Is the Essay Dead? Patrick Madden Responds

December 7, 2007 § 4 Comments

Patrick Madden, one of our favorite essayists and keeper of the exquisite Quotidiana, responds to our response to Nehring’s thoughts on what is wrong with the essay. [We welcome more responses].

I sympathize with Nehring’s lament, but I, like you, think she’s overstating a lot, which, in my opinion, is an unessayistic move. I don’t think that Montaigne was making grand proclamations; his way was very leisurely and reflexive, and subversive. He did make his way to truths, yes, so maybe that’s the more important point. Emerson, on the other hand, was a Baconian essayist, a guy with Wisdom to impart. He wrote well, had lots of great aphorisms, but he’s not the example I send my students to. My greater problem with what we call “essay” in a lot of contemporary journals jibes with Nehring’s line: “In our own day the essay is an apologetic imitation of the short story.” Writers have been doing autobiographical stories forever. But they’re stories. Essays ought to think more, to essay.

As for the Best American Essays 2007, my problem with it is much the opposite of what Nehring seems to be preaching. I find that too many of the pieces in it are overtly and uninterestingly political. They grab at current issues, state opinions, build arguments with evidence. David Foster Wallace calls them “service essays,” but I call them just articles or opinion pieces. They’re well-written, intelligent, right, etc., but they’re not essaying because their authors set out not to explore and discover but to make a predetermined point. Heck, I largely agree with their points (war is bad, torture is bad, George W. Bush is a knucklehead), but I don’t think we should be calling them essays.

Meanwhile, I think there are plenty of great essays being written, but they’re not widely read, and that IS too bad.

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§ 4 Responses to Is the Essay Dead? Patrick Madden Responds

  • Lara Burton says:

    Cristina Nehring wrote:

    Today’s essayists need to be emboldened,
    and to embolden one another, to move away from timid autobiographical anecdote and to embrace—as their predecessors did—-big theories, useful verities, daring pronouncements.

    With the explosion of blogs, where any yahoo [including the author of this post] with a computer and an ISP can post his or her opinion (filling cyberspace with terabytes ad nauseam), you would think that there would be an explosion of essays. Sadly, it hasn’t happened. Sure, people are posting “big theories, useful verities, daring pronouncements,” but as far as I know, no great essays come out of them.

    This is where I agree with Patrick Madden and take issue with Nehring, because this is not what essays are about.

    In addition to his famous Que sçais-je?, “What do I know?”, Montaigne had this phrase carved on the rafters of his study: “I do not understand; I pause; I examine.”

    On the other end of the spectrum from Nehring’s “apologetic imitation[s] of the short story” is one of the pitfalls of the essay (and here is where I agree with Patrick Madden): essays that begin with a conclusion and then spend the rest of their energy supporting their conclusion (a quick perusal of the 2007 BAE would suggest that the favorite was “George Bush is an incompetent nincompoop”). While there is value to polemics and dissent (especially when our current political climate encourages incompetent nincompoops), essays are vehicles for examination and questioning, not fist-pounding and soapboxing. The so called “service essay” does not pause or examine. (While Nehring claims that the 2007 Best American Essay is “slightly less bad” than earlier issues, I take strong issue with her. My view is that the 2007 Best American Essays was perhaps the “most bad”—that is, least essayistic—of all issues in the anthology because of its glut of opinion pieces and lack of reflection.)

    Edward Hoagland wrote that “an essayist is after the gist of life.” I agree. If an essayist can find truth in trout fishing, naps, New Year’s eves, sleep, riding accidents, monstrous children, or cannibals, let an essay be written.

  • As a novice writer (one published essay) just beginning to embrace creative nonfiction as the genre of choice for getting my own truth out, I find myself agreeing with Madden’s point that opinion pieces often lack the reflective beauty and inspiration of an essay.

    And maybe Nehrig and I are reading different writers, because the autobiographical antedotes I’ve been gobbling up are anything BUT “timid.” Like the essays that make up Anne Lamott’s “Grace Eventually,” and Haven Kimmel’s “She Got Up Off the Couch.” Beautifully crafted reflections on everyday and not-so-everyday experiences. They have both found what Thomas Howard called “splendor in the ordinary,” and have written with humor and hope, even about the dark side.

    The essay will never be dead as long as there are thoughtful writers who realize the gift they have to offer fellow sojourners through life–the gift of humility, fueled by courage and love of truth.

  • Janci says:

    I wonder about Lara’s comment, that blogging has not created an explosion of essays. I think, on that point, it’s important to note the difference between an “essay” and a “great essay.” I know several people who write essays and post them on their blog, and, surprisingly, many of them are traditional essays, where the author seeks to answer a question through experiment of thought.

    They are, of course, predominately badly written and badly thought out. They are essays, but they are not good essays. This is the inevitability, I think. People have probably always been writing bad essays, but until now there was no accessible means for them to publish those essays for all the world to see. I think this is why people still buy books and subscribe to journals, even though there is so much to read on the internet. Someone has to sort through all the badly done work to pull out what’s worth reading. I know I don’t have time to do it myself.

    On Maddens point about BAE, I agree. I enjoyed reading the 2007 issue, but I found little in it that mirrored what I’ve seen of the essay. The articles were interesting and well-written, but they weren’t essays, as the authors weren’t working through their thoughts, but were instead seeking to persuade others of points they’d already arrived at. There’s value in that, but to call it an essay is to use a different definition of the word “essay” than traditional essayists like Montaigne.

  • “As for the Best American Essays 2007, my problem with it is much the opposite of what Nehring seems to be preaching. I find that too many of the pieces in it are overtly and uninterestingly political.”

    This was exactly my reaction, the key words being “overtly” and “uninterestingly.” Look at the great political essays of Orwell and yes, even seemingly mild old E.B. White. If there is a better political essay than “The Ring of Time,” march me to it. I will reread BAE 2007 soon (I’ve read all the BAEs, incidentally, most in the past two years; 1987 is sitting on my desk right now) so this statement may change, but I don’t remember a single political piece from BAE 2007 that was truly an essay. Though at least Wallace warned us: “several of this year’s Best Essays are arguably more like causeries or propos than like essays per se…” The only error there being the word “several” instead of “far too many.”

    Also missing from Nehring’s argument is a clear explanation for why essays molder in library basements. One big reason having nothing to do with the quality of essays is that library classification schemes toss creative nonfiction into a vast bucket with how-to manuals, math books, and the rest of anything-that-is-not-fiction. Sometimes biography is given a reprieve and filed under “B,” instead of its Dewey number, but the rest is only findable if you are a library nerd given to browsing the 800s (or 600s, 300s, 900s, and 200s… since in many libraries there’s no logical co-location of most creative nonfiction, and a book of essays about baseball will be found next to tips about pitching). It’s all part of the general indignity accorded this genre.

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