Friday, February 19, 2010

The Book-Length Essay

Ever since I finished D'Agata's About a Mountain, and I've been thinking about the book-length essay. Mainly, I've been wondering if such a thing exists.

About a Mountain reads like a series of well-linked essays (keeping the momentum of shorter work while tackling multiple, broad themes that seem wider in scope than what can be done in 20 pages), but I don't know if I can consider it an essay in and of itself. Another example of this is found in Eula Biss's The Balloonists, which reads like a 120 page braided, personal essay. With that said, there are bigger organization principles that amount to chapters, so would we call this a memoir, rather than personal essay? Is there a difference? Does it even matter?

I'm not making any real conclusions here, but I would like to try and generate some discussion here: How do we (or don't we) define the book-length essay? Other good examples out there?


  1. Have you read Maggie Nelson's *bluets*? I'm just wondering how you might categorize it, given the parameters that you're thinking about. I'd be interested to know what you conclude. It's a great read. I taught it in my Graduate Poetry course and my undergraduate Advanced Nonfiction Theory course.

  2. To my mind, one of the classic book-length essays is the James Agee / Walker Evans text, /Let Us Now Praise Famous Men/. For a book to qualify for this reader there has to be a real sense of book as its own project, with its own sense of structure. Far too often writers seem happy to just throw together a bunch of essays and call it a collection, as if there's not art in the compilation, the ordering, and the editing that should talk place after you assemble essays. I read John's book as a book-length essay, albeit, yeah, it's divided into sections/chapters. It doesn't really read as a memoir in any real way, though there's memoir components working in it. And polemic. I haven't read that Maggie Nelson book though this is the second time this week somebody's mentioned it which suggests it's about time to pick it up.

    Does the book-length essay have to be short in order to consider it an essay?

    The one thing I like about this discussion is that it seems like, for a lot of mfa types and other students of writing (esp nf) the options appear to them to be (1) memoir; (2) collection of essays; and (3) uhhhh... so thinking about book-essays is helpful.

  3. Oh, I think I'd argue for a couple of Lisa Robertson's books (particularly THE WEATHER) being pretty good examples of the book-length essay, albeit on the lyric side of the tracks, which we all know is the uncool side of the tracks.

  4. John was in town last night. We decided "font size."

  5. J-
    Excellent, I haven't read this yet, but I just ordered a copy (I'll probably report back on here with some thoughts).

    A- It's funny you mention /Let us Now Praise Famous Men/, as I started re-reading it about a week ago.

    I don't think it necessarily has to be short, but I do think it needs to read like it's short, if that makes sense. I think the essay, despite it's ability to meander, still feels more focused in the moment than memoir. You don't see as much set up/exposition ("Looking back, I...") in an essay, for example.

    Agreeing with the 3rd point as well: my thesis is a collection of essays that feel connected to me, but apparently they don't read that way to anyone else. I've been thinking a lot about book-length essays lately, mainly because I'm trying to figure out the best way to weave my shorter works into something that better accumulates.

    bigger=better? I'll start submitting work in 36-point!

  6. Why does it have to read like it's short? Do you mean that it should have some kind of formal element that unifies it? Or that it simply has to read like a /project,/ and not a bunch of projects stuck together?

  7. Yeah, mainly I think it has to read like a project.

    I fear I may be venturing into more of an essay/memoir comparison, but the essay (including book-length) usually feels like a series of events that gradually build in some unexpected fashion. Memoir, although also a series of events, typically seems to build toward a foregone conclusion. For example, I can read the first 15 pages of /The Duke of Deception/ and tell you, regardless of any surprises along the way, that I'm going to be reading primarily about a complicated father/son relationship.

    I think it's the essay's ability to jump around that makes it "read like it's short," since individual scenes/sections tend to feel more self-contained.

  8. I'm thinking it has to do with the capacity of a brain, too. And the essay has a lot to do with brain, in that it is the form that most accurately models the way in which we think (or maybe I should say it most accurately simulates the way that a particular essayist's brain does its thinking thing). So if we think of a book as an essay we might want to think of it as (possibly) being held within one brain, possibly in one sitting, possibly in one movement. Which is why it's easier for this reader anyhow to track some more poetic essays, since the style can act as a clear formal unifier.

    I agree with you that the movement of an essay is different than the movement of a memoir. That it is more brainlike. Which means probably (or apparently) unpredictable. Which makes stream of consciousness as a fictional technique a very essayish move.