It seems that, even in the proliferation of new forms of writing and communication before us, the essay has become a talisman of our times. What is behind our attraction to it? Is it the essay’s therapeutic properties? Because it brings miniature joys to its writer and its reader? Because it is small enough to fit in our pocket, portable like our own experiences?
I believe that the essay owes its longevity today mainly to this fact: the genre and its spirit provide an alternative to the dogmatic thinking that dominates much of social and political life in contemporary America. In fact, I would advocate a conscious and more reflective deployment of the essay’s spirit in all aspects of life as a resistance against the zealous closed-endedness of the rigid mind. I’ll call this deployment “the essayification of everything.”
I am an essayist, for better or worse. I don’t suppose many young people dream of becoming essayists. Even as nerdy and bookish a child as I was fantasized about entering the lists of fiction and poetry, those more glamorous, noble genres on which Nobels, Pulitzers and National Book Awards are annually bestowed. So if Freud was right in saying that we can be truly happy only when our childhood ambitions are fulfilled, then I must be content to be merely content.
I like the freedom that comes with lowered expectations. In the area of literary nonfiction, memoirs attract much more attention than essay collections, which are published in a modest, quasi-invisible manner, in keeping with anticipated lower sales. But despite periodic warnings of the essay’s demise, the stuff does continue to be published; if anything, the essay has experienced a slight resurgence of late. I wonder if that may be because it is attuned to the current mood, speaks to the present moment. At bottom, we are deeply unsure and divided, and the essay feasts on doubt.
Many of the old practices and standards, and safeguards, of the publishing business have gone by the wayside over these past decades, at the same as the newspaper business has shrunk, and newspapers and publishing houses have gutted their staffs of editors, proofreaders, fact checkers. Reviewing books is an important part of a writer’s community, and grows more important as you grow in prominence.
The course blog for the “literary citizenship” course being taught by Cathy Day at Ball State University has posted some great resources for writers recently (this one on literary generosity in particular is something anyone aiming toward publication should read). The post excerpted above, a conversation between Day and experienced book reviewer David Walton, could be a good resource for those of you teaching the review as one of your genres in WR121, to help students understand why reviews and reviewing matter.
In a related — if more comic (or perhaps tragic?) — vein, you might also share with them Lincoln Michel’s “book report on Moby-Dick constructed from random sentences in negative Amazon and Goodreads reviews”, as an example of playing with genre.
Ever since the term “creative nonfiction” first came into widespread use, memoirists and journalists, essayists and fiction writers have faced off over where the border between fact and fiction lies. This debate over ethics, however, has sidelined important questions of literary form. Bending Genre does not ask where the boundaries between genres should be drawn, but what happens when you push the line. Written for writers and students of creative writing, this collection brings together perspectives from today’s leading writers of creative nonfiction, including Michael Martone, Brenda Miller, Ander Monson, and David Shields. Each writer’s innovative essay probes our notions of genre and investigates how creative nonfiction is shaped, modeling the forms of writing being discussed. Like creative nonfiction itself, Bending Genre is an exciting hybrid that breaks new ground.
This new anthology from Bloomsbury might be of interest to a number of us as teachers and writers alike.
Looking at this sort of note — scribbled, ephemeral, beside the point if not for the note-maker’s identity — Price suggested, might give us some insight into the way democracies “wrestle with the role writing plays in a putatively oral process.” Indeed, the history of note-taking has involved the jotting down of things people say more often than it has involved textual commentary, such as is found in the Talmud.
@ The Atlantic
That’s FYWP’s own Sebastian Stockman writing about marginalia for The Atlantic. And my own note in the margins of his text is a cryptic Charles.