AWP 2012 — Dear John, I’m Afraid it is Over …
March 8, 2012 § 50 Comments
I’m afraid it’s over between us.
You know how important you’ve been to me. I’ve adopted The Next American Essay for classes. I reviewed The Lost Origins of the Essay and sang its praises. Carl Klaus and I have included your 2003 headnote about lyric essays, the one that introduced Jenny Boully to the world, in our new anthology, Essayists on the Essay: Montaigne to Our Time. I admire you, John, but admiration isn’t enough, and now you’ve even undercut some of that admiration. It’s over, John.
But, nevertheless, we should talk. I owe it to you to tell you what I really think.
What I think, John, is that you’ve fallen between two stools. You have, but the essay hasn’t. Let me explain. When Karen Rosica called you a “journalist poet,” indeed a “passionate journalist poet,” you should have just gone with it. You should have thank her and moved on. I know the word “journalist” bugs you. Don’t let it. That’s the way it is with our genre – by which I mean, the essay, not the lyric essay, but of that, more in a minute. The essay has always been about facts and literature, about memory and imagination, about journalism and literature, about plain old truth (aka accuracy) and Truth with a capital T. But when she said “journalist poet,” you apparently got your dander up. The adjective and the noun seem like they’re in contradiction. So what? Contradict yourself, be large, contain multitudes.
Instead, you’ve turned it into a false either/or, John – Fish Wrap journalism versus Pure Poetry. It doesn’t have to be that way. And I think you know it. That’s why you went looking for an adjective yourself. How about ‘lyric essay’?” you said. And you were right and I like that about you, John. I really do. You and Deborah were out ahead of us all, giving a name to those beautiful essays that weren’t afraid to be beautiful, essays we were already reading and teaching – “Living Like Weasels,” “The White Album,” “Delft” – but not yet calling lyric. And then you went further/ You went looking for new ones and found them – “The Body” and “Ticket to the Fair.” Thank you for that. You gave those essays a name, you collected them in one place, you re-imagined anthologies, making them almost essays themselves by writing your headnotes as one long narrative essay (yeah, a little self-satisfied sometimes and show-offy, but hey, that’s you, John, and that’s okay – the book worked, it really did).
You kept going and I was still with you when The Lost Origins of the Essay came out. Sometimes, it did feel like you were pushing too far, but hey, that’s what you do and we’ve all got to do. I understand. You’re shaking things up. And even then, some of it made perfect sense, right from the start. When you put it in this new context, “On Some Verses of Virgil” was immediately transformed into a lyric essay for me. Of course, I thought – it’s not about Virgil and hexameters, it never was – it’s about sex and lyrical digressions. I even liked, as a kind of thought experiment, the idea of reading “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” and “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” as a lyric essays, though I finally decided that the one is a prose poem and the other is a short story.
I have to say, John, you’re an 8-hour day. You’re learned and heavy. You really are. It’s a lot of what drew me to you originally – all that learning, all that classical learning. I mean you translated your own Latin and Greek in The Lost Origins of the Essay. The trip back to Mesopotamia and Heraclitus, the willingness to range across Europe and Asia in search of lyric essays was …well…a trip. Mind-boggling really. Thank you. The book Carl Klaus and I edited is the better for it. You got us searching outside the Anglo-American tradition, and that improved our book, for we found new essays about the essay – lots of them – by Latin Americans, French Canadians, Germans, even an Australian. I don’t think we’d have done that if you hadn’t gone there first.
I understand why you went in search of an adjective to put in front of “essay.” People have looked for adjectives for centuries. Before we had lyric essays, we had periodical essays, formal essays, informal essays, review essays, romantic essays, and, of course, personal essays. And, with your classical background, I know that you know that what that word “lyric” can bring is its classical Greek connotations – a solitary song, not a chorus, sung by a single musing singer to the accompaniment of a lyre (pronounced liar).
Well, we’ve ditched the lyre, but I know what you’re going for with the term – the poetic, the densely figurative, the brief exploration of a mood or idea, and yes, a little looser connection to facts. It’s reaction maybe to that ugly, ugly term “creative nonfiction.” Or as Scott Sanders so nicely put it, creative nonfiction is “an exceedingly vague term, taking in everything from telephone books to Walden, and it’s negative, implying that fiction is the norm against which everything else must be measured. It’s as though, instead of calling an apple a fruit, we called it a non-meat.”
So yeah, I understand, John. “Nonfiction” as a term sucks and you’ve got to dress it up with an adjective, but “creative” isn’t much help. Creative as opposed to what? Destructive? And if “essay” as a term is pulled toward nonfiction and journalism, I can understand wanting to dress up “essay” with an adjective. But, you’ve got to be careful, John. In your hurry to get away from journalism and to get some of the cachet of poetry, you can go too far.
I like lyric essays but I don’t think there is such a thing as pure poetry, at least not on this earth. Which is not to say pure poetry is not a worthy goal. It’s a fine, but tricky, goal. Seeking after pure poetry can lead one to beautiful flights of language and high lyricism, indeed some of the best essays we have, but it can also lead to disengagement, solipsism and art-for-art’s-sake. I think investigative reporting, the slick paper of commercialism, the hurry-up of deadlines, and the political engagement of journalism can be good things for an essay, even a lyric essay.
Look at your own anthologies, John. Take John McPhee’s “The Search for Marvin Gardens,” which is the first essay in The Next American Essay. I’m glad it’s there in your anthology, but as Lynn Bloom has pointed out, “All anthologies…deracinate their material—old or new—from its original context and replant it in the anthologist’s soil.” McPhee’s essay appeared originally in the September 9, 1972 issue of The New Yorker (though you messed up, John, and said 1975 – probably could have used a good copy editor or fact-checker). I love McPhee’s essay – its braided narratives, its history of the Gilded Age, its ongoing Monopoly game, and its walking tour of Atlantic City in 1972 when racial strife, economic decay, and rampant drug use have made it a bombed out shell of its former self. But, the essay is also a comment on The New Yorker, the magazine that is its and McPhee’s home. The essay’s irony, indeed its lyricism, rings with a new sound when you read it next to the ads for Sony, Estée Lauder, Lord & Taylor, and L. L. Bean that surrounded it when it was in The New Yorker.
Or look at another one of your selections, another one of your lyric essays: Joan Didion’s “The White Album,” her famous disjunctive and helter-skelter good-bye to Sixties. Three sections of this essay appeared originally as installments of her “Points West” column in The Saturday Evening Post. The Saturday Evening Post, John! The Saturday Evening Fucking Post! Norman Rockwell’s magazine. Didion discussed the context of these pieces in Paris Review interview, in which she recalled how she and her husband John Gregory Dunne moved to California in June of 1964. “I started doing pieces for The Saturday Evening Post,” she said. “We needed the money because neither one of us was working.” The Post, she explained, was “on the verge of folding” and so “would let you do whatever you wanted.” What had once been the magazine of Norman Rockwell, now was trying unsuccessfully to rebrand itself as some weird combination of Esquire and Cosmopolitan. The section of “The White Album” on Huey Newton and the Black Panthers appeared in an issue the cover of which promised to explain “How Barney Rosset Publishes ‘Dirty Books’ for Fun & Profit.” The section about Jim Morrison and The Doors was illustrated with a photograph of Lizard King without a shirt and had a cover that featured a teaser in which Vanessa Redgrave announced, “I’ve Always Known I Was Sexy.”
Even lyric essays, even your lyric essays, were published first in general magazines, middlebrow magazines, political magazines, women’s magazines, and even, heaven forbid, commercial or mass-market magazines. Writing to make a point or a buck certainly has its dangers, but it does not necessarily preclude one from writing lyrically or creating something of lasting literary merit.
John, you’ve ignored where at least some of your lyric essays came from and you’ve begun to draw too sharp a distinction between journalism and the lyric essay. And, as a consequence, you’ve ended up arguing too strenuously against facts and prose and journalism and mass culture and commerce. On the first page of The Next American Essay, you announced, “I want you preoccupied with art in this book, not with facts for the sake of facts.” And in the opening of The Lost Origins of the Essay, you wrote, “I am here in search of art. I am here to track the origins of an alternative to commerce.”
Well, all and good, John, but you’ve gotten carried away, and I’m starting to distrust your motives. Don’t write essays just so you can be a poet, John. Don’t write essays just so you can wear a beret. Maybe it’s time for you to come home to America, maybe it’s time for you to stop being quite so high faltutin’. I worry that you’ve gone so Continental, so post-modern, so highbrow, so, dare I say, lyrical because you’re running away from journalism.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not running to journalism and mass culture exactly, just not away from it. And neither am I arguing that Hollywood, television, slick magazines, and the lure of big book deals have not been treacherous in their own ways. Nor am I arguing that little magazines and alternative presses do not play a role, an important role, in the struggle against monopoly capitalism and for art. What I am arguing is that this is the way it is. We live in a world in which commerce touches everything and art is never pure. All of these things – slick magazines and little magazines, blogs and books, high culture and mass culture – make up the terrain in which art is made and read. I am arguing that we must proceed on all fronts and that there is also a role to be played by those who publish in mainstream magazines and get paid in cash rather than copies.
There’s an American essayist on the essay I think you should read – Berton Braley. He’s a funny guy who wrote a piece, called “On Being an Essayist” for The Bookman back in 1920. In it he said that the “elect” had become too protective of the essay, and literature more generally. The essay, he said, was possessed of a “Little Lord Fauntleroy complex.” It was too intent on being literary and had become “a precious, precious thing.” The essay needed, said Braley, to romp around again and get “all mussed up with the butcher’s boy and the rest of the crowd in Dugan’s back lot,” it needed “to play with the rough common boys of Popularity and Commercialism.”
I know you’d like to do that too, John, and that a respect for, or at least attraction to, journalism is some of why you wrote About a Mountain and let Norton bill it as “an investigation of Yucca Mountain and human destruction in Las Vegas,” a “[b]earing witness to the parade of scientific, cultural, and political facts that give shape to Yucca’s story.” “Facts,” John? “Facts”? I’m for facts. You’re not for facts. I understand there’s a gray area. I understand memory must be supplemented by imagination. I understand we need, sometimes, to compress time and accelerate a narrative. I understand that the stage can get too crowded and we might need to delete a character or fold some others into a composite character. I’m not a dodo, and I love the idea at least of writing a book about the gamble that is Yucca Mountain and the pit of poison that is Las Vegas, about your mother’s life and Levi Presley’s death, but geesh, changing the timing of that poor dead boy’s death. Necessary? I don’t think so.
John, I don’t think I’ve changed. I think you’ve changed. I still love lyric essays. But I don’t love you anymore. I do hope we can still be friends.
Ned Stuckey-French teaches at Florida State University and is book review editor of Fourth Genre. He is the author of The American Essay in the American Century, coauthor (with Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey-French) of Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, and co-editor (with Carl Klaus) of the just-released Essayists on the Essay. The two previous sentences are true, but he does not always tell the truth.