Because I Like It: Thoughts on Genre and D’Agata’s The Lost Origins of the Essay
February 23, 2016 § 6 Comments
By Scott Russell Morris
This semester in my introductory creative writing class, I am trying something new. I am not dividing the class units into genres, but instead, looking at “The Basics of Good Writing in Any Form” (as Miller and Paola’s excellent chapter in Tell It Slant says it.) Each class period, we’ll read about qualities of good writing, and then the students will choose structures and forms based on what best meets their projects’ needs. Though we’re only two weeks into the semester as I write this, I hope that a more fluid discussion structure will help students see the possibilities in their writing rather than the rules of certain genres.
I chose this format because my own feelings on genre’s boundaries have been slowly eroding, even quicker these last few weeks. The difference between a poem and an essay? I can’t really tell you anymore. My distrust of genre lines began a long time ago: starting, perhaps as an undergraduate, when Eduardo Galeano said during a reading that he didn’t believe in borders—national, literary, between life and death. Then, a few years later, my nonfiction class (led by Pat Madden) interviewed Dinty W. Moore. Amy Roper asked Moore what the difference between prose and poetry was, to which he said “To me there is no line. Well, except the line, obviously. When you break it at the lines it becomes poetry.” —Dinty, a confession: my one contribution to Brevity, “If We Had Been Allowed the Take Pictures” I wrote in lines before paragraphing it for submission.— Still, lines seem like a reasonable distinction, one most of us will agree on, even if we’re aware of outliers like Pope’s Essay on Man and Carson’s “The Glass Essay” (found online at the Poetry Foundation, I might add).
Until I discovered prose poetry, I was pretty content with the “lines” answer. But when I reviewed the interview transcript recently, I saw that Moore’s answer, obviously, wasn’t so simple, that I’d forgotten the rest of his answer. He says that, in regards to short essays and prose poems, the only difference is that we “really hope a very short essay is sticking with the facts, whereas a prose poem doesn’t have to. Other than that it reads exactly the same, the level of language should be exactly the same.”
Jump to two weeks ago, when with these thoughts in mind, I read John D’Agata’s The Lost Origins of the Essay, where D’Agata’s introduction and editor’s notes are an essay on the essay, with the sample pieces anthologized there almost working more like extended quotes inside D’Agata’s essay rather than separate works themselves.
Most interesting to me in D’Agata’s introduction was where he draws the lines between nonfiction and essay: Nonfiction is “information, literal, nothing about it mattering beyond the place it held for facts” (2), but the essay, is art. All art? Possibly, the claim seems hinted at if not directly said. He complicates his definition of essay throughout, giving some excellent, if not pinned down, definitions: “When we’re essaying we are in dialogue with the world” (9). “Essay…describes an activity, a fundamental human behavior” (467). Opposing Moore’s statement above, D’Agata says “We’re going to have to divorce our understanding of essaying from our understanding of the thing we’ll start to call ‘nonfiction’” (452).
If nonfiction can’t be our sure definition of essay, than what?
This is where I felt that D’Agata’s comments offer the biggest insight. In his introduction to William Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” he says:
Why is a text like William Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” a poem? Is it because it’s good? Is it because approximately 14 percent of it is in line, and therefore, by the rule of poetic association, all of it is in lines? Is it because it’s more flamboyantly engaged with the imagination than most eighteenth-century English prose, and therefore it cannot be prose? Let me ask another way: Why do I want to think that Blake’s ‘Marriage’ is an essay? Is it because it’s good? (265)
So, what I think D’Agata is asking all of us, really, is “Are our genre lines only determined by what we like?”
“The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” seems to argue exactly that point, not just by D’Agata’s inclusion of an imaginative poem as an essay, but in the vary content. At one point, the narrator is speaking to an angel:
Then I asked: “does a firm perswasion that a thing is so, make it so?”
He replied: “All poets believe that it does” (276)
So, while I kept writing in the margins of Lost Origins things like “This isn’t an essay,” or “Essay? Maybe…” D’Agata’s question made me hesitate in my tracks. Perhaps I didn’t agree with him on a lot of his selections, but maybe that was just because we didn’t like the same things? I was suddenly reminded of the many, many comments I’ve gotten from professors in my graduate work where—sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly—I argued that essays were the best art because they foregrounded a mind working. D’Agata makes the opposite claim: anything that shows the mind at work is an essay. Poets might say anything that highlights language is poetry. Perhaps anything with narrative or character is a story to a novelist.
I guess the question I keep coming back to is, What do we get for calling something a poem/essay/story? Perhaps we get what we’re expecting to get. Surely, there are good things coming from formal traditions, but when we look at the real world of literature out there, the lines exist perhaps only in writing classrooms. So maybe labels are just the editor’s or writer’s way of saying, Read it like this:
Scott Russell Morris has an MFA in Creative Writing from Brigham Young University and is currently an English PhD student at Texas Tech University, where he teaches nonfiction literature and creative writing. He is currently living in Cuenca, Ecuador and is working on a memoir in essays of food, family, and travel.