An impassioned plea for writers to stop navel gazing and start taking chances
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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.
Although Michel de Montaigne, who fathered the modern essay in the 16th century, wrote autobiographically (like the essayists who claim to be his followers today), his autobiography was always in the service of larger existential discoveries. He was forever on the lookout for life lessons. If he recounted the sauces he had for dinner and the stones that weighted his kidney, it was to find an element of truth that we could put in our pockets and carry away. After all, his essays were about learning to live, as were those written by his idols Seneca and Cicero.
And here lies the problem with essayists today: not that they speak of themselves, but that they do so with no effort to make their experience relevant or useful to anyone else, with no effort to extract from it any generalizeable insight into the human condition.
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.
Of course, everything is plural, everything is arguable, and there are limits to what we can know about other persons, other cultures, other genders. But there is also a limit to such humility; there is a point at which it becomes narcissism of a most myopic sort, a simple excuse to talk only about one’s own case, only about one’s own small area of specialization. Montaigne thought it the essayist’s duty to cross boundaries, to write not as a specialist (even in himself) but as a generalist, to speak out of turn, to assume, to presume, to provoke.
“Where I have least knowledge,” said the blithe Montaigne, “there do I use my judgment most readily.” And how salutary the result; how enjoyable to read—and to spar with—Montaigne’s by turns outrageous and incisive conclusions about humankind. That everything is arguable goes right to the heart of the matter.
“The next best thing to a good sermon is a bad sermon,” said Montaigne’s follower and admirer Ralph Waldo Emerson, the first American essayist. In a good sermon we hear our own discarded thoughts brought “back to us by the trumpets of the last judgment,” in the words of Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance.” In a bad sermon we formulate those thoughts ourselves—through the practice of creative disagreement. If an author tells us “love is nothing but jealousy” and we disagree, it is far more likely that we will come up with our own theory of love than if we hear a simple autobiographical account of the author’s life. It is hard to argue with someone’s childhood memory—and probably inadvisable. It is with ideas that we can argue, with ideas that we can engage.
Seneca and Montaigne were middle-aged when they wrote their passionate essays; America’s greats—Emerson and Thoreau—were in their early 30s. But none of them sounded “middle-aged” in the sense of Joseph Epstein. They all grappled with life, fought for solutions, fought for—yes—truths. We have no less need for truths and lessons and theories now than we did then, but today we leave the positing of them to televangelists and to tawdry self-help authors (10 Ways to Be Happy) and sports coaches.
Today’s essayists need to be emboldened, and to embolden one another, to move away from timid autobiographical anecdote and to embrace—as their predecessors did—big theories, useful verities, daring pronouncements. We need to destigmatize generalization, aphorism, and what used to be called wisdom. We must rehabilitate the notion of truth—however provisional it might be. As long as writers with intellectual aspirations are counted idiots for attempting to formulate a wider point, they will not do so, and even if they dared, most editors would not publish them and most critics would not praise them.
Take the case of Laura Kipnis and her recent volume, The Female Thing: Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability (Pantheon, 2006). While there is a great deal for which this book can be faulted, it has been attacked not for the dearth of its author’s talent so much as for the breadth of her ambition. It is the size of her topics that gives her highbrow critics pause: “What is dirt?” Kipnis asks, in a book in which she attempts to explore “the female psyche.” Her New York Times reviewer responds disdainfully, “Which raises the question: Who is Laura Kipnis?”
In other words, how dare she ask such questions? Well, Seneca would have said, how dare she not? Life is short. It is a disgraceful thing that a man “should have a wisdom deriving solely from his notebook. . . . Assume authority yourself and utter something that may be handed down to posterity.” This is what Kipnis tries to do, and she should be saluted for it, not mocked. Her shortcomings lie elsewhere. But the territory she marks out for herself and the boldness with which she sprints into it are cause for gratitude. It is what all essayists should do.
Cristina Nehring writes regularly for several publications, including the Atlantic, Harper’s, and the London Review of Books. She is the author of A Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance for the 21st Century, to be published by HarperCollins in 2008. This piece originally was published in Truthdig (Nov. 29, 2007), a progressive online journal that goes “beneath the headlines” to deliver in-depth news and opinion; www.truthdig.com.