Stalking the Essay: A Conference Report
April 12, 2013 § 4 Comments
A guest post from Virginia Lloyd recapping last weekend’s Stalking the Essay Conference:
Phillip Lopate, who convened the inaugural “Stalking the Essay” conference on Saturday 6th April in his capacity as the director of Columbia University’s graduate nonfiction program, described his quarry as an “enigmatic beast,” both “ubiquitous and elusive.”
For any serious reader of essays the line-up of this conference was a dream. Gathered under the ornate roof of the Italian Academy on Amsterdam Avenue were the likes of Vivian Gornick, Michael Greenberg, Margo Jefferson, Patricia Hampl, Daniel Mendelsohn, Katha Pollitt, David Shields, Ned Stuckey-French and Colm Toibin. Even more miraculously, it was free.
After typing and scribbling from 10.00 am to 5.30 pm I drew these twin themes from the day’s discussions.
The necessity of doubt
Montaigne said, “If my mind could gain a firm footing I would not write essays, I would make decisions.” Thankfully for us he was the indecisive sort. His idea of the essay as the proper form for the doubting mind echoed through every panel session.
Phillip Lopate called the structure and strategies of the essay “mysterious,” remaining “receptive to doubt and self-doubt.” English professor Branca Arsić described Emerson’s essaying as “the writing of selfless undecidedness.” During the discussion “The Column as Essay,” law professor and columnist for The Nation, Patricia J Williams characterized her family tradition as being split between W. B. Dubois on one side and Emerson on the other. She contended that this twin intellectual path led her to think of the essay as “a way of giving voice to the experience of double vision.” Margo Jefferson, during the session “Criticism and the Essay,” invoked Marianne Moore’s idea of “accessibility to experience” to suggest the validity of “the kind of authority you can get at through ambivalence, uncertainty, a kind of vulnerability.”
Vivian Gornick, the author of eight books including the memoir-writing classic The Situation and the Story, spoke of having to learn to trust her own feelings in order to establish a reliable point of view, which she maintains is the key to writing essays. “I found that the point of view so necessary to a work should be breathing through the subject,” she said. How did she accomplish this? “I set myself the task of trying to understand how I felt in relation to the subject at hand, in order to bring some depth and authority to what I had to trust were legitimate feelings. I had to see what I was feeling in relation to the world.”
The essay as a self-dramatizing form
Colm Toibin described his initial reluctance to review the books about homosexuality that The London Review of Books began sending him. Once he began writing the reviews, he was surprised to discover that it gave him a way of “writing about himself without writing about himself.”
Daniel Mendelsohn observed that most of the conference panelists felt the need to begin autobiographically when talking about criticism, tracing the paths by which each found his or her footing in the essay form. He felt this reflected a kind of anxiety around the contemporary essayist’s authority. He traced this to technology, which has passed criticism into the hands of readers, and to pervasive commercialism, in which judgments about works of art have become reductive – yes or no, thumbs up or down.
“The essay is important because it is long,” Mendelsohn said. “I am in favor of length because it is a way of combating the reductiveness of so many forms of judgment circulating in culture. But also discursiveness is good. The critical essay ends with a judgment, but the drama of the form is how you arrive at your judgment, the argument of it. The form fights against its own conclusiveness. The expansiveness of the essay allows you to be both abstract and judgmental, but it is deeply subjective because it’s your judgment. The way that you arrive at your judgment, the way by which you form your conclusions – that is how you become yourself on the page. What is interesting is what I can do only in a long essay, which is to understand why I think the way that I do about the thing I am writing about.”
The essay, which enacts the drama of the divided self in its very form, seems particularly well suited to our age of anxiety, in which none of us claims or wishes to claim total confidence or authority in the subjects we write about. Phillip Lopate confessed during the conference that it was his dream to establish a Center for the Essay at Columbia. If the popularity of “Stalking the Essay” is anything to go by, he may well get his wish.
Virginia Lloyd is an author, essayist and literary agent with a blog at www.virginialloyd.com.