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Cristina Nehring on What’s Wrong With the American Essay
Posted on Nov 29, 2007
His gaze has been so worn by the procession
Of bars that he no longer sees.
—“The Panther,” Rainer Maria Rilke
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 these series rot in basements—when they make it as far as that. I’ve found the run of American Essays in the basement of my local library, where they’ll sit—with zero date stamps—until released gratis one fine Sunday morning to a used bookstore that, in turn, will sell them for a buck to a college student who’ll place them next to his dorm bed and dump them in an end-of-semester clean-out. That is the fate of the essay today.
The Best American Essays 2007
By David Foster Wallace (Editor), Robert Atwan (Series Editor)
Houghton Mifflin, 336 pages
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 over periodicals at languorous length 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 taste-makers 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 nearly two 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. But it is also—as anyone who has spent time with these volumes knows—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 Louis Menand espouses when he states—in the introduction to the 2004 BAE—that his preferred nonfiction “is the one that makes a lost time present.” The tone other BAE 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 extended family. “It’s only 11 o’clock,” Alan Lightman informs us in the keynote essay of the 2000 BAE, “but I am a morning person and I am already tired. 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 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.
If the essays in these anthologies boast a distinctive (and distinctively dreary) tone, they also boast highly specific subject matters and—for all the editors’ sporadic salutes to individualism—startlingly homogenous author profiles. Reading the Best American Essays from 1986 to 2006, it’s tempting to create a composite portrait of the Preferred American Essayist: Educated at Harvard, he or she has spent significant time at the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, written proposals for New York Public Library Fellowships (often lovingly paraphrased in the essays) and received medical attention at Sloan Kettering Hospital. Chances are good she’s a doting dog owner who has done such things as lace her pet’s dinner with “Prozac, Buspar, Elavil, Effexor, Xanax, and Clomicalm” (Cathleen Shine, 2005) or write gourmet cookbooks for his discerning palate (Susan Orlean, 2005 and 2006). More likely than not, he (if it is a he) has had a lifelong love affair with fishing or baseball, preferably both. An added bonus is to discover—or at least reassess—a Jewish ancestor in one’s family tree.
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