Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Sven Birkerts: Screening the Essay

The essay for me begins with the second word, maybe the third or fourth, and it tells on itself—which is to say on the writer’s mind and sensibility—quite soon after that. For the space of a word or two, sometimes longer, the obvious and mediocre can pass as being possibly something more. But not for too many words beyond that. What am I playing at here? I’m overstating things, of course. But I’m also serious: I’m trying to figure out—as a reader, as an editor—how long a work can go without showing its true self—its sui generis character, or its inability to transcend received thinking. As an editor I need to be able to tell quickly. Time is in short supply, and submissions throng the sluices like salmon in spawning season. Yes, the editor needs to know exactly what he’s looking for, and he needs to be cruel—which is to say he needs to believe in his taste.

What plagues me in my capacity of editor at AGNI, an editor who insists on at least looking at everything that comes in, is not bad writing, which announces itself right away and can be dealt with in an eye-blink, but writing which has picked up some of the gestures of authentic uniqueness, enough to lure me in, but which never really comes to life—only comes close enough to have me wondering if it’s me or the prose.    

I have to speak personally here. In looking for nonfiction—or any work, really—I try to make myself susceptible to being struck. The rest is up to the writer.  It took me a long time to come to this, many seasons of reading like a good citizen, remarking to myself as I turned pages and more pages: This is very able, this is clear, this is an important subject—rather than Hey, hey, come here: listen to this!  And there is a world of difference.

If the first words can hint at the quality, the first sentence or two will as often as not reveal. What exactly? Not the subject, not usually, and not necessarily the theme—that stratum of deeper content. But it will reveal the author in voice and in relation to her subject; it will, best case, offer a first clear glimpse of the true goods.

This is natural and inevitable if you think about it. Any stylistic expression gives a running Geiger-counter read-out of the expressing self, and the start of a work more so—because the true writer knows to begin any piece of writing with best foot forward, the style put most conscientiously (and indicatively) to work. By “style” I don’t mean prose in fancy dress, nothing like that; I mean self-sound. It can sometimes arrive looking ordinary, even slightly clunky, as in the first sentence of Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s “You Gotta Have Heart” (AGNI 77): “A pack of Vantage containing two cigarettes was in my coat pocket when I arrived at the hospital.” But reading this I was snagged by two things right away—the specificity of the two, and the combustible pairing of “cigarettes” and “hospital.” Why? I picked up hints of defiance, transgression; I felt there was something deliberate, not lazy, in the use of the passive voice; I trusted right away that this was the voice of a truth-teller. I read on.

Or, taking the other extreme, there is the opening that gives away nothing, but does so with a supreme confidence that persuades me instantly: All will be revealed. Robert Leonard Reid (AGNI 76) begins his essay “The Doubling Is Always Observed” thus:

“On the Kupuestra. It is not supple. It communicates nothing. The kupuestra is mute; brittle; many-cornered, the body is a polygon; the choreographic equivalent of Ak-Mak crackers, but without the sesame seeds.”

I didn’t understand a word of this. But what a suggestive fog the writer made: the word-sounds (kupuestra, choreographic, Ak-Mak), the condensed syncopations of phrases, the thrill of analogy, this mysterious entity seen as being “the choreographic equivalent of Ak-Mak crackers, but without the sesame seeds.” The thing with suggestive fogs, of course, is that the wanderer must before long make out a few shapes that will indicate his whereabouts, and then the fog must break, the way it does so thrillingly when the road lifts you up from whatever miasmic valley you had been driving through.

Or else: “It arrived in four pieces—which word, pieces, doesn’t do the job. It arrived in four—four what? Four parts? Four boxes—each one wider and heavier than I, than either of us; and it was just us back then, just Fred and me in our new house—our first house (our first and last, could that be?); the one in which we’d all grow up (not just the kids); the one in which we two will get old (along with the dogs).”

 A tricky attack, this opening of Dinah Lenney’s “Breakfront” (AGNI 76).  At a cursory glance, or skim, it appears to qualify itself almost out of existence—pieces becoming parts becoming boxes, the “I” becoming part of a couple, then a family. But what tremendous control in the voice! A whole life-premise and narrating persona stands revealed on the far side of all of those dashes and parentheses. Indeed, you could say that the stuff of the three parenthetical asides subtly maps a life-trajectory, from aspiration to realization to a wryly wistful projection of a cycle fulfilled.

A few things need to be insisted upon. These three openings are so different because the essays are themselves so different. Every essay that finds its way into AGNI is, I think, norm-defying. I could no more say ‘this is the kind of essay we like’ than I could say what makes a good writer. Beyond, that is, an irresistible drive to tell the truth about an experience, or follow the spoor of language to a striking recognition, or… I would emphasize, too, that had any of the essays cited failed to follow through on the promise their opening extended, I would not have chosen them. But they did, confirming for me the principle of the organicism of the realized work.

Sven Birkerts has been editor of AGNI since July 2002. He is the author of nine books, most recently: My Sky Blue Trades: Growing Up Counter in a Contrary Time (Viking, 2002), Reading Life (Graywolf, 2007), Then, Again: The Art of Time in the Memoir (Graywolf, 2008), and The Other Walk (Graywolf, 2011).

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