His gaze has been so worn by the procession
Of bars that he no longer sees.
— “The Panther,” Rainer Maria Rilke
“The essayist is at his most profound when his intentions are most modest,” declares Joseph Epstein, the editor of “The Norton Book of Personal Essays” and the author of nearly two dozen books of autobiographical essays. The essay is a “miniaturist” genre, intones another anthologist; it is “in love with littleness.” Sound ingratiating? Sweet? Self-deprecating? It is. But it is also—as anyone who has spent time with these volumes knows—eye-crossingly dull. The essay that is considered “literature” in our day is not an ambitious or impassioned (if sometimes foolhardy) analysis of human nature. It is not an argument, or a polemic. It is not a gun-blazing attack on a social trend, a film, a book, or a library of books. Those sorts of pieces, sniff the anthologists, are mere journalism.
Cristina Nehring on What’s Wrong With the American Essay, On Truth Dig,
Here’s a another piece that I was prepared to dislike and then, well, liked. I honestly thought it was going to be another lament about shortened attention spans and television and… It’s the sort of argument that drives me batty becuase it never seems to quite connect to the realities of the general work speed up of the last twenty or thirty years. Reading is in some sense an artifact from an earlier economic epoch.
What’s more, we are living in an kind of renaissance of traditional writing forms, both epistolary in email and instant messaging, and essayistic in the web log. I think there is more of everything than there was before the Internet, including junk, but the rough outlines of the genres remain dominant. Which is simply a longish way of saying that I would think the essay– in its more narrowly defined form, or in its modern incarnation, the “creative non-fiction” essay, would be thriving.
It’s not Nehring says, if you judge the essays collected in the last several ” The Best of the American Essays” collections. The problem, she argues, is not just that the essayiets are inevitably upper middle class, “Educated at Harvard,” she says of their collective persona, “he or she has spent significant time at the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference.” They are also quirky in an oddly homogeneous way. “Chances are good she’s a doting dog owner who has done such things as lace her pet’s dinner with “Prozac, Buspar, Elavil, Effexor, Xanax, and Clomicalm.”
All that’s true, but its not the crux of the problem. It is a genre, says Nehring, dominated by a kind of institutionalized cowardice, an unwillingness to risk; a tone she calls, “Slow-moving. Soft-hitting. Nostalgic. Self-satisfied.” There’s no larger purpose, “no effort to make their experience relevant or useful to anyone else, with no effort to extract from it any generalizable insight into the human condition.” She quotes E.B. White’s description of writers who are “pedantically taking down their own experience simply because it is their own.”
Nehring ends with a hilarious but sad citation from an essayist who favorably compares her work to a cow. “Not any old cow, mind you,” she says, “but a plastic cow—a transparent cow—that [editor Susan] Orlean has spotted in a store.” We need quite another animal, Nehring concludes, “not Orlean’s incarcerated cow… but Rilke’s panther breaking the bars of his cage.” I am less confident than Nehring that the old-fashioned book can hold such a beast, but her essay’s proof enough that it exists.