are not, and what sorts of authors and writers and subjects that sort of writing favors. So I think it absolutely critical for the author to articulate just why, exactly, this “deeply personal” writing makes him uncomfortable.
I can tell that this particular essay is thinking the point out and that the author might not have any answers, but the work I am asking for does not depend on having answers, just being clear about what the questions are. I can recognize an attempt at connect on the page and this author seems to be avoiding an explicit connection. The essay is I think meant to vaguely hint at wrongness in personal writing without stating outright what the problem was. This form could work very well if I understood specifically the feelings the author was trying to work through, and if the author feels like he can’t come to an exact conclusion, why that is and what is still unresolved. Even essays that are ephemeral have to be ephemeral in a specific and clear way (think to E.B. White shouting in his eponymous writing guide: “Be obscure CLEARLY! Be wild of tongue in a way we can understand). If the author wants to subtly imply a problem and hasn’t yet completely figured out his own feelings that is certainly okay; what I am to gather from this essay is that a certain kind of writing is both exploitative and discomforting. Yet I don’t have the information to understand why the author feels that way, and so I can’t engage with his treatment of the subject or respond to it.
I’m nearly done with a meaningless MFA in nonfiction creative writing, so to me, every problem looks like a line level or form problem. It’s difficult for me to see things from the academic side of things in which high level theoretical issues are involved at every level of discussion. What I can do, though, is ask whether or not I understand an essay and how it has done the work to reach that conclusion. I picked on this article because it was the opening of the conversations on personal writing and I thought it would make sense to go back to the source. I apologize to Joel Goodwin for writing this essay; I am twice as guilty of every sin outlined in it. But I like personal writing and think that, like our problems with reviews, there are some serious craft level problems that we should not fail to neglect as we discuss high level theory.
Instead, here is the only advice that is ever given in creative writing programs that ever has the merest hint of objectivity or universal truth: you can write whatever you can get away with. I don’t think that I can be convinced that some topics are off limits, but I am really fascinated about reading the reasoning behind that philosophy and I can get a lot out of it as long as I can understand.