May 24, 2013
Cristina Nehring on What’s Wrong With the American Essay
Posted on Nov 29, 2007
Seneca and Montaigne were middle-aged when they wrote their passionate essays; America’s greats—Emerson and Thoreau—were in their early 30s and younger. 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 these to televangelists and to tawdry self-help authors (“10 Ways to Be Happy”) and—indeed, as recent Atlantic essays suggest—to sports coaches (see “The Gym as Church,” December 2006). Our essayists have defected, leaving us on our own, with the impression that to traffic in boldness and generality is to be a blowhard or a huckster. The moderation of these triflers is immoderate, and it is only right that readers allow their work to rot in basements.
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 persons 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.” 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. “Assume authority. ... It is a disgraceful thing that a man should derive wisdom solely from his notebook. ... Utter yourself something that may be handed 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.
In her introduction to 2005’s BAE, Susan Orlean (one of the best-connected editors in the series; her Web site announces that she may be hired for product endorsements) compares the contemporary essay to a cow . Not any old cow, mind you, but a plastic cow—a transparent cow—that Orlean has spotted in a store. “The Visible Cow,” she informs us, “offers an interesting and tangible analogue” to her choice of essays for 2005: “Just as each cow is individual, each of these essays is too.” As though the comparison were not yet stout enough, she goes on: “An essay can contain many thoughts and observations (those organs, those bones!) that might not seem to fit together but in the end lead to a satisfying whole—a cow.”
Let us mark this on our calendars as the official nadir of the American essay. The BAE editions of 2006 and ‘07 are already slightly less bad. (There is no way they could have been worse.) Let us fight to make next year’s immeasurably better than both, than all. For the essay worth our time is nothing at all like a cow; it is nothing at all like a cud-chewing, conformist, slow-moving herd animal. If we must compare the essay to a beast, let us compare it rather to a wildcat. Let us give it back its tooth and nail, its fangs and claws; let us allow it to take risks, to pretend it has nine lives. Let us enfranchise it to disturb us. It is not Orlean’s incarcerated cow we need today, but Rilke’s panther breaking the bars of his cage.
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.
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