Is the Essay Dead? The Free Range Librarian Responds

December 16, 2007 § 4 Comments

K.G. Schneider, one of our favorite librarians and Free Range bloggers, continues the discussion of Christina Nehring’s bleak assessment of the essay:

Quoting Patrick Madden (see below): “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.”

This was exactly my reaction, the key words being “overtly” and “uninterestingly.” Look at the great political essays of Orwell and yes, even seemingly mild old E.B. White. If there is a better political essay than “The Ring of Time,” march me to it. I will reread BAE 2007 soon (I’ve read all the BAEs, incidentally, most in the past two years; 1987 is sitting on my desk right now) so this statement may change, but I don’t remember a single political piece from BAE 2007 that was truly an essay. Though at least Wallace warned us: “several of this year’s Best Essays are arguably more like causeries or propos than like essays per se…” The only error there being the word “several” instead of “far too many.”

Also missing from Nehring’s argument is a clear explanation for why essays molder in library basements. One big reason having nothing to do with the quality of essays is that library classification schemes toss creative nonfiction into a vast bucket with how-to manuals, math books, and the rest of anything-that-is-not-fiction. Sometimes biography is given a reprieve and filed under “B,” instead of its Dewey number, but the rest is only findable if you are a library nerd given to browsing the 800s (or 600s, 300s, 900s, and 200s… since in many libraries there’s no logical co-location of most creative nonfiction, and a book of essays about baseball will be found next to tips about pitching). It’s all part of the general indignity accorded this genre.

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