Why Essays Are So Damned Boring

An impassioned plea for writers to stop navel gazing and start taking chances

| July-August 2008

  • Why Essays are Boring

    image by Adam Larson

  • Why Essays are Boring

This article is part of a package on creativity. For more, read " The Future of Creativity ," " Bright Ideas from Baltimore’s Citizens ," " The Creativity Conceit ," " Art + Science= Inspiration ," and " Putting the Arts Back into the Arts ."

The essay is in a bad way. It’s not because essayists have gotten stupider. It’s not because they’ve gotten sloppier. And it is certainly not because they’ve become less anthologized. More anthologies are published now than there have been in decades, indeed in centuries. The Best American Essays series, which began in 1986, has reached 20 volumes. The problem is that anthologies end up in the basements of our local libraries, where they sit until they are released gratis to used-book stores that, in turn, will sell them for a buck apiece to college students who’ll place them next to their dorm beds and dump them in an end-of-semester clean-out.

Is it our fault? Are we, as readers, responsible for the decline of the American essay? Have we become lazier, less interested, less educated? Attention spans, to be sure, have shortened. Gone are the days when people pored languorously over periodicals during transatlantic crossings. But this is not the reason why essay collections gather dust and why essayists so often count themselves “second-class citizens” (in the words of E.B. White). If the genre is neglected in our day, it is first and foremost because its authors have lost their nerve. It is because essayists—and their editors, their anthologists, and the tastemakers on whom they depend—have lost the courage to address large subjects in a large way.

“The essayist is at his most profound when his intentions are most modest,” declares Joseph Epstein, the editor of The Norton Book of Personal Essays and the author of at least a dozen books of autobiographical essays. The essay is a “miniaturist” genre, intones another anthologist; it is “in love with littleness.” Sound ingratiating? Sweet? Self-deprecating? It is. It is also eye-crossingly dull. The essay that is considered “literature” in our day is not an ambitious or impassioned (if sometimes foolhardy) analysis of human nature. It is not an argument, or a polemic. It is not a gun-blazing attack on a social trend, a film, a book, or a library of books. Those sorts of pieces, sniff the anthologists, are mere journalism.



The essay they prefer has a distinctive tone, which Epstein has called “middle-aged.” I’m not an age-essentialist, but Epstein is, and what he means by “middle-aged” is clearly quiet. Slow-moving. Soft-hitting. Nostalgic. Self-satisfied. It’s the tone he perfects in his signature essay, “The Art of the Nap.” The tone other writers use when they reminisce rather aimlessly about their trout-fishing expeditions as a child; the drugstore on their block; the New Year’s party they spent watching television with family and friends. “It’s only 11 o’clock,” Alan Lightman informs us in the keynote essay of the Best American Essays 2000, “but I am a morning person and already drowsy. I nod and sink into a chair. To wake myself up, I drink some tart apple cider. . . . ” Hundreds of words later Mr. Lightman is still “half-sleeping against a wall”—and so are his readers. It was one lame night then, and it’s one lame night now. It does not improve in the retelling.

Gentle is how the Best American Essays 2006 guest editor, Lauren Slater, characterizes the essay she prefers. It must not, she tells us squarely, have “too much tooth.” Its author may be (and usually is) “narcissistic . . . but in a harmless way” (my italics). The essay’s “core,” she intones, should be “gentleness.” Given the choice to publish a provocative polemic or a navel-examining indulgence of private nostalgia, a haymaker from a literary heavyweight or an unbearably light appreciation of the author’s slippers, editors today will invariably choose the latter.

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