This Essay Does Hot Yoga

November 27, 2012 § Leave a comment


Bernarr Macfadden (1868-1955)

The fine folks at Ninth Letter have been having some fun with Robin Hemley’s essay “Study Questions for the Essay at Hand: A Speculative Essay” and with a contest asking essayists to respond in kind.  And so they did.

Here’s judge Patrick Madden’s take on the two winners, with links:

So I chose two. One hews closely to Hemley’s questions, even satisfying our curiosity about Bernarr MacFadden, and the other comes at the prompts indirectly, surprising with asymptotic relationships, sometimes making us wonder, or search for, the thread tying the derivative work to the original. But maybe that’s the shining characteristic that convinced me that these essays were the winners: that they do not seem derivative at all. They seem strong enough to stand on their own, to be read even without “Study Questions for the Essay at Hand.” Is this a betrayal of the whole purpose of the contest? Perhaps, but I hope not. If so, then the winners have succeeded at that age-old essay characteristic: subversion.

What’s certain is that I was enchanted by them both, the one for its centrifugal force out of narrative and the other for its erudition in answering the fundamental meta-questions arrived at through Hemley’s particulars. “A Response to Hemley in Eighteen Parts” seems, from the get-go, to have its own agenda, but one can sense the sideways conversation it makes with the questions, at times approaching quite closely, at other times keeping its distance. In all, it’s a confession of callousness in the face of a grandmother’s death, but even that explanation oversimplifies the emotional trajectory of the piece.“Nineteen Ways of Looking at an Essay,” though, has no central narrative of its own. Instead, it spins away from Hemley by taking on Xavier de Maistre and Jorge Luis Borges, playing its own linguistic and organizational games, one-upping the original by an additional question followed by a prompt for new writing. The energetic reader is thus invited to continue the experiment yet further, to respond to the response. I hope someone takes that challenge.

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