In May 2017, The New Yorker claimed, “The Personal-Essay Boom is Over.” Written by the perennially brilliant Jia Tolentino, the article notes, “Individual perspectives do not, at the moment, seem like a trustworthy way to get to the bottom of a subject.” Tolentino’s take is more complex than that, a love letter embedded in a eulogy, but with the admittance that a Trump-led world changed everything, especially the ways in which we consume the dreaded catchall term — online content.
If the personal essay is dead, Leslie Jamison offers a map for moving forward using an old technique — New Journalism. Her latest, Make It Scream, Make It Burn, provides a stunning example of how to interrogate our collective consciousness without losing — but not relying on, either — the author’s role in the whole affair. In fourteen essays, Jamison reveals her knack for hypnotizing, in-depth reporting, while holding the reality of her subjectivity and imperfections at arm’s length. She neither aims for hard news nor hot takes. Instead, Jamison’s essays reveal the fruits of patient research and measured prose.
In an early essay about reincarnation, “We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live Again,” Jamison writes, “We all dwelled in the blurry zone between Carol’s memories and the stories Julie had told herself about these memories — where the kitchen had replaced the skyscraper and the drawing had replaced the easel, where the kaleidoscope of memory had reshuffled its glimmering shards.”
Again and again, Jamison reminds us writing can never be entirely true. Memories aren’t foolproof. Words only capture a miniscule fraction of reality. There’s always room for error. The collection’s centerpiece, “Maximum Exposure,” is where Jamison analyzes this distance most directly. Comparing her reportage to the commitment of a photographer who has spent decades documenting one family’s journey, Jamison laments, “It made me ashamed of the ways I’d written about the lives of others after knowing them for a year, or even a month.”
If that’s the case, what Jamison can do with a month is more than most writers could do given six. The facts would be the same, but few can make the words sing like this, and even fewer can take subjects like the world’s loneliest whale or a slapdash travel magazine assignment to Sri Lanka and gently nestle them within today’s volatile emotional, social, and political core. It’s new journalism for a new era.
Jamison, of course, is not in this movement alone, but it’s refreshing to see some balance and restraint in a time when an author with the reach of Jonathan Franzen can read a couple peer-reviewed articles and pen a sweeping declaration that climate change is a lost cause in one of the nation’s most prestigious publications. It’s not about whether Franzen is right or wrong — and his argument, while egotistical, appears well-intentioned — it’s the entitlement and bravado he relies on to make his point. He argues, “As a non-scientist, I do my own kind of modelling. I run various future scenarios through my brain, apply the constraints of human psychology and political reality.” This is a dangerous brand of subjectivity, and the consequences are very real.
I’m not suggesting Jamison’s writing is any more likely to save the world. If Franzen hits one nail on the head, it’s that mobilizing humanity is no easy feat, no matter how compelling the story. However, there is something to say for recognizing the limitations of your individual perspective.
Of course, Franzen’s urge to give up is perfectly natural. Jamison, perhaps, explains this best. In “Sim Life,” an essay about the online community Second Life, she suggests:
“Inhabiting any life always involves reckoning with the urge to abandon it — through daydreaming; through storytelling; through the ecstasies of art and music, hard drugs, adultery, a smart-phone screen. These forms of ‘leaving’ aren’t the opposite of authentic presence. They are simply one of its symptoms — the way love contains conflict, intimacy contains distance, and faith contains doubt.”
There’s always the option to throw in the towel, but it’s not always the author’s place to tell us whether or not we should.
Given the chronology of Make It Scream, Make It Burn, Jamison also seems to suggest informed discernment is a responsibility of both the reader and writer. Divided into three sections, Jamison’s essays develop an underlying interwoven narrative, they transition from journalistic inquiry to a third section of personal essays that spark from the biographical kindling hiding within the first two. This seems intentional, not only for the collection’s cohesiveness, but also to demonstrate the difference between telling someone else’s story and one’s own. In that journey, a lesson about the range of creative nonfiction is learned. In that journey, Jamison provides a compass orienting us as we wander the murky landscape of subjectivity. In that journey, the hope is ignited that we can enjoy and decipher a full geography of writing: the confessions of a personal essay, the curiosities of long-form exploration, the facts we’ll need to survive as the environment burns away all around us.
And Jamison can do it all. There’s more than one way to light a fire.
Make It Scream, Make It Burn
Little, Brown and Company
Published Sept. 24, 2019