Is the Personal Essay Hipper Than Thou?


PEOPLE ARE GENERALLY after the truth. Whether they’re reading fiction or nonfiction or something in between (and the in-between is vast), I suspect they usually want something that feels genuine, honest, real—even those who don’t think of themselves as earnest types. Nonfiction lately is hip. Essays, in particular, have a veneer of currency right now. It’s a form that can be perfectly direct and also contain a world of subtleties. And there’s often as much imagination and craft and contrivance to a great essay as there is to a work of fiction.

Recently a piece in the New Republic appeared that lamented the current state of the essay. In an article that was both right on and full of blind spots, Adam Kirch wrote that even though it seems like we’re living in a “golden age” of the essay, these essays are not really Essays. He invoked Montaigne as the sort of ideal and “modern inventor” of the personal essay, and focused on contemporary writers David Sedaris, Davy Rothbart, Sloane Crosley, and John Jeremiah Sullivan, whose work has “little in common with what was once meant by that term.”

As Kirch put it, these authors are really just writing first-person narratives. They often use fictional alter egos as their stars. Part fiction, part nonfiction. Lots of things exaggerated for effect. They’re humorists, not essayists, he says. Yes, in many ways this is what Sedaris and Crosley and Rothbart seem to be doing (and clearly Sedaris is the grandaddy of them all, and he’s genuinely good and funny). But I’m not sure it’s cause for alarm. “Essay” may be overused as a sort of catch-all term for any sort of short nonfiction, but it’s also, inherently, a form that is elastic and open and beautifully absorbent to the culture around it.

Kirch lowers the boom when he says that the work of Rothbart, Crosley, and Sedaris represents “the prose equivalent of reality TV.” Aside from the fact that that’s just about the worst thing I can imagine being compared to, I’m not really convinced by the theory. Kirch is talking about the transparent falseness as the salient feature of these essays and of reality TV, and also of the claustrophobia of the cult of personality. But the personal, me-centered, sometimes hyperbolic aspect of these writers feels to me to come much more directly from the Blogosphere than from reality TV.

I remember when I first stumbled on blogs. I was slow to come to it all, or maybe I was just terrified.  But I used to like to look at musicians’ websites, and there, creeping up under headings like “Tour Diary,” were oozing, spreading blog-like meanderings describing lousy hotel rooms, super-great gigs, lonely bus rides, and more personal things, like breakups and eating disorders. Fans were getting to know the musicians. We were all becoming pals.

And then there was that awful verb—“to blog.” Everywhere, people were blogging. And usually the blogs were rife with TMI, and not very well-written TMI. The Internet was giving everyone a forum, and a lot of people were fancying themselves writers who didn’t have a handle on the craft. Blogs were an inevitable stage, and a useful one, but often they were narcissistic and ranty and you, the reader, had to sift through. A list of gripes does not necessarily make an essay, but a well-crafted, meaningful list of gripes might.

So it makes sense that the current trend in essay writing might take on some of those qualities, as well as the sticky narcissistic sludge of Facebook and the like. Kirch’s argument is that the new essays are “exclusively about the self,” whereas great essays in the past could use the self and still be expansive and universal. I think there are plenty of writers who are doing that now, and plenty who have been doing it for decades, in fact, even in ways that might not have been strictly essayistic.

Donald Barthelme, the great postmodern fiction writer, was also a hero of experimental nonfiction. In 1997 a collection of his essays and interviews was published called Not-Knowing, and looking at it now, I realize he was, in the ’60s and ’70s, already pushing the form in new directions. His writing was playful and strange, and he clearly didn’t take things too seriously or fear for his reputation if he messed around with tradition. One of the best pieces is his essay in the form of a “letter to a literary critic,” in which he begins, “Yes, you are absolutely right—Post-Modernism is dead. A stunning blow, but not entirely unanticipated.” And later, “On the bright side, one thing that is dead that I don’t feel too bad about is Existentialism.” He’s putting us on and he’s also having a field day with the self-importance of critics. The piece is exaggerated and comic but it says no less than an Essay might, and it says plenty about Barthelme himself.

And take British writer Geoff Dyer, more recently. He might be one of the ones who got the whole “essays are hip” thing rolling just by being so bold and good and unconventional. He blurs the lines between fiction and nonfiction by sometimes using a contrived storyteller’s voice in an essay, or by throwing criticism into something that sounds more like a piece of fiction. He’s done all the things that Kirch found annoying in the writers he talks about.

“The truth is no excuse,” a teacher of mine once said to a classroom full of writing students. He meant that if you’re writing from life, whether in nonfiction or fiction, faithfulness to the facts doesn’t necessarily make for great writing. I’m not talking about the James Frey school of memoir writing. But things are very much in flux. Let’s not get stuck on terminology. Jonathan Lethem’s recent book of essays (or whatever they are) is called The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, Etc. When in doubt, stick an “s” on the end of a word like “nonfiction” and you’re all set.

Another upside to this essay trend is that it can inspire us to go back and read the really great practitioners, both past and current, and look again at what makes them so exceptional—people like Joan Didion, H.L. Mencken, E.M. Cioran, Marilynne Robinson, Gore Vidal. Some of them wrote straight-up journalistic essays, some wrote personal narratives. The field was open then as it is now. You can get an M.F.A. now in what’s called Creative Nonfiction. As if it wasn’t creative all along.

Michelle Orange, Ali Smith, John Jeremiah Sullivan (Kirch didn’t really give him his due), Tom Bissell: These are a few authors doing good and interesting things with the essay form right now. A great essay takes some little leap out of the ordinary, it has alchemy to it, it has magic.

When I think of a perfect essay I think of Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter.” It originally appeared in The New Yorker and then was included in her 1998 book of autobiographical essays called The Boys of My Youth. It’s a deep, wrenching piece of writing that is so seamlessly put together I can’t imagine changing one thing about  it. Beard describes how, in 1991, a deranged former graduate student at the University of Iowa killed five people and then killed himself. Beard worked in the department where he opened fire, but hadn’t gone to the office that day. One of her best friends was killed, a tall, gentle German man named Chris. Beard slows the action down to excruciating detail, especially in showing the way her own brain absorbs the news. And spiraling out from the central event of the story are the collapse of her marriage (her husband has recently left her), her dying Collie, and the family of squirrels that has moved into the upstairs of her house. The squirrels create havoc that she then comes to miss once they move out. Everything needs to be there; each element amplifies the pain and absurdity of everything else. The essay is designed as delicately as an origami crane. Toward the end Beard stands outside and looks up at the sky at night: “There are stars and stars and stars. The sky is full of dead men, drifting in the blackness like helium balloons.”

Now, for all I know everything in that essay happened exactly as Beard described, and I believe it did. But if, for instance, I found out the squirrels were not actually living in her house until the following year, but she compressed time and put that detail in because it somehow made the piece more complete, I’d be okay with that. I wouldn’t drag her onto Oprah’s couch and make her explain that choice. Because that is great writing, knowing what needs to be there and what needs to go. And the squirrels need to be there—right there and then.

About Janet Steen

Janet Steen started on the editorial staff at Esquire, where she tweaked the prose of writers including Norman Mailer, Denis Johnson, and Mary Gaitskill. She went on to become the books editor at Time Out New York, an editor at Us Weekly, and the literary editor at Details. She has written for the New York Times, Interview, Details, Us Weekly, and Time Out New York. Her profile subjects include such widely varying personalities as Steve Martin, Barry White, Martin Amis, and Dennis Hopper. She edits books and is a co-founder of, and lives in upstate N.Y.
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7 Responses to Is the Personal Essay Hipper Than Thou?

  1. Babs Mansfield says:

    When I was little, I prayed, “oh lord, let me be both pretty and smart.” Now I pray, “oh lord, let me be both funny and sincere.” God is genuinely laughing at me, “giirrrl… you so shallow.” Here I am, stalking Janet Steen again and wishing I could be as a generous toward writers, or as deep in general as she.

  2. Really enjoyed your piece. When I was younger, George Orwell’s “Down and Out in London and Paris” was my favorite book of essays. As for Geoff Dyer, his 1996 book on jazz “But Beautiful” is a must read for anyone interested in how creative the essay can be. Anyway, enough babbling…keep up the wonderful work.

    • janet says:

      Thank you so much, Michael. And I agree, both Orwell’s “Down and Out…” and Dyer’s “But Beautiful” are terrific books. Thanks for reading…. –Janet

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