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.