March 13, 2009 § 7 Comments
Here in nonfiction we have the short form and the long form, the essay and the memoir. The essay essays—it attempts—and the memoir remembers.
But then again, our essays often remember too, and our memories are often essayed into their eventual meaning. Some memoirs are boiled down to only a few pages, and essays often swell to book-length sprawls in the tradition of Montaigne’s “On a Few Verses of Virgil.” Even more complicating, certain online journals claim to be interested only in very short shorts of, say, 750 words or less, turning a blind eye to what such pieces might’ve been in a longer span: essays or memoirs or somethings-else. And then you have books like Scott Russell Sanders’ Hunting for Hope, in which a whole group of essays, any of which could stand alone, combine in a way that magnifies each. Add to that the interviews, reviews, profiles, radio essays, graphic memoirs, hybrids, experimentals, prose poems, grocery lists, and Facebook statuses that might also jostle for space in the genre, and, well, you get the idea.
I’m not really worried about small, sub-genre distinctions between essay and memoir and all their cousins, though. But I can’t get past the fact that I inevitably seem to come back to length: If you say “essay,” I think “short”; and if you say “memoir,” I think “long.”
My friend is finishing up her dissertation and it’s 90 pages long—too short to be a book, too long to be an essay. Discussing it recently in a workshop, we had trouble calling it anything except “the dissertation.” Somebody threw out the word novella, but somebody else rejected it on the grounds that the term novella was reserved for fiction. The word monograph was tried, but it rang of academia. Chapbook was similarly ill-fitting. “That-stuff-that-Essay-Press-is-publishing,” I tried: too long.
Another colleague thought a neologism was in order and suggested the portmanteau splor, a combination splurge and exploration. As in, “This started as an essay, and there’s too little here to make it into a whole book, so I’m hoping to expand it into a splor of sorts.” There were half-hearted assents and some nervous laughter, but no one championed the cause (Sorry, Dave).
So what do we call it? What term can we use for our middle-form nonfiction? “Novella-length essay”? “Short memoir”? “Book-length essay”? Splor? Messay? Brevimoir?
This isn’t really that important except for this: if they have a name, they might find more of a space. It seems to me that many excellent pieces are in publishing limbo because they are too long for the journals and too short for the houses. Often they get bowdlerized or wait around for the author to get a book deal so they can sneak in with shorter works. I’m thinking of “Tense, Present,” David Foster Wallace’s massive splor that filled 20 pages of Harper’s but 61 pages of Consider the Lobster. Or his “The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys, and the Shrub” that fills 11 scant pages at rollingstone.com, 89 pages of Consider the Lobster, and 144 pages as its own book, McCain’s Promise.1 I just finished de Quincey’s “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater,” which only makes it to Penguin-edition glory by being packaged with two other of de Q’s works. And I can’t help but remember a piece by my mentor that sat on the editor’s desk at The American Scholar for close to a year: they seemed pleased with its quality but were nervous about its girth.
I’m not bemoaning the fact that I have an 80-page manuscript without a home. I don’t. But I wish a had more 80-page jewels on my bookshelf waiting to be read. The splor, like the brief essays we publish here, has a certain allure. It can exhibit a kind of brevity not seen elsewhere. It is the movement of a mind focused on a subject for an afternoon—not an hour, not a week. That mind ups the ante on the essay’s demand for precision and concentration, yet it eschews the sometime pretension or petulance of the full-length memoir.
If essays are episodes of Seinfeld and CSI, and memoirs are Groundhog Day and You’ve Got Mail and, sometimes, all three Lord of the Rings films, then splors are miniseries. They are made-for-TV movies. Telenovellas. Firefly. Freaks and Geeks.2
But they need a name, one we can all agree on (or at least argue about). Personally, I’d like to vote for “the monograph essay.” Sounds classy. Discuss.
1 In fact, DFW’s collected essays often have lines like, “Since this will undoubtedly be cut before publication,” giving one the impression that he wasn’t writing with the reader in mind at all but was instead engaging with his editors in some kind of odd game.
2 Brevity, I guess, publishes commercials.