Caveat Scriptor: On the Essay and its Reader
May 15, 2014 § 1 Comment
Eric LeMay’s inventive, playful new book, In Praise of Nothing, offers both conventional (as in, words and sentences) essays and playable essays. Here, Eric discusses what his experiments mean to him, and how they link all the way back to Montaigne:
Writers, beware! No matter how carefully we craft our work, no matter how dutifully we prepare it for publication, our reader remains a wild and wily creature, lurking in the margin like a ghostly snow leopard. Take John Stuart Mill. In his copy of Emerson’s Essays, he jotted his thoughts about our great American essayist: “fudge,” “nonsense,” “oh,” “pooh,” “sentimental,” “superficial,” “trash,” “stupid,” and “very stupid.”And here’s Twain, updating the title page of his translation of Plutarch’s Lives:
My favorite strikes from the margin aren’t those scribbled in printed books, but those drawn in medieval manuscripts. I love the odd creatures and bizarre scenes that show up in the margins of breviaries and The Book of Hours. With these images, the anonymous scribe shows not only that he’s there, reading along with us, but also that he’s got a point of view. I’m not entirely sure what the scribe thought of this 14th-century copy of Romance of the Rose, but his harvest scene seems to me as rich a response to a work as a writer might—or might not—want.
These sorts of readerly responses, whether snarky or snaky, whimsical or wise, are one reason I also love the essay. From its start, the essay has been a genre that imagines a spirited, even truculent reader. We see this in Montaigne’s Essais. He ends his introductory remarks “To the Reader” on a surprisingly defensive note:
So, reader, I am the subject of my book: there’s no reason you should use your leisure about so frivolous and vain a topic. Therefore, farewell.
However facetious Montaigne might be when he says goodbye to his readers at the start of his book, his farewell does acknowledge that readers have selves and lives of their own. An essayist who has nothing to offer readers but his self-portrait might well expect one of them to write “frivolous” or “vain” in his margins.
Not all early essayists felt as defensive as Montaigne. His followers shared his view that the essay served a moral purpose, helping them learn how to live and die well, but they very much wanted their readers to join them in essaying the topic at hand. “Read all,” encourages Owen Felltham in his Resolves of 1628, “and use thy mind’s liberty.” As for the margins of his book, Felltham says, “I always wish to leave [them] free, for the comments of the man that reads.” The margins are where readers should follow Felltham’s example and do their own moral improvement.
I’m not sure drawing nuns harvesting a tree full of penises counts as moral improvement, but I want to stress how the essay makes this inclusive gesture. An essay, by its very nature, isn’t finished by an essayist; it’s finished by a reader. As Scott Black puts it in his excellent study of the early English essay, “The burden of the essay falls on the reader, not the writer.” The essay doesn’t end on the page. It finds its “final shape in the reader’s response.” To say it another way, these early essays ask us, as readers, to essay ourselves, in every senses of the phrase. When we fill up our margins, when we write from, into, and back at these essays, we’re doing exactly what the essay was designed to do.
As an essayist, I’m excited by this potential in the essay’s genetics. I think it’s different from that familiar idea that we find on library billboards about how readers bring books to life. That’s true, but that’s not quite the same thing as a genre that presupposes that its reader is its co-creator. Imagine a novel or poem printed on a page with small blank lines filling the margin and, above them, the heading “What’s Also Happening?” or “Complete the Poem.” When poets tout the evocative power of white space, I’m pretty sure this isn’t what they have in mind.
And yet essays can thrive on this degree of involvement by readers. At least that’s my hypothesis. I’m speculating that, 400 years after Montaigne and his followers invented the genre, the essay is once again ripe for its interactive reader. I base this hunch in part on what my anachronistic term suggests: today’s digital technologies allow us to build a reader’s interaction directly into an essay. We can ask readers to read, yes, but we can also ask them to add content, make decisions, and collaborate on our work in who knows how many ways.
It’s the “who knows” that excites me. In a piece for Creative Nonfiction called “Binary Truths,” I’ve pointed to some innovative examples of digital work. Not all of them are essays, but they all re-imagine the role of readers. And I’ve tried to explore a few of these possibilities myself, in interactive essays on Montaigne and Bacon and in a new book that includes “playable” essays. This work doesn’t always succeed, but I’d like to think it points toward a new, which is to say old, vision of the essay: a reader doesn’t find or discover meaning in an essay, so much as make it.