“The Personal-Essay Boom Is Over,” declared the headline of a much-circulated article on The New Yorker’s website earlier this year. It was the “God Is Dead” of the Jezebel generation, reporting that the craze for essays with titles like “My Gynecologist Found a Ball of Cat Hair in My Vagina”—a story by a writer named Michelle Barrow that became a fleeting sensation in 2015—had come to an end. To borrow a late-19th-century saying about the United States patent office, everything that could be found inside a vagina had been found.
Let young essayists find hope in the life and letters of Joyce Maynard, who has withstood market corrections to the personal-essay economy for 50 years, ever since her first one appeared in Seventeen magazine when she herself was 14. She is the Joyce Carol Oates of women’s confessional essays, firing them off in such rapid succession that she will probably begin and finish one in the time it takes you to read this paragraph. Her subject is herself, and although she has but one life to live, she is never short of material, because she reads and rereads her own story according to market demands. Teach a woman to describe a ball of cat hair, and she will sell an essay. Teach her to regard that ball of cat hair as an illustrative example of a handful of recurring themes, and she will sell essays for a lifetime.
It all began, as do so many things, in the bed of a devouring mother. Fredelle Maynard was an artistically frustrated housewife with a doctorate in English who was stuck in a small New Hampshire town with an alcoholic husband (failed painter, English professor at the state university) and two smart daughters. She had an intense, intrusive, and sexualized relationship with the younger girl, Joyce. “Can you imagine what she’ll be like with men?” she would announce after a morning “snuggling” with her in the marriage bed, teaching her various kisses: “Suction,” “Movie star,” “Cutie.” (It’s a fact that constitutes one of the few underexplored topics in her daughter’s oeuvre.) She also had the desire that both girls would become magazine writers, an area in which she had achieved some modest success. She and her husband would sit with the girls in the living room and auto-tune their submissions until they fit seamlessly into the pages of a big-circulation publication: the rising action of a girls’-magazine problem (no dates; too many dates; breasts too small; breasts too big) leading to the falling action of its solution (a talk with Mother; a sudden epiphany; a call to character) and an adorable, girl-tastic kicker.
In 1971, Maynard arrived at Yale, which was then a kind of Cape Canaveral for the Boomer revolution, sending one brilliant rocket into the sky and then another. Garry Trudeau was in her film-animation class; Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham were students at the law school. Everyone on campus was emotionally engaged with the draft. But Maynard was listening to different music, the soundscape of the Seven Sisters magazines—McCall’s, Ladies’ Home Journal, Redbook, etc.—magazines that were deeply, intentionally square, and that were always a decade or two behind the popular culture. During her first year of college, Seventeen sent Maynard to Texas to write about the Miss Teenage America pageant and to Washington, D.C., to interview Julie Nixon Eisenhower. She could not have been more out of step—intellectually, politically, or culturally—with her peers if she’d invited them to a Tupperware party. But when she sent a pitch to The New York Times, she got an assignment that changed her life.
“Please go ahead with a 3,500-word personal essay about what it is like to be eighteen years old in this country,” wrote The Times Magazine’s editor. The resulting essay describes sweeping trends, self-consciously positions its young author as the voice of her generation, and locates almost nothing fresh about the nature of youth. It didn’t matter. Her photograph—a sprite of a girl, with huge brown eyes, sitting on the floor of the Yale library—ran on the cover of The Times Magazine under the career-making headline “An 18-Year-Old Looks Back on Life.”
Famously, the essay and photo attracted the attentions of J. D. Salinger, for whom she dropped out of Yale at the start of her sophomore year. Their 11-month love affair, conducted in his isolated New Hampshire house and apparently a gulag experience for both of them, was the subject of her 1998 memoir, At Home in the World. The book inflamed an easily inflamed demographic: people who have an intense, almost irrational hatred of Joyce Maynard’s literary output and by extension of the writer herself. It’s not the prose they dislike; Maynard’s writing is clean and engaging. She’s written more than a dozen popular books and a very good true-crime novel. What drives the critics wild is her personal writing and its nonstop examination of self, one damn hair ball at a time.
Fredelle Maynard once published a book about parenting in which she averred that the most important gift to give a child was the certainty that “never since the beginning of time has there been anybody just like you.” It is this lesson (perhaps the ultimate Boomer credo) that animates Joyce’s collected essays and memoirs. She pours out confession after confession, but not in search of expiation. The goal is to get it all out on the page, shape it around a conventional narrative structure, find a lesson in it, and move on.
Her first husband and her three children are Snowy to her Tintin: reliable sidekicks yoked to the central character for the length of the run. The husband spent the duration of her 1980s syndicated column, “Domestic Affairs,” as the ideal partner; in the ’90s (after the divorce) he was revealed in subsequent essays and books as a cruel bastard who pressured her to get an abortion and filed a motion to have her declared an unfit mother. Lately, he has emerged as the co-victim of a bad union, as she has confessed that she actually had a long affair with his close friend. In his most recent appearance, he was gently reaching for his ex-wife’s hand at their son’s wedding.
The Boomers are getting old now; we know this because there’s a Fidelity ad that plays “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” and Joyce Maynard has started to appear in the AARP magazine. Her new book, The Best of Us, is about a topic of interest to this aging demographic: widowhood. In her late 50s, she met a man online and they married. Tragically, he was soon diagnosed with cancer; he died three years after the wedding. It was a cruel thing to happen, a wretched turn of luck.
Just as she dropped the depth charge of her mother’s quasi-incest into an early chapter of At Home in the World yet expected readers to stay focused on the fact that J. D. Salinger was a bad boyfriend, The Best of Us tucks a whopper into an opening chapter. At age 55, her children grown, Maynard had “missed being a parent as much as a person crossing the desert misses water.” So she sent away for a CD-rom from an international adoption agency, liked what she saw at an Ethiopian orphanage, and traveled to Africa to adopt two sisters: “They were ravenous for meat. ‘I love you I love you I love you,’ they told me.” But she soon tired of the responsibility. After 14 months, she drove them across the country and handed them off to a different family, and they were adopted a second time.
So there, on page 56, she loses the crowd. When she describes meeting her future husband just six months later and having the time of her life with him—traveling, eating, sleeping in the nude, throwing a wedding rapturously covered by The New York Times—the reader is back with those little girls she impulsively adopted and then abandoned. Always, Maynard wants our sympathies. “Of all the losses I’d known, this had been the worst,” she tells us about relinquishing the girls, a few pages before going on to describe her new beau’s silver Porsche Boxster.
And so yet again, we leave the girl writer where we found her, in the pages of her endless testimony, burbling it all up, the stream of experience unmediated by any meaning beyond itself. If Saint Augustine was the father of the autobiography as a form of confession, Maynard is one of the mothers of the “My Gynecologist Found a Ball of Cat Hair in My Vagina” genre. “When I got two cats, I knew their fur was going to get everywhere,” that essay begins, its writer surely aware that never since the beginning of time has there been anybody just like her.