What’s Wrong With the American Essay?

I’m spending some time at lunch today reading Christina Nehring’s excellent essay over at truthdig.com on what is wrong with the American Essay, and she’s making some excellent points:

  • Are we, as readers, responsible for the decline of the American essay? Have we become lazier, less interested, less educated? Attention spans, to be sure, have shortened. Gone are the days when people pored over periodicals at languorous length during transatlantic crossings. But this is not the reason why essay collections gather dust and why essayists so often count themselves “second-class citizens” (in the words of E.B. White). If the genre is neglected in our day it is first and foremost because its authors have lost their nerve. It is because essayists—and their editors, their anthologists and the taste-makers on whom they depend—have lost the courage to address large subjects in a large way.
  • The essay they prefer has a distinctive tone, which Epstein has called “middle-aged.” I’m not an age-essentialist, but Epstein is, and what he means by “middle-aged” is clearly quiet. Slow-moving. Soft-hitting. Nostalgic. Self-satisfied. It’s the tone he perfects in his signature essay, “The Art of the Nap.” The tone Louis Menand espouses when he states—in the introduction to the 2004 BAE—that his preferred nonfiction “is the one that makes a lost time present.” The tone other BAE writers use when they reminisce rather aimlessly about their trout-fishing expeditions as a child; the drugstore on their block; the New Year’s party they spent watching television with extended family.
  • “It’s only 11 o’clock,” Alan Lightman informs us in the keynote essay of the 2000 BAE, “but I am a morning person and I am already tired. I nod and sink into a chair. To wake myself up, I drink some tart apple cider. …” Hundreds of words later Mr. Lightman is still “half-sleeping against a wall”—and so are his readers. It was one lame night then, and it’s one lame night now. It does not improve in the retelling.
  • If the essays in these anthologies boast a distinctive (and distinctively dreary) tone, they also boast highly specific subject matters and—for all the editors’ sporadic salutes to individualism—startlingly homogenous author profiles.
  • Although Michel de Montaigne, who fathered the modern essay in the 16th century, wrote autobiographically (like the essayists who claim to be his followers today), his autobiography was always in the service of larger existential discoveries. He was forever on the lookout for life lessons. If he recounted the sauces he had for dinner and the stones that weighted his kidney, it was to find an element of truth that we could put in our pockets and carry away, that he could put in his own pocket. After all, Philosophy—which is what he thought he practiced in his essays, as had his idols, Seneca and Cicero, before him—is about “learning to live.” And here lies the problem with essayists today: not that they speak of themselves, but that they do so with no effort to make their experience relevant or useful to anyone else, with no effort to extract from it any generalizeable insight into the human condition. It is as though they were unthinking stenographers—“recording secretaries,” as indeed the most self-conscious 20th-century essayist, E.B. White, called them—pedantically taking down their own experience simply because it is their own.

The emphasis there was mine.

That last point in particular hits on for me what has become so uncomfortable about the current nonfiction book boom and about blogs. When I was studying literary nonfiction writing in the late 80s with Annie Dillard, she was very clear, we were engaged in a moral exercise. “You will never be this alive again,” she was saying, again and again, “and neither will your reader.” She wanted us to respect the fact that wasting people’s time was like delivering a blow. Which is in fact what it feels like to me, when I read something through to the end and think…it was all for that? Or, as Nehring puts it:

  • There was a feeling of urgency in Seneca’s prose—as there is in the prose of all the great essayists after him: “You are called in to help the unhappy,” he reminds his fellow intellectuals. “Where are you off to? The person you are engaging in word play with is in fear.”


  1. As a snobby classicist this definitely resonates with me, but the thing to keep in mind is that mediocrity is always everywhere, and the lame essayists who surrounded Seneca or Samuel Johnson have all completely vanished, even though at the time their fashionable style of writing must have been just as present as equally weak and fashionable writing styles are today–proportionally-speaking, of course.

    The essays of Borges are truly exquisite, as well, if you’re looking for good essay-writing–and the stuff in the New Yorker is rigidly homogeneous, but of a very talented species of homogeneity.

    In many ways it also seems as if modern writers are afraid to express themselves, timidly holding everything back lest they be exposed to ridicule–an inevitable product of success–but this was also no doubt true in the past. What we need is perspective! Greater perspective would really help to draw stronger conclusions, to delineate these lineaments, as it were.

  2. Oh, know that I don’t doubt mediocrity is everywhere. And that it always has been. But I do feel like narrative in general is being undermined, whether it is in journalism, nonfiction writing, fiction or film or television. And with that, the ability to reach for insight. As well as the appetite for it.

    1. I’m cruising by as I’m struggling to write an essay this afternoon, and this was a stern and welcome corrective to my lassitude. Right, none of us will be this alive again. Help the unhappy. Right.

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