December 7, 2012 § Leave a comment
For anyone who has had trouble loving Montaigne’s essays as much as modern essayists are supposed to love them — because come on, he does get pedantic at times — here is a fine appreciation — with important distinctions — from the sharp pen of Sonya Huber over at ‘Her Kind,’ the VIDA Blog. We think she has nailed it. Montaigne himself has yet to weigh in.
Here’s an excerpt:
As I made it past the 1300-page mark, I was glad to get to this sentence: “I am not excessively fond either of salads or fruits, except melons. My father hated all sorts of sauces; I love them all.”I sighed with relief when Montaigne stopped quoting Seneca and turned toward his real body, even when he dished about the details of his agony with kidney stones. Give me melons, give me sauces—just give me something specific, something with taste and smell and heft.
I had already been told that Montaigne taught himself to write as he wrote, developing his skill over time; nobody explicitly told me to avoid two-thirds of his work, but I should have. I didn’t hear, however, that Montaigne’s decaying body was also his writing teacher. As he ages and becomes ill, he becomes vulnerable and specific. Melons and kidney stones give me something personal, something that reminds me of Montaigne as a corporeal being. Montaigne’s kidney stones bring him back to himself and make him strangely most alive.
July 6, 2010 § Leave a comment
“All faults may be forgiven of him who has perfect candor,” wrote Walt Whitman. I wonder if he’s right. I’m thinking of the public disclosures of autobiographical essayists. Readers prize the light shone into corners the writer might have preferred be kept dark. We quickly sense the inauthentic, fearing, when a writer indulges, the quick tip from earnestness into solipsism. We want the essaying to be truth-seeking in the old Saxon sense of truth as faithful — in this case faithful not only to the author’s biography but to the artistic imperative to render and interrogate one’s life meaningfully and memorably.
What interests me in Whitman’s claim is the danger of self-indulgence. “There is, of course, such as thing as a rhetoric of sincerity,” Phillip Lopate insists, “and the skilled essayist can fake a vulnerable tone.” The result of manufactured openness, Lopate warns, is revulsion on the part of the reader. Essayistically, candor originates in one of two sources, self-interest or self-effacement. In Riding Toward Everywhere, his recent Kerouacian memoir of hopping trains, William T. Vollmann mines both sources dangerously (and entertainingly); in the book’s best moments, Vollmann blends the contemporary confessor’s desire to be center-stage with the artist’s recognition that a fault-finding vulnerability is a humane gesture toward the universal. That’s a hard balance to strike, and Vollmann’s book characteristically falls over itself in a lot of places. But I appreciate the tumble-and-get-up energy that propels it.
Though nearly three centuries separate Whitman’s preface from Montaigne’s, the similarities are striking. Montaigne: “Here I want to be seen in my simple, natural, everyday fashion, without striving or artifice: for it is my own self that I am painting. Here, drawn from life, you will read of my defects and my native form so far as respect for social convention allows….” And Whitman: “I will not have in my writing any elegance, or effect, or originality, to hang in the way between me and the rest like curtains…. What I experience or portray shall go from my composition without a shred of my composition. You shall stand by my side and look in the mirror with me.” Two writers, two impulses to essay the self, and some coyness: both are consumed with the formal properties of their writing, both knowing that there’s value in editing as well as in confessional sprawl.
What’s Whitman’s “perfect candor” anyway? I’m interested in an imperfect candor, hesitant, skeptical of immodesty, equally concerned with the rigors of art and the illicit pleasures of confession. My faults are interesting and worthy in as much as I can essay them artfully as landmarks in human topography, permanent things that outlast the weather, that will be here for the next generations to be troubled by, maybe care about. An imperfect candor might know when to shut up, or when (and how) to unpack a fault and rummage inside, and find something beyond the shock or the titillation of confession. The autobiographical essayist dwells in the differences, and the distance, between frankness and art.
August 23, 2009 § 2 Comments
Creative Nonfiction magazine has been republishing blog postings in the annual W. W. Norton Best Creative Nonfiction anthologies, and will soon do the same in the magazine itself. Nominations (even self-nominations) cheerfully accepted.
Here’s some official language: “Please note, blog nominations will be accepted only through our online submission manager and only during specific reading periods. We are currently accepting blog nominations until August 31, 2009. We’re looking for: Vibrant new voices with interesting, true stories to tell. Narrative, narrative, narrative. Posts that can stand alone, 2000 words max, from 2009.”
For more information, or to nominate a blog, click here.
December 26, 2008 § Leave a comment
One of our favorite writers, Brian Doyle, is briefly interviewed on the Paper Cut blog today.
Just finished a lean little novel about a guy who goes looking for his foot, which was blown off in a war a while ago. It was glorious fun to write a novel. I was always terrified of fiction — I mean, I am an essayist, and proud of it, the Ancient Clan of Essayists, we are all descended from Plutarch and Montaigne, and Orwell’s our king, and it’s hard enough to grapple with this muddled confusing wild world — but it was very freeing to commit a novel like a venial sin.
December 7, 2007 § 4 Comments
Patrick Madden, one of our favorite essayists and keeper of the exquisite Quotidiana, responds to our response to Nehring’s thoughts on what is wrong with the essay. [We welcome more responses].
I sympathize with Nehring’s lament, but I, like you, think she’s overstating a lot, which, in my opinion, is an unessayistic move. I don’t think that Montaigne was making grand proclamations; his way was very leisurely and reflexive, and subversive. He did make his way to truths, yes, so maybe that’s the more important point. Emerson, on the other hand, was a Baconian essayist, a guy with Wisdom to impart. He wrote well, had lots of great aphorisms, but he’s not the example I send my students to. My greater problem with what we call “essay” in a lot of contemporary journals jibes with Nehring’s line: “In our own day the essay is an apologetic imitation of the short story.” Writers have been doing autobiographical stories forever. But they’re stories. Essays ought to think more, to essay.
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. They grab at current issues, state opinions, build arguments with evidence. David Foster Wallace calls them “service essays,” but I call them just articles or opinion pieces. They’re well-written, intelligent, right, etc., but they’re not essaying because their authors set out not to explore and discover but to make a predetermined point. Heck, I largely agree with their points (war is bad, torture is bad, George W. Bush is a knucklehead), but I don’t think we should be calling them essays.
Meanwhile, I think there are plenty of great essays being written, but they’re not widely read, and that IS too bad.
December 4, 2007 § 1 Comment
I don’t really agree with a lot of what Christina Nehring has to say in her recent anti-essay rant, but I am intrigued by this:
The problem, of course, is not merely our essayists; it’s our culture. We have grown terribly—if somewhat hypocritically—weary of larger truths. The smarter and more intellectual we count ourselves, the more adamantly we insist that there is no such thing as truth, no such thing as general human experience, that everything is plural and relative and therefore undiscussable.
Well, yes! I actually do agree here.
And the rant is worth a read, even if only to define where and when you think she is over-stating .