On the Essay, Lately

Last night, I picked up David Sedaris’ When You Are Engulfed in Flames. I got this book when Sedaris came to town and I spent the whole night right next to him, listening to his funny and weird stories, watching him draw small penises on the monkey that graced the advertising poster for the event,  and giving away mini bottles of shampoo (because he ran out of condoms, his usual gift). Additionally, I chatted to the fans who came to get their books signed and who were breathless to meet him. At the end of the night, he signed a book to me saying “thanks for the wonderful company”. He’s very nice. I only tell you this story because of the feelings/thoughts that I had when I finally picked up his most recent book of essays. I felt like the essays would have more meaning because I knew him. Well, I didn’t know know him. But I met him. We talked. He complimented my “frock”. I felt like I had a duty to read his essays and that I would know (not in the sense of knowing, know him), but I could at least picture him in the things that he discussed. I made up in my head a little mini-version of him (which usually just has their face on a baby body), for the parts of his childhood, etc. .  His essays are often about his life: as a child, growing up, as an adult, other people he’s met, etc. One assumes that they’re autobiographical, but there’s no reason to really believe that.

Then, I read an essay by Zadie Smith in The Guardian today, discussing “novel nausea”, and her recent turn to essays. I remembered that we recently got the book in and I was enamored with it. She discusses Zora Neale Hurston, George Eliot, and David Foster Wallace, it’s called Changing My Mind. Her discussion was mostly about another upcoming book of essays, Reality Hunger by David Shields, who discusses the neat and abhorrent plotting of a novel. He dismisses  the “crafted novel, with its neat design and completist attitude, to be a dull and generic thing, too artificial to deal effectively with what is already a ‘unbearably artificial world’.” Smith uses this a jumping off point to talk about the off-putting nature of narrative “and then, and then” and that there are probably only 10 good novels per decade. She believes that most books aren’t very good, and ones that are old and we think are good (i.e. Jane Eyre, Middlemarch), weren’t received well on first publication. Ultimately, she privileges the essay over the novel (though admits her present novel nausea bias) as something within which one can be oneself, but is not confined to being oneself. That is, it has elements of the writer but doesn’t have to be a memoir, autobio, etc. There is personal and public, there is fiction and non-fiction. A fictional discussion of non-fiction, a real conversation/discussion about an imagined world. Oh the possibilities!

This brings me back to Sedaris. My original feeling of closeness with this internationally acclaimed author through is essays was really just based on the fact that I’d met him. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether these things happened to him or not. I still picture him with his man head on a tiny (or much diminished body), and it makes me laugh.

This leads me to consider the larger implications of these thoughts. Essays are interesting to me because they are often shorter and therefore more thought and effort must be put into one so that it will be coherent and clear (unlike here), which I value and recognize, but do not practice. The essays I enjoy most are authors writing about other authors, as I mentioned above about Smith discussing Foster Wallace and Neale Hurston. Sedaris doesn’t touch that part of essay-ing, but his humor and stories transcend any snobbery I might feel about autobiographical essays.  I also attribute this desire for essays to many personal circumstances: shorter attention span, feeling like all novels are the same, reading a 300 page book in a night, and some others I can’t think of now.

I think the essay is a very personal thing for both reader and writer, it is both personal and public. One’s personal experience with a subject is put out in the open and discussed on more levels than the personal. Often, the cultural, the financial, the historical, the academic, the natural are included and the possibilities are endless. All that being written, watch for reviews on essays in the upcoming posts.

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1 comment so far

  1. John Gilmore on

    Last month _The Writer’s Chronicle_ had an interview with Lee Gutkind, founding and current editor of _Creative Nonfiction_, in which he used the terms “Public” and “Personal,” or perhaps it was “Public” and “Private.” I don’t recall, for sure. Gutkind is more a fan of the Public, as opposed to pure old memoir. I know his journal asks for submissions to have an instructive element, and I think that’s what the public is all about. I think your preference for essays about other writers illustrates this: You are being instructed about something outside the author’s life. Right?

    The month before, the same magazine published an interview with (David?) Gessner, editor of the literary journal _Ecotone_, in which Gessner makes similar arguments about the power of the natural, external world to compliment the inner, personal world of the author. I don’t subscribe but read these on campus, so I can’t recall exactly if I’m relating this correctly, but I agreed with both these writers and their sense of the value of splitting the difference in essay writing.


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