Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Stephen Corey: “Essay . . . the Verb”

I find myself beginning today where I left off in 2002 with my introductory remarks for The Georgia Review’s double-issue retrospective look at essays from the journal’s first fifty years (1947-1996): “Please keep in mind that the dictionary—or at least The Georgia Review’s dictionary of record—lists essay only secondarily as a noun. It is first a verb, ‘to test the nature or quality of; try out; attempt.’” Next, I turn to relevant section of the Review’s published guidelines for contributors: “We are seeking informed essays that attempt to place their subjects against a broad perspective. The ideal essay for The Georgia Review is a provocative, thesis-oriented work that can engage both the intelligent general reader and the specialist.”

With no disrespect aimed toward memoir and only a little toward “creative nonfiction” (more on that snipe before I’m done), two currents of prose that have run midstream during the past twenty-five years, I’ll note that neither of them tends to essay (definition one). Still, most people producing such work seem to think, if their cover letters can be believed, that they are writing essays.

Does such hairsplitting matter? Two answers: (1) no; (2) of course.

Why “no”? Because great writing can come from any angle of approach a great writer takes, and nobody has the right to tell a writer what he should write about, or what form or style he should deploy.

Why “of course”? Because civilization has always stood in need—and stands more in need now than ever before—of writing minds able to step away from the gravitational pull of ego to examine the wider world with as much acumen as possible.

Don’t mistake my meaning here. A highly private—even intimate—piece of nonfiction can aspire to and achieve “essay-ness”; indeed, one of the most effective and memorable routes to a strong argumentative position can be through the heart of one or more autobiographical illustrations. For example, Martha G. Wiseman’s “In Rehearsal” (The Georgia Review, Winter 2009) explores the exclusively human, ubiquitous quality of will—recognition/admission of, shaping of, exertion of, failure of, and more. She speaks particularly of artists—actors, dancers, singers, writers—and more particularly of her artist-filled family, which both encouraged and stifled her own artistic urges: her stage-and-film actor father Joseph Wiseman, her operatic mother, her stepmother the professional dancer—and her namesake godmother, the world-renowned choreographer Martha Graham.

Martha Wiseman understands the crucial distinction between essay and autobiography/ memoir, and she knows how to create a successful hybrid by blending the analytical and argumentative with the reminiscent and reportorial.  She knows that a well-told personal anecdote, whether about the present or the past, does not an essay make. Too many writers of nonfiction, especially in recent times, seem not to know this.

More strictly essaying essayists have been a fading breed over the past twenty years, so we at The Georgia Review are more pleased that ever when their works come our way. One of the most reliable essayists we’ve worked with is David Bosworth, whose grand and ongoing critiques of American culture have appeared in our pages more than a half-dozen times. Bosworth is not patently against showing up as a figure in his essays. For instance, “The Cult of the Adolescent: CommercialIndoctrination and the Collapse of Civic Virtue” (Fall 1996) opens with Bosworth’s recollection of his essay’s birth in a graduate class he was teaching: one day he offhandedly said something to his students about being middle-aged, and he was—to his amazement—a bombarded by a range of protestations designed to deny and/or save him from this dastardly fate.         

However, nearly all of Bosworth’s writings are effectively (and blessedly, to my mind) focused on a wide range of other figures as he pursues his understanding of the complexities, strengths, and numerous weaknesses of modern and contemporary America. To make my point, I need only list a few titles from among the Bosworths we have printed over the past twenty-plus years: “Conscientious Thinking: Fundamental Nihilism, and the Problem of Value During the Demise of the Scientific Worldview” (Fall/Winter 2006); “Two Sides of a Tortoise: Melville, Dickens, and the Eclipse of the West’s Moral Imagination” (Winter 2004); “The Most Precious Square of Sense: In Praise of Shakespeare’s Politics” (Fall 2001); “Idiot Savant: Henry Ford as Proto-Postmodern Man” (Spring 2000).

Essays as I am speaking of them here are not better than nonfiction based in strictly or loosely rendered and narratively based personal experience, just different from. That The Georgia Review much prefers essays (but does not categorically close out memoir) speaks to the predilections of its editors, not to any Apollo-given judgment of relative value. Still, said editors would be pleased, and writers well served, if the latter group would understand and heed this preference when deciding what work to show the former.

I will conclude by returning to my paragraph two jab at the term creative nonfiction, which has always struck me—I’ve said as much elsewhere—as an unfortunate misnomer for an interesting concept. Intentionally or not—think of “creative poetry” or “creative fiction”—this designation does not (as it seems to me to claim) just attempt to mark off a space for fact-based writing that borrows some of the devices from fiction’s arsenal. The descriptor creative immediately and unavoidably conjures thoughts of its opposite—“not creative,” “lacking creativity,” “mundane,” and so on, and thus asks, a priori, for superior status. All good writing is creative in the ways appropriate to whatever genre or cross-genre work one might be discussing, and so the coopting of such a central term is . . . well . . . bothersome at the least.  

The Georgia Review does not discriminate against prose manuscripts that come in with cover letters designating them as creative nonfiction; we read the work, and if we find it to be excellent at doing whatever we believe it to be doing, we publish it.

The only so-called proof of whether we have made the right choices, have identified the right excellences, comes from our readers. They are essaying, as are we.


Stephen Corey, editor of The Georgia Review, has been with the journal in various capacities since 1983; he is the longest-serving staff member in the history of the Review, which was founded at the University of Georgia in 1947. Corey has published ten poetry collections, most recently There Is No Finished World (White Pine Press, 2003), and his poems and essays have appeared in dozens of periodicals and anthologies since the mid-1970s.

1 comment:

  1. I share the dislike of the label "creative nonfiction" for many of the same reasons. Why modify nonfiction? A casual reader may think by "creative" you made stuff up. A less casual reader may classify the work in the "new journalism" realm -- which is no longer new, and some might argue was never really journalism, though that's a fun debate to be had over beer or a steaming cup of Jittery Joe's coffee. I've always been partial to "narrative nonfiction" for no good reason other than "creative" suggests all others are not. Essays are a special genre, one I've grown to enjoy more and more, though for the life of me I can't quite fathom why. Aging? Maturing? The consumption of better coffee or whiskey? I'm sure there's a causal link there somewhere.