Analysis of Christy Vannoy’s “A Personal Essay by a Personal Essay”

“A Personal Essay by a Personal Essay” is pointedly satirical, marking a first in Atwan’s seventh edition anthology. Written by Christy Vannoy, the essay is featured online at McSweeney.net, the host site for tongue-in-cheek essays like I’M TRAVELING TO SOME COUNTRY IN THE EAST TO WRITE A MEMOIR ABOUT TRAVELING TO SOME COUNTRY IN THE EAST. Vannoy humorously grabs hold of the personal essay’s tendency to be self-involved and exaggerated, writing facetiously from the perspective of a personal essay competing for approval. Personal Essay also alludes to the ways in which we, as a culture, pacify ourselves using sensationalized misery.

Above all, Vannoy’s use of satire was pivotal to Personal Essay’s effectiveness. She could have written a non-satirical (more traditional) essay highlighting the same points and it would have likely read too dry or distastefully critical. Consider her use of essays, rather than essayists, as subjects. By detailing the essay’s absurd qualities using the essay itself as subject, Vannoy is able to criticize the overall nature of personal essays without casting any direct personal attack on the writers who conceive them. For example, Vannoy writes, “Next up were two Divorce Essays, which came and went, forgettable at best.” (p. 111).We could interpret this sentence alone to mean that topics like divorce, though often emotionally-charged, can be dull compared to other, less common focal points. To convey this same message the author could have taken a different aim, writing something like, “Divorced writers tend to indulge in their failed marriages in desperate efforts to create sensational essays.” Clearly, the latter is off-putting and therefore less effective than Vannoy’s more subtle approach. Subtlety, in fact, is essential to this essay.

Vannoy seems to imply that misfortune is routinely exploited by essayists in the name of sensationalism. The following excerpt from Personal Essay explores this topic: “I’ve developed something of a reputation in the industry for taking meticulous notes on my suffering. It was a lesson learned the hard way after my year in sex slavery was rendered useless from the effects of crank on my long-term memory.” (p. 111). It’s likely that Vannoy is urging us to consider how and why we give attention to past hardships. The author makes her point more apparent by quipping that each essay is hoping to “out-devastate the other” in order to get published. (p. 110). Again, Vannoy is opining that competition is driving exaggerated, perhaps even exploitative essay material. The faux titles strewn throughout Personal Essay further speak to this as well as self-involvement.

The Essay Without Arms, Homosexual Essay, and even A Personal Essay by a Personal Essay are titles Vannoy uses strategically to make a deeper point; each essay title points inward at the author. (Me Talking About Myself, though not an actual name used in this essay, may be a fitting extension to Vannoy’s colorful range of existing titles.) These comical titles are complemented by a loaded sentence in the essay, “[less self-involved essay] persisted on beginning sentences without the personal pronoun I and comparing one thing to another instead of just out-and-out saying what happened.” (p. 112). Even without saying the word “narcissistic” the author is able to convey to the reader, through the techniques described above, that personal essays are sometimes guilty of meaningless self-promotion. Ultimately, Christy Vannoy masterfully illustrates her points about the personal essay, and really, about the essayist, through on-the-mark satire.

Vannoy, Christy. “A Personal Essay by a Personal Essay.” The Best American Essays. Ed. Robert Atwan. 7th ed. Boston: Wadsworth, 2014. 110-113. Print.

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