First-person essays: Here are seven great ones.

The First-Person Industrial Complex Has Its Problems, but It Brought Us These Great Essays

The First-Person Industrial Complex Has Its Problems, but It Brought Us These Great Essays

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Sept. 18 2015 12:12 PM

The Best of the First-Person Internet

The Internet prizes the harrowing personal essay. Here are seven worth reading.


Illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker

In my Slate piece “The First-Person Industrial Complex,” I wrote about the challenges and pitfalls of today’s first-person online economy: the way the Internet incentivizes the publication of quick-turnaround, sensational, news-pegged essays in ways that can have serious consequences for writers. But of course, some of the best personal essays the Web has ever seen have been published in the past few years. I mentioned a few of my favorite recent entries: Heather Havrilesky’s elegant essays masquerading as advice columns for the Cut, Cord Jefferson for Matter on working the “racism beat,” and Steve Kandell for BuzzFeed on visiting the 9/11 museum after losing his sister in the attacks. But I thought I’d call out a few more. In no particular order:

Laura Bennett Laura Bennett

Laura Bennett is Slate’s features director.

Mariya Karimjee for the Big Roundtable, “Damage”

This essay, by a young woman whose mother arranged for her to undergo genital mutilation as a 7-year-old in Karachi, Pakistan, covers so much ground—about female sexuality, religion, culture clash, the author’s relationships with her mother and with men—in such powerfully specific detail. The moment when Karimjee finally confronts her mother, and forgives her, will make you cry.

Philp—who grew up in rural Michigan—moved to Detroit after college, bought a boarded-up house for $500, and fixed it up. The writing is great (“The city is filled with these structures, houses whose yellowy eyes seem to follow you”), and Philp vividly characterizes the blight of the city and the resilience of the people in it.

Sarah Smarsh for Aeon, “Poor Teeth”

Smarsh writes about growing up with a “mouthful of teeth shaped by a childhood in poverty” and what it taught her about how “privileged America” judges the poor. Technically, the essay even has a peg—the Orange Is the New Black character Pennsatucky, a former drug addict with jagged teeth—but it’s so thoughtful and elegantly written that it feels evergreen as well as urgent.

Tolentino, one of the editors I interviewed for my piece, returned to her alma mater on the first night of fraternity rush in the wake of the Rolling Stone controversy and wrote this moving and smart piece about her experience. It may not strictly count as a “personal essay,” since it involves some reporting, but it’s full of sharp insights about fraternity culture, gender, and the way the media covers rape.

Molly Osberg for the Awl, “Inside the Barista Class”

The topic seems at first glance like millennial self-parody, but the essay itself is much more interesting. In writing about her own experience, Osberg, one of the titular Brooklyn baristas, manages to get at bigger ideas about gentrification, the creative class, and even the role of the coffee shop in middle- and upper-class American life. The piece also offers amazing little revelations about Starbucks corporate culture: “The temperature,” Osberg writes, “was controlled remotely, from an office at HQ in the Midwest.”

Sarah Hepola for Salon, “My Relapse Years”

Hepola is a talented essayist and editor at Salon (she’s also quoted in my piece), and she has written moving pieces over the years about her struggles with alcoholism. (She also published a great book called Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget earlier this year.) This is one of my favorites: Hepola’s sentences have a nice, zippy rhythm, and she writes with an appealing mixture of frustration with and empathy for her former self.

Kiese Laymon for Gawker, “The Worst of White Folks”

Kiese Laymon is an unbelievable writer with a distinct voice. This essay, about his Mississippi childhood and the lessons about race and privilege he absorbed during it, is deeply sad but ultimately joyful, too. (A version of the piece is also included in his collection of essays.) “We were the children of an irresponsible nation, the grandchildren of responsible grandmothers,” he writes, “and we were just happy to be in the moment, so happy to be alive.”