July 23, 2021 § 4 Comments
By Zoë Bossiere
In April, The New York Times announced that the paper’s “Op-Ed” opinion section, established in 1970, would be rebranded as “Guest Essays.” This seemingly small change, made with minimal fanfare, actually marks a momentous shift for the creative nonfiction essay. The essay has existed much on the fringes of literary writing and journalism since Michel de Montaigne penned his Essais in 1580. Famously, even he thought them a waste of time, warning readers, “I am myself the matter of my book; you would be unreasonable to spend your leisure on so frivolous and vain a subject.”
While the essay as a form— a written attempt, an experiment, a method of discovery through the process of the writing, itself—is now centuries old, in the publishing world it has only officially existed since 1983, when it was placed under the umbrella term “creative nonfiction” for the purposes of National Endowment for the Arts fellowship category and university course programming. But far from the dry research papers most students associate them with, the essay is alive with the obsessions, anxieties, and jokes of the day.
When one teaches and studies the essay, as I have devoted my academic career to doing, one begins to see it everywhere. In addition to those essays that might appear in venerable literary publications such as The New Yorker, The Paris Review, or The Sun, increasingly the essay also pops up in our social media feeds, sometimes in the form of Twitter threads on depriving one’s daughter of beans, or rehoming the demonic Chihuahua from hell.
Social media in general has contributed to the ascension of nonfiction in popular culture—our insatiable appetite for true-to-life stories told by real people. However, as NYT editor Kathleen Kingsbury observes in her explanation of the new Guest Essay, “What is disappearing [online]…are spaces where voices can be heard and respected, where ideas can linger a while, be given serious consideration, interrogated and then flourish or perish.”
I tend to agree with her. The breadth of perspective that can be conveyed in a single social media post is limited. As we spend more and more time reading shorter and shorter paragraphs of text, our attention spans are shrinking along with the size of the posts we consume—a condition that’s been exacerbated by our increasingly-online pandemic lives. Not every issue can, or indeed should, be elucidated in even the longest thread of 240 characters or less.
The “Guest Essay” rebrand provides a subtle but important distinction. More than the simple expression of opinion, an essay is rhetorically savvy and, often, emotionally affecting. Now, as the issues of the day become increasingly complex and multifaceted, the essay can be an important way—perhaps the only way—to navigate nuanced, complicated, and seemingly contradictory perspectives. (Which is not to say all viewpoints are ethically equivalent.)
As a writing teacher, I encourage my students to view an issue not as a double sided coin—a two-dimensional “for” or “against”—but as a prism with multiple stakeholders and rationales. The essay allows the writer to engage with her subject on a deeper level, to get at the heart of an issue and take the reader on a journey that isn’t fueled by the immediate emotional reactions—such as outrage—that many shorter “takes” engender.
In addition to teaching the essay, I am also the managing editor here at Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction, where we exclusively publish short nonfiction essays of 750 words or fewer. The essays submitted to us touch on a range of experiences by writers from all walks of life—women writers, BIPOC writers, trans and queer writers, and disabled writers, to name a few groups. Far from Montaigne’s original assertion that the self is “vain” and “frivolous,” the essay has become the mode du jour of contemporary thought in a time when the personal is inevitably determined by the political.
Though essays are written for a myriad reasons and in many varied forms, the common purpose of the contemporary essay in the public sphere is to foster well-informed critical thought and radical empathy for perspectives not our own. To provide readers a window into the proposals, interpretations, and aspirations that shape our diverse world.
The birth of The New York Times “Guest Essay” places the nonfiction essay firmly into the spotlight of socio-political discourse just when we as a country need it most. In the ensuing decade, we will need to read essays by the trans folx whose rights are in danger of being legislated out of existence, by the undocumented immigrants and their children who have been detained in cages at the border, by the many communities who continue to be devastated by gun violence and police brutality, and far too many more to list here.
Because at its heart, the essay speaks to those quintessentially human parts of ourselves that colder, jargon-laden editorial and journalistic articles can’t quite replicate. Though the NYT’s track record is far from perfect, the emergence of the essay in the world’s most widely-read newspaper comes at a crucial time, offering potential for a new era of empathy and reflection in public discourse.
Zoë Bossiere is a doctoral candidate at Ohio University, where she studies and teaches creative writing and rhetoric & composition. She is the managing editor of Brevity, and the co-editor of its anthology, The Best of Brevity (Rose Metal Press). Find her online at zoebossiere.com or on Twitter @zoebossiere.