Is the Essay Dead? The Free Range Librarian Responds

December 16, 2007 § 4 Comments

K.G. Schneider, one of our favorite librarians and Free Range bloggers, continues the discussion of Christina Nehring’s bleak assessment of the essay:

Quoting Patrick Madden (see below): “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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§ 4 Responses to Is the Essay Dead? The Free Range Librarian Responds

  • […] am enormously flattered to have my thoughts on the state of the essay featured as a blog post in an interesting ongoing discussion on Brevity’s blog. These thoughts started as a comment […]

  • Meghan says:

    Thank you for mentioning the library (and I’ll add bookstore) classifications! This is my biggest frustration when searching for good essayists or creative nonfiction writers. I have found annie dillard, for example, in the following sections: memoir, science, nonfiction (next to business books), biography, “writing and grammer,” fiction. I think if libraries and bookstores were to create a section for creative nonfiction that essayists could fall under, the readership of this genre would be able to find new writers and would grow.

  • It’s good to hear K. G.’s echo. Regarding this not-so-subtle difference between articles and essays: I was just perusing a 1999 interview with Scott Russell Sanders in Fourth Genre 1.1. Sanders talks about strategies for getting his students essaying: “I get them thinking about puzzles, questions, confusions. What excites and bewilders them? Too often students think of an essay as a vehicle for delivering chunks of information or prefabricated ideas. I want them to see the essay as a way of discovery. I push them to take risks on the page, to venture out from familiar territory into the blank places on their maps.”

    For a longer, more sustained, theoretical treatment of the difference, I recommend Theodor Adorno’s “Essay as Form” from Notes to Literature.

    (In other news, our school bookstore here at BYU has an “Essays” section, which I’m quite happy about. Though it’s a bit small.)

  • brevity says:

    Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City has an essay section as well, but that’s Iowa City, and, of course, an exception.

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