New essay era, 17 classics by women


Bonus: Jake Adam York offers a fine minute of writing advice.

We’re living in the golden age of essays, proclaims a February 18 essay by Adam Kirsch in  New Republic. In “The New Essayists, or the Decline of a Form? The Essay as Reality Television,” Kirsch immediately invokes as an example John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead, which in another day, with its roots in magazine pieces and celebrity profiles, might have been labeled journalism—but which, as an exciting hybrid of reportage and personal musing, can fairly be claimed by essayists.

And then Kirsch seems to backpedal from his opening pronouncement:

But all is not as it seems. You do not have to read very far in the work of the new essayists to realize that the resurrection of the essay is in large measure a mirage. For while the work of writers such as David Sedaris, Sloane Crosley, John Jeremiah Sullivan, and Davy Rothbart are described as essays—My Heart Is an Idiot: Essays, is the title of Rothbart’s new book—they have little in common with what was once meant by that term. The new essay, like the old essay, is a prose composition of medium length; but beyond that the differences are more salient than the resemblances.

So which is it, golden age or mirage? Well it seems to be more like a new wave, to help Kirsch mix his metaphors further. The self was always at the heart of the essay, he says, but the new essay is exclusively about the self. (Making me wonder whether Joan Didion ever wrote about anything but herself, in the end, and so how new is this new phenomenon?) The popularity of comedic essayists, who bare the world’s supposed assault on their egos, is Kirsch’s prime example: “What we now call an essayist used to be called a humorist.” Hmmm. If you say so. You don’t have to agree with him to find his essay interesting, albeit not very humorous despite his focus is on comedic essayists. He has some interesting things to say about the fictionalized personas they create to achieve their effects.

The most exciting thing about Kirsch’s piece is the way he posits the knowing collaboration between an obviously exaggerating author and his audience. Raising the question as to whether only humor gets a pass or if something else indeed might be brewing, the blurring of genres that David Shields has predicted and celebrated.

• • •

 Flavorwire has recently posted “17 Essays by Female Writers that Everyone Should Read,” a varied selection of work by grizzled matriarchs and fresh-faced up-and-comers. The selection, made by the editors of Creative Nonfiction, includes live links to a dozen of the essays. Classics like Virginia Woolf’s short “Street Haunting,” Adrienne Rich’s powerful “Split at the Root,” and Didion’s ambitious “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” appear with Jo Ann Beard’s contemporary classic “The Fourth State of Matter” and Cheryl Strayed’s more recent “Heroin/e.”

I haven’t followed all the available links, but of those I’ve read or re-read I’ve gotten the biggest kick out of Joyce Carol Oates’s “Against Nature.” No Thoreau, she. Oates’s beef with nature is  refreshing because of the assumed pieties of nature writers; at least, a pitfall of nature writing seems to be that it can so easily come off as smarmy. In any case it’s hard to argue with Oates when she points out, making a deliciously personal and curmudgeonly indictment that also seems true, that nature lacks a sense of humor.


Filed under essay-personal, fiction, honesty, humor, journalism, NOTED

6 responses to “New essay era, 17 classics by women

  1. I have only read a handful of those essays, but I look forward to a time when I can indulge in them. As for the essay—Kirsch’s proclamation is about as important as tracing the pop song. What links them is that they are popular. They don’t sound much alike. They’ve evolved.

    Yet every time you make a comment like that—something that says they bear no resemblance to their former forms—you find a whole bunch of stuff that resembles the old. Trends, waves, roots. I don’t know. I know there are many different kinds of essays—personal, intimate, formal—and I like a lot of them. To me, all it needs to be is relatively short and true without being a review.

    I’m sure I’ll find other exceptions, too, once I think about it.

    • I agree, Leslie. His piece came off, in that sense, as very journalistic, and in the worst sense of that term: identify a trend and prosecute it, get ahead of the trend, scoop everyone. It sounds so reductive to say humorists are the new essayists, and so unaware of the field, and also to pretend there haven’t always been examples of what you’re championing as new and different. Maybe humor’s just hot, like it usually seems to be, for those who can do it. The article is interesting and useful for whom he calls attention to, though.

  2. One thing Oates does not lack is a sense of humor. Her novel, The Gravedigger’s Daughter, is one of my favorites. Her sex scenes are often hiliarious and among the best written (an aspect of her writing I’ve never heard mentioned).

    • Thanks for pointing that out, Darrelyn. The most recent thing I read by her before this essay was a novella or long short story, “Spotted Hyenas: A Romance,” which I really enjoyed, magical realism and all. Before that I admired her essay excerpted from her memoir about her husband’s death, but haven’t read the long memoir itself. She is such a smooth writer.

  3. How exciting to see that list with links, Richard. I teach memoir, but this spring the class is going to try its hand at Flash Nonfiction. I’ve already suggested they pick up a copy of Dinty Moore’s book about that genre, and have recommended Phillip Lopate’s newest book, “To Show and to Tell,” which I thought was excellent. Now, thanks to you, I have a rich anthology to share with them (not flash nonfiction, but fine essayists nonetheless). Sweet!

    • Thanks, Susan. That’s going to be a fun class. I’m not sure the length limit for flash nonfiction—500 words was a recent contest—but although Brevity has a 750-word limit, many essays available on its site are considerably shorter.