A Love Supreme
Words By Phillip Lopate, Art By Ejiwa Ebenebe
A Pioneering Writer Feature with Phillip Lopate
Phillip Lopate has left an indelible mark on the literary world. Through both his own writing and the editing of landmark anthologies, he has reestablished the art of the personal essay. In addition, he’s a film critic, fiction writer, poet, educator, and has been awarded multiple fellowships—including two National Endowment for the Arts grants and a Guggenheim fellowship. He claims to have once experienced writers block in 1969, but we don’t believe him.
You are known as one of the champions who brought personal essays to the forefront of nonfiction writing. Can you talk about where that passion started and why you dedicated so much of your career to that work?
I started as a wannabe fiction writer, then wrote poetry. When I started reading personal essays, I realized that the form combined the narrative of fiction with the associative quality of poetry. I’d always been attracted to a kind of living voice on the page, whether in poetry or fiction, the first-person voice: confiding, intimate, establishing a relationship with the reader. Personal essays have that conversational aspect. I started off reading Hazlitt and Lamb, who directed me to Montaigne, who directed me to Seneca and Plutarch, and so it went. I realized that the personal essay was a conversation over centuries, with these writers talking to each other. There’s a feeling of family. Those who are in on the game recognize their relatives.
What was the industry like with regard to personal essays? Could you find great essays in bookstores?
The essay was going through a decline. Editors didn’t want to publish books of essays; they wanted writers to reconfigure them with a theme, or as a continuous narrative. But actually, essays were everywhere, proliferating in all of the magazines. There just wasn’t consciousness of them.
When I began writing essays, my novelist and poet friends encouraged me, pushing me into that niche, so I began teaching the traditional personal essay. I was at the University of Houston at the time, and I kept trying to find books to give my students. I photocopied many things and made them buy several books, which made me realize the need for an anthology. The only anthologies were contemporary; nothing out there was historical. That’s been an important part of my approach, the fact that I’ve always liked the historical, because the publishing industry is geared toward the hottest and edgiest. This is especially true in America, a country of amnesiacs who don’t remember anything. I loved the idea of bringing personal essays, this half-buried tradition, up to the surface, and I realized that there was no book like that. I was going to have to do it myself.
Recently I’ve been working on a much bigger project: an anthology of the American essay, from 17th century Puritans to the present. After creating The Art of the Personal Essay I realized that, having corralled that form into its own niche, I myself didn’t understand this enormous distinction between personal and other kinds of essays. Whether something is a formal essay, or a piece of cultural criticism, there’s the same issue of personality, of character, narrator. Even if the narrator never uses the word “I,” there’s an implicit sense of the author behind it. I’ve been gathering material for this American essay anthology, taking the perspective that there are brilliant essays in every walk of life: science, politics, religion, anthropology, psychiatry. There are always going to be good essays because they are one of the forms through which information, opinion, and point of view are conveyed. I’m knee-deep in this project, finding so much, getting a whole new education
How did you manage to narrow down The Art of the Personal Essay to the most distilled version of the history of the personal essay?
Some of it had to do with the lineage of essays talking about other essays. I read so much for that anthology, from various cultures that didn’t have strong personal essay traditions, like Native American and Arabic. I tried to be as wide-ranging as possible. Ultimately it came down to what spoke to me, what excited and amused me. But I know that I have certain inclinations, tastes, and blind spots. For instance, it’s hard for me to appreciate something with no sense of humor, irony, mischief, or playfulness somewhere in it.
What do you think of the current industry for personal essays compared to when you started writing?
There’s no question that essays are going through another Renaissance, another Golden Age, with many collections coming out. Of course there was a long period of memoirs being published, followed by backlash against memoirs. My own feeling is that memoirs are a legitimate form, but the first rate ones are rare, just as great collections of poetry and novels are rare. They shouldn’t have to apologize because there’s a lot of middling work in the field.
I do think there’s been a balkanization of memoir and essay, so that they’re geared toward different groups. In fact, the essay has been one of the ways that minorities have seized attention. African-American writers announced themselves in the 20th century much more by the essay than by novel or poetry. It becomes a way to address identity, and not only for ethnic minorities, but for the disabled, gay, feminists, and so on. My perspective is that I don’t really care about that; I just want to read something that’s stimulating, with beautiful sentences. For me, it’s not just that you’ve had trauma, or cancer, or that you were sexually abused; you have to write well. You get no points for living. You still have to write well.
One thing that I love about your essays is your skepticism. You view things through a critical eye. Now that you’ve been writing for so long, are you running out of topics to be skeptical about, or are you always finding new things to question?
Doubt and skepticism are intrinsically part of the essay. They’re certainly part of my DNA. It’s a reflex, how I think. I think assertively, and then I start wondering, what about the other point of view? Like most, I rationalize often, defending myself in my head, with self-righteous tendencies. But then another reflex of mine is anti-self-righteousness, and I’m opposed to asserting my superiority to everyone else. So I’m also self-skeptical.
It’s amusing to be a contrarian, to think against the grain of received opinion. Many writers, especially young writers, write what they think their peer group thinks they should think, instead of what they actually think. And one thing literature can do is promote a sense of nuance and ambivalence, where not everything is black and white.
The ending is when an essay either falls apart or comes together. You’ve talked about your reticence with endings that are too easy, where everything is resolved, but you’ve also talked about the importance of providing wisdom at the end. What’s the balance between a too-easy resolution and wisdom?
I do like the idea of wisdom and feel drawn to it as a touchstone. Wisdom and honesty are important for me. That doesn’t mean I attain wisdom; it just means I try to get there.
I’m looking for worldly perspective. For instance, I was teaching workshop yesterday, and one student had written an essay about being passed up for a promotion that she should have gotten. There was a lot of wailing in the piece. At a certain point, I wanted her to get on with it, to stop being arrested by complaint or self pity. I have a sort of warm spot for stoicism, which is the non-traumatic response of making the best of this situation. I look for that larger perspective, which doesn’t come from complaint, but is more general.
Every essay is unique, and every essay ends in its own way that it wants to end. It sounds mystical, but listen to the work, and there may come a time when you think, enough already, quit yapping.
One of the odd things about essays is that since they track one’s mind, they could go on and on, because you have thought after thought until you die. But there’s such a thing as artistic resolution, which is different from content resolution. You may be writing an essay about a subject which you cannot resolve, like an essay about peace in the Middle East. You can’t resolve it, and no one else can, but it’s possible to assert an arc of your own thinking where you reach a point and you can’t go any further, while being honest in knowing you can’t go any further.
You can sometimes manage to finesse more wisdom than you actually have. When you read a lot, you can understand the sound of worldliness and worldly wisdom. You can imitate it sometimes, but ultimately, you have to look in the mirror and say, this is all I can understand at this point; I’m just going to have to learn more and understand more. So there’s a question of being honest about how much you understand, how much wisdom you actually can attain.
You’ve always encouraged writers to write about something they don’t know the answer to quite yet. What is your own technique? Do you start with a question, or with a possible answer? Does it change per essay?
There must be something that’s unresolved, some sort of question. That’s true even when I write a diary entry; I’m not sure what I’m trying to figure out. I start with both a question and an answer. The answer can only take me so far, so I explore. It’s not just exploration, though. I’m also trying to find an argument underneath the exploration. People think essays should only be exploring, that they shouldn’t be so lawyerly as to always prove something. But if there’s nothing connecting the exploration, then the essay will feel self-indulgent. I’m always looking for something crystallizing underneath the exploration.
Henry David Thoreau once said, “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.” What’s the balance between sitting down and thinking and getting out and living?
Well, living will happen whether you want it to or not. I find that living throws up quandaries and questions all the time, especially in relationships. You can look at family relationships, love, friendships, which are endlessly intriguing, and frustrating, to some degree. I have a wife and a daughter, so I sometimes deal with their discontents. Or I might have an evening with a good friend, but somehow, it’s unsatisfying; something is off. There’s no end of mulling over concerns around relationships.
And of course, there’s the larger political situation. I have a general sense of the world and whatever my responsibilities might be toward it. I haven’t written many political pieces, but I’ve written some, and I’m increasingly less nervous about it. I always want to be able to say something different that not everybody knows. Part of the problem in the current moment is that people get together, basically saying back and forth what we’ve all read in the paper today. What kind of writer do we bring to the table who has something different to say? That’s where one’s psychology and sense of self-awareness and mischief can come in.
Every piece of your life is potential fodder for your writing. Is it difficult to turn off the narrator in the back of your head and engage with life? Is there a balance between these things?
There’s not a balance because I’ve always been a slightly-detached person. I’ve never been the poster boy for “live large.” I accept this, although whether or not those close to me accept it is another question. I grew up in a stormy family setting, and one way of getting through was becoming a spectator, developing a sense of detachment. I’m not troubled by wondering if I’ve put too much distance between myself and the world. I’ve developed my own method; it seems to work. I don’t have enormously high expectations for happiness at every moment, so if I can just get on with things—and that’s the stoical part of me—I’m more or less content. I have to trust that there’s a balance between sympathy and disengagement. And that’s true even in my closest relationships. I’m never so close that I stop observing the oddities of those around me. I have to know their flaws as well as my own flaws.
You’re best known for the personal essay, but you’ve written fiction and poetry. Does that create angst in you, or are you too stoic to get angsty about people not talking about your fiction?
There used to be this term, “a man of letters,” and now we’d say, “a person of letters.” The writers I respected most did many different things. Whether it’s Samuel Johnson or Edmund Wilson, they were always producing fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and so on. That’s something I’m finding while editing this anthology of American essays, that many of the best essays are written by novelists and poets. They know how to write. In general, I’ve gotten a fair amount of recognition; I’m not going to lose any sleep because I may not be a household name.
You’ve written many essay collections. Which one proved most challenging?
I don’t know if “challenging” is the right word, but I was intrigued by writing Notes on Sontag. It was fun to take a figure about whom I felt somewhat ambivalent, then work through her achievements over time. Examining the chronological period which she and I both occupied became a way to look at the past, when everyone said certain things about the time, which she said too. And I see that now we no longer say those things. Sontag was attentive to fashions and thought. I’ve always had the opposite tendency. That is, a refusal to be topical, and a refusal to jump on bandwagons. Sontag fascinated me because she was always trying to get onto the newest thing.
You’ve taught at several institutions, influencing countless students’ lives and careers. How has that affected your own writing?
Teaching is important to me. It’s another way for me to look at relationships and the drama of human psychology. I have students who come with various longings and resistances, and it’s fascinating to help them work through them. There’s the student who nods at everything you say but whose work doesn’t change; then there’s the student who fights you all the time, but whose work does change. In that sense, teaching is like being a psychotherapist, understanding resistances.
Teaching is a verbal improvisation. It’s like writing in air. A student will ask you a question, and you have to come up with an answer. You bluff a lot, and improvise. It’s helped me articulate ideas about writing that would otherwise be half-formed. There’s something like jazz about it. You don’t necessarily know where it’s going to go; there are surprises. There’s also the fact that it’s a bunch of strangers who have to coalesce as a group, with chemistry, which is different in each class.
I think teaching is fascinating; it’s as fascinating as writing. Writing will always take from you all that it can, and still demand more. Teaching is the same way; you never reach a point where you’re acing it. There’s always going to be something more you can do.
Now that you’ve learned so much about writing and craft, if I could take you back in time to when you first started writing, what advice would you give yourself?
Become a plumber!
The advice I gave myself at the time was don’t lose heart; stick to it. If I thought something was worthwhile, then even if it kept getting rejected, I should continue. The first novel I wrote was called Best Friends, and it never got published. I showed it to a best friend, and he said, “Write ten more, and they’ll figure out what you’re doing.”
Sometimes you have to teach the public how to read you; they don’t know initially.
The basic advice I give to myself, to students, and so on, is first, to persist, and second, to read more and more, like saturation reading. I don’t agree when some writers say they don’t want to read when writing because they don’t want to be influenced. I want to be influenced as much as possible.
I also advise developing areas of expertise. Some of my areas of expertise are film, architecture, city life, education, and obviously, literature—essays and nonfiction. Developing areas of expertise means you can be called upon to write about different things when you’re not feeling creative, and that’s great, so you can hijack any assignment and make it your own.
What is the career high? What are you most proud of?
I’m most proud of developing a voice and a persona that’s recognizable, that has idiosyncrasy to it but that encourages other people to live with their idiosyncrasies.
Most reflections by writers about how they came to do what they do are, in the end, disappointing. Hence, I invite you to find this particular article disappointing from the get-go. If you can lower your expectation bar sufficiently, it may not prove wholly unworthy of your time. To expect little, in any case, is something natural to the essay form, whose professed modesty by its very name in putting forth a mere “attempt” is echoed by the lack of major award recognition and relatively low commercial status accorded it by the outside world. It is hard for an essayist to get away with being an egomaniac (though some bravely try). What I want to do here is to sketch (modest word) my own involvement with the essay, and consider how my understanding of the form has evolved over time.
When I first dreamed of being a writer, in my late teens and early twenties, I was drawn first to fiction and then to poetry. Never did it enter my mind then to become an essayist. The essays I was exposed to in college were assigned by way of teaching to write compositions and examination papers, the sort of tax you had to pay in order to read great literature. As I was usually assigned no more than one essay per writer from a textbook, it did not occur to me that essayists could have personalities as charming or idiosyncratic as my favorite novelists and poets. But I was already drawn to first-person writing, that intimate, subjective whisper in the ear, whether it be the growl of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man or the clueless purr of Ford Madox Ford’s narrator in The Good Soldier or Machado de Assis’s posthumous prankster or Italo Svevo’s ironic Zeno or Celine’s manic shrill Bardamu or Browning’s sinister Duke in “My Last Duchess.” What I liked particularly about first-person writing was the one-to-one connection it established between author and reader, its penchant for self-analysis, which was so often undercut by rationalization and unreliable narrator self-deception. Unbeknownst to me, I was in preparation for falling in love with the personal essay.
That captivation occurred during one summer vacation when I rented a cottage in Cape Cod. I had already written a book, Being with Children—about my teaching experiences as a writer-in-the-schools—which I did not realize was essentially a string of essays; I thought them chapters at the time.As is my wont, I snooped around the bookcases at the house I was subletting, and found a Penguin paperback of William Hazlitt’s selected essays, and took it outside to peruse. Unlike Paul on the road to Damascus, my conversion experience occurred lying in a hammock. Hazlitt’s cussed, animated voice electrified me from the start. He turned me on to his friend Charles Lamb, who had a much more insidious, playful tone, but was every bit as galvanizing. Hazlitt also warmly recommended Montaigne, whom I had read decades earlier in college with bafflement and indifference, but who now, as I approached middle age, became my guy, my model. The rest of the Anglo-American canon followed more or less automatically: Addison and Steele, Samuel Johnson, Stevenson, Beerbohm, Virginia Woolf, Orwell, and on the other side of the Atlantic, Thoreau, Mencken, Baldwin, Mary McCarthy, etc.
I began writing the stuff and teaching the personal essay to my graduate students; I had to photocopy masses of material because it was hard to find any anthologies that went back before the twentieth century. All the publishers seemed to be rigidly focused on modern and contemporary authors. I, however, have been blessed or cursed with an historical sense and have envisioned the personal essay as a conversation between living and dead authors across the centuries. Eventually it dawned on me that I myself would have to edit the anthology I needed to assign. That is how The Art of the Personal Essay came about. In my genealogy of the canon, I went all the way back to precursors, Seneca and Plutarch in the West, and Sei Shonagon and Kenko in the east, before including a chunk of Montaigne, then a large dose of the English essayists, then a quick global tour of other cultures, including Turgenev, Tanizaki, Benjamin, Borges, Hubert Butler, E. M. Cioran, Roland Barthes and Natalia Ginzburg, before concluding with the American scene.
Let me say immodestly that it has become the standard text, adopted by universities across the United States. It is probably more responsible for my being invited by this magazine to ruminate than the five collections of my own essays I’ve published. Indeed, I have become so identified as the champion of the personal essay—even given undue credit for reviving the form—that I began to feel imprisoned in my promotional role, though happy to take whatever rewards it provided.
Part of the problem was that the more I studied the vast literature of the essay, the less was I convinced that the personal essay constituted such a unique subgenre, distinct from other kinds of essays. First of all, I fell in love with Emerson, whom I had stupidly excluded from The Art of the Personal Essay, only to realize decades later that there was no American essayist more imbued with personality, acuity, and sheer strangeness than this man. Second, I began writing a lot of criticism—of movies, books, architecture, visual arts—and it didn’t seem to me that my brain or my deployment of rhetorical strategies was operating any differently than when I wrote personal essays. I knew that some of my favorite practitioners, such as Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, and Max Beerbohm, were equally adept at critical pieces as they were at personal essays, with no shrinkage of their inimitable personalities in their criticism. As I immersed myself in the critical masters, from Diderot to Ruskin to Edmund Wilson to Lionel Trilling to Susan Sontag, and so on, I saw that they were all, each in their own way, cobbling together a highly specific voice or persona through which evaluations and insights could issue forth. So, when it came time for me to edit another anthology, this time of American movie critics for the Library of America (that august preserver of the national literary canon), I decided that my selection of the various movie reviews would be adjudged first and foremost by their literary worth, and inflected, however subliminally, by the notion that each was a kind of personal essay. Or let me simply say, an essay.
I have since been expanding my idea of what constitutes an essay, which has taken me in many new directions: food writing, nature writing, science writing, psychoanalysis, sports, politics, geography, religion. No longer restricted to the self-consciously belletristic, I seek out fine examples in every discipline, because every discipline has very gifted writers who are willing to venture forth with their thoughts on the page, testing hypotheses, registering skepticism about received ideas, examining their own doubts, employing worldly irony, and making a pleasing arc of their cogitations. Which brings me to my current project: editing an anthology of the American essay.
I signed a contract a year ago with Pantheon Books in hardcover and Anchor in paperback for a one-volume compendium of essays written in the United States, from the Puritans in the seventeenth century to the present. I decided to go big: to include essays of all stripes, not just personal essays, and from every walk of life. Which brings up the question: what is an essay? I’m sure you are all familiar with the various definitions, such as Dr. Johnson’s “a loose sally of the mind.” But E. B. White cautions that “even the essayist’s partial escape from discipline is only a partial escape: the essay, although a relaxed form, imposes its own discipline, raises its own problems, and these disciplines and problems soon become apparent and (we all hope) act as a deterrent to anyone wielding a pen merely because he entertains random thoughts or is in a happy or wandering mood.” Addison drew the line between essays, which didn’t quite know where they were going, and discourses, which did. For William Dean Howells, the significant line was between the essay and the article. Agnes Repplier thought that essays should offer “no instruction, save through the medium of enjoyment.” William Gass forbade the scholarly article from consideration as an essay. Cynthia Ozick, in her beautiful piece, “She: Portrait of the Essay as a Warm Body,” is at pains to distinguish a genuine essay from what she considers fakes. She writes: “A genuine essay has no educational, polemical, or sociopolitical use; it is the movement of a free mind at play…A genuine essay is not a doctrinaire tract or a propaganda effort or a broadside. Thomas Paines’s Common Sense and Emile Zola’s “J’accuse!” are heroic landmark writings; but to call them essays, though they may resemble the form, is to misunderstand. The essay is not meant for the barricades; it is a stroll through someone’s mazy mind.”
When I read, or re-read that statement, I thought to myself, much as I revere Ozick, I disagree. Why should something meant to persuade readers to take up an action or to instruct be stricken from the essay rolls? Are Edmund Burke’s speeches or Alexander Herzen’s political analyses not essays? So I put a section from Thomas Paine’s Common Sense into the anthology. And I put in Martin Luther King’s speech on the Vietnam War, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, and I put in sermons by Jonathan Edwards and Paul Tillich and Thomas Merton, and one of Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Papers, and Sarah Grimke’s discourse “On the Condition of Women in the U.S.,” and some humorous newspaper columns by Finley Peter Dunne, Heywood Broun, Don Marquis, Christopher Morley and Robert Benchley, and some rather brilliant academic papers by the sociologists Erving Goffman and Robert K. Merton, and film criticism by Manny Farber and Pauline Kael, and nature writing by John Muir, John Burroughs, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Edward Hoagland, and Annie Dillard, and science writing by Loren Eiseley, Lewis Thomas, Stephen Jay Gould, and Oliver Sacks, and impassioned feminist polemics by Audre Lorde, Ellen Willis and Vivian Gornick, and wickedly anti-feminist writing by Florence King, and dense philosophical arguments by George Santayana and William James and R.P. Blackmur, and pointed political analyses by Randolph Bourne and Richard Hofstader, and a lovely piece called “The Stranger’s Path” by that splendid geographer J.B. Jackson, and Janet Malcolm’s experimental “Forty-One False Starts,” and Donald Barthelme’s puckish defense of ignorance, “Not-Knowing.”
I became an opportunistic blotting paper, absorbing hints from everywhere around me. For instance, I came upon a review of Donald Judd’s art criticism in the TLS which said, Judd was all right, but the really first-rate artist-writer was the environmental sculptor Robert Smithson. I had heard in the past that Smithson had an excellent prose style, so I rushed to look him up and sure enough, I found something excellent by him that I could put in the book. When the art historian Linda Nochlin died, the obituary mentioned her influential essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists,” so I immediately googled it, read it and in it went. I even included a few visiting essayists who commented cogently on the United States, such as Alexis de Tocqueville, D.H. Lawrence, Jose Marti, Octavio Paz, and C.L.R. James.
It should not come as a surprise that in the end the project grew to two, possibly three hefty volumes. When I turned in those photocopied tomes to my editor and my agent, I had to wheel in the manuscripts in a suitcase because they were too heavy to carry on the subway. We shall see what they make of it. At the moment, I am terrified but hopeful. (Recently, the publisher has proposed three volumes: one that will trace the whole arc of the American essay, from the Puritans to the present, one that will focus on what I consider the Golden Age of the American Essay, roughly 1945-1970, and one that will be devoted to the contemporary essay).
Lest you infer that I have become utterly promiscuous in my embrace of any piece of writing that might lay claim to being an essay, out of some imperialistic land-grab to expand my domain, let me reassure you that that is not the case. I have resisted the siren song of “creative nonfiction,” at least as it was characterized by Lee Gutkind as “making it read like a short story or fiction,” by incorporating fictional techniques, using lots of scenes and dialogues and cinematic detail. This approach scants reflection because it supposedly slows down the reader’s involvement in a scene. To me, reflection is still an invaluable ingredient of the essay—its payoff, so to speak. Of course, fictional techniques and dialogue scenes have always had a place in essay-writing, from Addison and Steele on down; but there is no reason for them to monopolize nonfiction at the expense of reflection and aphoristic summary. We essayists can tell as well as show. Among the graduate students whom I teach, and who are often drawn more to short story-like memoir pieces than to reflective rumination on a subject, I have sometimes encountered an antipathy to what they call “academic tone,” which strikes me as a disguised anti-intellectual prejudice. There is good academic writing as well as bad, and an intelligent academic paper can serve as one potential model for essay-writing. Consider the theoretical papers of Sigmund Freud, who, whatever you may think of his ideas, had a beautifully supple, rhetorically complex prose style.
I have also been less than enamored of the hybrid cross-breeding of nonfiction and fiction, in the matter of telling the truth. The fact that an essay is fashioned or shaped via omissions and subjective judgments does not perforce make it a fiction. Whatever artifice goes into the crafting of a good essay, I still think it has an obligation to stick as closely to the facts as possible. There may certainly be times when shortcuts are advisable, combining three events into one or two, say, or creatively paraphrasing dialogue that occurred years before, or even changing some details to protect the identity of real persons, but those are very different matters from wholesale lying. The contract between essayist and reader is based partly on the assumption that the essayist is leveling with us, and not making up an experience from scratch. It is permissible for the essayist to speculate on a different turn of events, but then it should be labeled or implicitly understood as speculation, as for instance in Philip Roth’s masterful essay on Kafka, the first part of which is literary criticism, and the second part a fantasy about Kafka settling in New Jersey near Roth’s family. While I may appreciate the audacity of Lauren Slater’s book On Lying, which experiments with commingling fact and fiction, or John D’Agata’s The Lifespan of a Fact, in which he cheekily defends his right to change actual details in a reported piece because something or other “sounds better” to him, I am not drawn to such mischief myself and I see it essentially as a dead end.
Speaking of John D’Agata, whom I know personally and like as a human being, a sort of friendly rival, it was his own recent anthologies on the essay which sparked my interest in going one better. D’Agata, as you probably know, had been carving out his territory of the lyrical essay, and seeking to uncover (in his words) “the lost origins of the essay,” going back to Sumerian tablets, in contradistinction to the usual canon. In doing so, he has helped to renovate the American essay. He has ferreted out lists, poems, short stories, chapters of novels and so on, often elliptical and poetically mysterious, and made them the center of his interpretation of the genre. But strange to say, he does not seem to like what we normally think of as essays. He is averse to pieces that pursue a logical argument with clarity, or that construct any sort of narrative. This became clear to me in a discussion we had about the essay form in front of an audience, in which he asserted that the essay was primarily “associative” and I maintained that it was primarily “narrative.”
Now, of course, essays can be both associative and narrative, but I somehow believe—perhaps because I think of myself as basically a storyteller—that any essayistic rumination or meditation tends to go from Point A to Point E or F, working through various tensions and knots along the way, and is therefore following, however inadvertently, a narrative arc. Its “plot,” so to speak, is the mind grappling with itself. D’Agata’s aversion to the traditional essay is based partly on his dislike of system and closure, and his desire for an essay to remain free as long as possible from causal connections, as many modernist poems do. Hence, “associative.” I realized how pervasively he clung to this preference when he chose for his newest anthology, The Making of the American Essay, a short story by Leonard Michaels, “In the Fifties,” which is essentially a list-poem, albeit a good one, while passing up the chance to take something from that author’s magnificent posthumous collection, The Essays of Leonard Michaels. Since I regard the late Lenny Michaels as one of America’s greatest contemporary essayists, that substitution struck me as perverse.
As it happened, that last anthology of D’Agata’s came in for a harsh attack by a critic in The Atlantic, who commented on the sparse inclusion of what were customarily considered essays, and incidentally contrasted it unfavorably with my Art of the Personal Essay. All Schadenfreude aside, The Atlantic attack started me thinking. I do like essays. What if I were to undertake a new anthology, focusing as D’Agata did on the American essay, but taking it out of that “lyrical” hot-house he had put it in and opening it up to as many styles and disciplines as could be conceived. And that, in all shameful honesty, is how my latest project arose.
I would like to end with a few ragtag thoughts about the essay. In contrast to the novel and poetry, whose narrative strategies or poetics have been the subject of intense scrutiny by scholars, theorists, and critics, the essay has long been neglected on a theoretical level. That is beginning to change, as evidenced by the appearance of several recent books that have attempted to pull together what might be called a poetics of and ideology of the essay. Some of the essay’s often-cited elements include its extraordinary flexibility and mutability, its literary sparkle, its undogmatic, anti-methodical, anti-totalizing tendencies, its tropism toward ambivalence, doubt, skepticism, self-mockery, its freedom to wander and digress, its cockroach-like resilience and survival ability. All these are good things. I would just like to caution that we essayists not take too seriously our own defensive propaganda, or adopt too smugly this self-approving, narcissistic, idealizing portrait of the form. I who have championed the essay for so long am starting to grow impatient with these self-serving characterizations. Yes, essays can be charming; they have the appeal of the underdog. But let us not get carried away.
In the United States, essays have been undergoing something of a revival. Twenty years ago they were considered box office poison; publishers went to inordinate lengths to disguise the stuff by repackaging essay collections as book-length themes. They wouldn’t even dare put the word “essays” on the cover. Essay love was the love that dared not speak its name. Now all that’s changing, somewhat. Writers such as David Sedaris, Roxane Gay, Leslie Jamison, Hilton Als, Teju Cole, Camille Paglia, Meghan Daum and John Jeremiah Sullivan have achieved an undeniable cachet, while a few of their antecedents, like Joan Didion and James Baldwin, have been elevated to sainthood. While I suspect the essay may be due for another market correction, we can speculate on the reasons for the present upsurge. In line with the recent vogue for the memoir, they appeal to the contemporary moment’s hunger for confiding voices, as witnessed elsewhere in TV talk shows and reality shows. Unlike the memoir, they are usually short, bite-sized, suited to short attention spans; you can keep the book by your bed and read one entry a night. In their penchant for fragmentation in the mosaic essay and opaqueness in the lyrical essay, they seem loyal to the project of modernism; in their acknowledgment of subjectivity and authorial prejudice, they exhibit a refreshing honesty, in line with the New Journalism’s recognition that strict objectivity and arrival at final Truth with a capital T are probably unattainable.
Then, too, the essay has fed conveniently into identity assertions by minorities—whether ethnic, religious, sexual-preference, disabled, victims of abuse, prey to addictions, obesity and so on; all have elicited spokespersons who have plumbed the various aspects of the conditions that made them feel separate. The danger in some of these identity politics niche offerings is that the essay may lose some of its worldly, playful perspective and gravitate toward moral self-righteousness, preachiness, unshapely rage and self-pity. Also, I sometimes miss the imprint or shadings of subtler older essays on these younger voices who are trying to write what has been called “the post-patriarchal essay,” which is one more reason why I (Mr. Patriarchal) feel obligated to make anthologies that honor and preserve the best historical examples.
Finally, while some rationalization and distortion are probably unavoidable in essays, the form has also been a welcome home for the exercise of reason. We can all agree that the essay by its very nature and word-derivation is an attempt, an experiment, a venture into the unknown; but that does not mean that we should allow it to be woolly-headed, or that we should resist whatever spine of argumentation may arise in the midst of our explorations. We must not be afraid to make reasonable sense. However neurotic we are as individuals, we should rejoice in the fact that the form we essayists practice has exemplified the very ideal of the sane, integrated self. Traditionally, it has not been hospitable to irrationality and psychosis. If this limits our freedom as writers, so be it.
Have I disappointed you enough? Thank you for reading patiently.
“To eat is a necessity, but to eat intelligently is an art.”– La Rochefoucauld
One’s relationship to food is conditioned by one’s upbringing, as no doubt everything else. My mother, an overtaxed working woman with four children, was an indifferent cook, happy to open a can of peas or heat up a TV dinner of frozen fish sticks if pressed for time. Her children, in reaction, responded each in our own way: my brother, for instance, became an exigent gourmet and wine connoisseur, while I went in the other direction. Briefly, food has never been that important to me. Oh, I think I know the difference between a well-cooked meal and a lousy one, and I appreciate tasty dishes as much as the next man, but I am also not put off by ordinary grub. I do not require every meal to be a thrilling gustatory experience, and will not drive hundreds of miles out of my way to experience a highly touted restaurant. When I travel, I do not plan my itinerary around four-star establishments others would drool over.
The irony is that for much of my adult life I have been surrounded by foodies, who not only bored me silly recounting their favorite meals and expatiating on the wines that accompanied them, but whom I sadly disappointed by being unable to remember the array of dishes at this or that bistro, beyond the fact that they were “very good.” For several years, in my bachelor days, I actually went out with a food critic, and resented having to spend so much of our private life in pretentious restaurants whose multiple courses took three hours to get through. The one piece of knowledge I took away from that experience was that the starters are often more satisfying than the main courses; but perhaps I had simply become numb to the novelty of ingesting fancy preparations by the time the big dishes arrived.
My ingratitude toward would-be mentors who sought to educate my palette goes back even further, to my friendship with Alice Waters in the days when she began her world-famous restaurant, Chez Panisse. Permit me to backtrack. The year was 1969. I was a twenty-five-year-old runaway, having left my first wife and a struggling ghostwriter’s life in New York to join belatedly the counterculture youth movement in California. After hitchhiking up and down the coast and taking jobs in a post office and a sixteen-millimeter film distribution house, I secured a position as a creative writing instructor at an Oakland private school. I was temporarily living in a shambling house in Berkeley with four women roommates, and felt too uprooted and decentered to do any writing: one of the rare times in my life that I actually had writer’s block.
Knowing my passion for movies, a New York friend had given me the name of Tom Luddy to look up when I got to California. Tom was an extremely knowledgeable film buff who, at the time I first met him, ran the Telegraph Repertory Theater, an arthouse. Eventually he moved on to program the newly established Pacific Film Archives, a cinemathèque of sorts on the University California-Berkeley campus which he turned into a world-class venue. The son of a New York State Democratic political boss, Tom had been a competitive golfer in his youth, and still had an athletic bearing and the shoulders to match. Ensconced in Berkeley, where he had gone to college, he was a man about town, a supporter of activist causes and a local celebrity. Through him I met Alice Waters and her then-live-in boyfriend, David Goines, a talented graphic artist who designed now-collectible posters in a clean, William Morris-influenced style, which stubbornly went against the grain of the vertiginous psychedelic fashion then prevalent in the Bay Area.