The Put-Ons of Personal Essayists

Here’s a terrific exploration of the essayistic “I” from Carl H. Klaus, founding director of the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction program and author of The Made Up Self: Impersonation in the Personal Essay.  A sample:

“In some sense, of course, the voice in a personal essay does put one in connection with its author, more directly and closely than any other form of writing, except a personal letter. But the nature of that connection is inherently so tangled and indefinite, so variable from one essay or essayist to the next, that despite the inclination of Oates and others to talk about “authentic voice,” one cannot substantiate the connection beyond asserting that it exists. To determine the authenticity of an essayist’s voice, one would have to know as much about that essayist’s inner life, public behavior, and personal experience as the essayist herself. Yet the temptation to equate essayists with their essayistic selves is seemingly irrepressible.

How else to account for a friend’s response to my new book: “Your essays sound just like you! You’re there in every one of them.” Which me? I wondered. The academic me? The confessional me? The whimsical me? Or one of the others I contrived, figuring that a book about the made-up self ought to embody a few of my own. I had created so many different voices that I decided my friend must have been joking—or paying tribute to my protean “I.” On the other hand, when my partner, Jackie, finished reading the book, she exclaimed, “I sure wish you could talk like that.” Which me? I wondered once again.”

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