Friday, December 18, 2015

BAE 2012 Read by Thomas Mira y Lopez

My first familiarity with David Brooks, the guest editor of Best American Essays’ 2012 Edition, came not through The New York Times, where he is an op-ed columnist, or NPR’s All Things Considered, where he’s a frequent analyst, but through the blog Gawker, where David Brooks is known, in one of the site’s kinder epithets, as “the sad but harmless sweater-wearing guy who likes to give your kids advice gleaned from inspirational office posters.”

I love reading the BAE series; each year’s edition sits wrapped under my Christmas tree, each essay within, its own nested gift. But I also love reading Gawker. The site brews my cynicism and outrage (the instant coffees of emotions) and inspires my inclinations towards social activism, while allowing me to remain entirely passive and procrastinatory. It seduces me and so this is my problem: Gawker really, really doesn’t like David Brooks. And so I’ve found, neither do I.

Let's backtrack a minute. If you’re familiar with the site, you know there are a great many things Gawker loves to dislike—Tao Lin, Roger Goodell, reddit, journalistic standards—and Brooks is only part of a vast and varied constellation. And if you’re someone who agrees with the notion that reading and writing theoretically are empathic, expansive exercises in which a mind reaches out and tries to mold itself to another’s, then you also know that Gawker usually provides the reverse experience. So the specifics of why Brooks provokes the website’s ire (recent titles: “What is this David Brooks Column About?” and “It is Shocking that David Brooks Stays Employed as a Writer Somehow”) seem beside the point. But it also seems worth noting that the attributes on which the website most frequently wants to skewer Brooks—that he’s a bit of a gasbag who populates his writing with truisms and frames his social science with off-the-cuff stories instead of actual data—are the very qualities which we praise the essayist for possessing: the anecdotal, the digressive, the carefree lack of expertise.

This question of expertise—and how it manifests in the essay—runs throughout BAE 2012. In his nuanced foreword, Robert Atwan remarks on the rise of the expert in nonfiction, positing that the “centuries-old relationship of writer to topic [has] reversed itself, with the writer now becoming subservient to the topic.” “The modern essayist,” he continues, is “obligated to include findings and research from the latest journals of psychology and psychoanalysis, along with interview quotations from mental health professionals.”

In short, Atwan—an expert evaluating his expertise—proposes that modern essayists are beholden to their subjects in a new way, perhaps because the essayist has become conflated with the journalist or because changes in communication and technology mean it’s easier these days to get a hold of a mental health professional for a question or two.

These journalistic requirements, Atwan suggests, subsequently constrict the literary essayist’s freedom of movement. If a premium’s placed on expertise, it follows that one’s expertise might turn to oneself. Hence the rise of memoir. Yet “the personal narrative…too often invites authors to embellish their life story so that it sounds more novelistic and dramatic than it acutally is.” The downside of the staunchly personal is that, through staging a narrative, it risks losing “the ever-shifting processes of our minds and moods” that’s an “essential characteristic of the essay” and its “qualifications to be regarded seriously as imaginative literature.”

In his introduction, Brooks too seems to favor the armchair’s knowledge over the specialist’s. He praises the 19th century British essayist Walter Bagehot for his ability to expound “on everything from Gibbons to Islam to banking procedures” and to “summarize entire policy disputes in one sentence.” He celebrates Evelyn Waugh for a droll essay in which he “bluff[s] [his] way through a dinner conversation filled with poseurs.” And in his analysis of the halcyon years of the mid-20th century American essay, Brooks notes “the best essays…had lost the pomposity while retaining some grandeur and scope. They were rigorous without being narrow and academic. They were polemical without being partisan. They were countercultural without being sloppy. They were reckless but also learned.” Try aligning that—“countercultural without being sloppy”—with Gawker’s content, and you can score a point for Brooks.

Instead of expertise, we have expedience. The bumblebee alights on many flowers instead of gorging itself on just one. But by praising an essay’s ability to summarize policy disputes in a single sentence or its bons mots on faking your way through cocktail hour, I suspect Brooks is providing us with the stuffy essayist’s version of clickbait. What then is he sacrificing on the altar of practicality? In making his selections, he writes: “I tried to pick ones with new or daring ideas that will alter how you look at the world. I tried, in short, to pick ones that will be useful to you. That, I’m afraid, is a middlebrow activity. But I plead guilty. I want to be improved by things I read.” Don’t tell Eric LeMay, but score another point against Gawker.

What kind of collection then does blending “grandeur and scope” with a wide-ranging “middlebrow” and a dash of “new and daring ideas” produce?

In short, a contradictory but often exemplary one. The year’s contributors cover a great degree of topics, yet seem pooled from a narrow set. Given the reticence towards expertise, it’s surprising to find that at least three essays in the collection are written, arguably, by specialists in their field. Of the twenty-four essays in the book, eight of their original publications start with the same first three syllables: The New York. And that eight is two more than the count of women featured in the book. The essays’ subjects are also mostly male: a number of profiles remember Steve Jobs, David Foster Wallace, a rural Coloradan pharmacist named Dr. Don, Edward Hopper, and Charles Newman, the founding editor of TriQuarterly, so beautiful a masculine specimen that his indiscretions went overlooked. Emerson ghosts through the issue as well, periodically invoked as either a scourge or a balm (Brooks finds him “pseudo-macho”).

The two essays that conclude the edition—Jose Antonio Vargas’ Outlaw and Wesley Yang’s Paper Tigers—open up issues of diversity and broadens the world of the anthology to some of that grandeur and scope Brooks touts. But one should note that these questions take place in the same currency—journalism and innovative entrepreneurship centered in New York City and Washington D.C.—that’s been foregrounded throughout the selections. When Brooks mentions “new and daring ideas at how you look at the world,” we might do well to reexamine if he actually means the whole world. One begins to wonder if for his “new and daring ideas” to be labeled as such, they must first be accepted into a societal framework accessible to “you” the “middlebrow” reader.

In his introduction, Brooks describes the golden age of the essay: “Back in those days, you couldn’t be an educated person unless you knew what they were reading in London, Paris, and Berlin. It was harder to communicate across oceans, but taste was less parochial than it is now.” I have zero idea whether taste was more or less parochial then than now, but I’d say that if anything contributes to contemporary parochiality, it’s a hook suggesting the world is more expansive when it might be known via the reading habits of Western Europe’s three best known capitals.

Personal or not, the essays in the 2012 edition that resonated with me the most were ones that showed a mind forced to adapt to a new world and thus reveal or conceal its desires—Mark Doty’s “Insatiable” (did you know Bram Stoker based Dracula on Walt Whitman?), Sandra Tsing Loh’s “The Bitch is Back” (an essay on menopause, in which the author lays out the irreconcilable difficulties that accompany the time period, only to stage a gloriously ‘fuck-it’ ending: “In the end, the real wisdom of menopause may be in questioning how fun or even sane this chore wheel called modern life actually is. And if what works is black cohosh tea with a vodka chaser…then bottoms up!”), and (I write this begrudgingly) Jonathan Franzen’s “Farther Away” (where the author wrestles with his late friend Foster Wallace’s legacy and where he speculates, using Robinson Crusoe as backdrop, that if the self once turned itself into an island, now that island maps itself onto the world). These do not so much provide new and daring ideas as they provide interesting and shifting minds, and that perhaps is always new and daring.

They also seemed, refreshingly, a bit uneasy with the idea of the essayist expounding from his or her armchair. These were essays that went out into the world, rather than ask that the world come to them (Franzen actually flies to the Pacific island from which Robinson Crusoe took its inspiration; one is a little saddened that he too was not marooned). Doty writes: “How else will I know the world, if not by touching as much of it as possible, finding in the bodies of my lovers and fellows my coordinates?” Hear, hear. I love the idea of the essayist as friend and conversationalist dispensing anecdotal knowledge, and I love the essayist writing for a we, because after all a you is just trying to reach an I and we’re in this together. But sometimes I wonder what friendly conversationalists might hide. For the world also contains false friends and I grow suspicious of essays that pat me paternally on the shoulders and tell me they know what’s good for me. Maybe, to bounce off Doty, we need a different kind of touch. 

Brooks curates a collection that delivers its ideas through mostly one form—occasionally dense, but precise, stately prose, referencing a variety of Western thinkers, that moves along at least one but never more than three narratives in linear progression—and that’s fine if you want what he believes is a “grandeur and scope” of topics, but less so if you push for a “grandeur and scope” of aesthetics. Many of the essays in here are wonderful. But I wonder if in assigning practicality to a book, it becomes impractical in another regard. I wonder if in trumping up the social importance of what the author’s writing about, one in turn diminishes the full range of style, syntax, and language that gives form to Atwan's "ever-shifting processes of our minds." Here's Doty again: “When you have a lot of sex, sex becomes increasingly less narrative.” If that’s true, why can’t it also be the case for when we have a lot of essays? I wonder if in pursuing the goal that we should be improved by what we read, Brooks has paradoxically limited the ways in which that can happen.

But who knows? Maybe I’m just the sad but harmless sweater wearing guy who gives your kids advice gleaned from inspirational office posters. Maybe (Franzen might say) Gawker's ruined me: I just can’t think for myself while hunched over my laptop, reading a glorified tabloid. Either way, I'll say this: I’m no expert.

Thomas Mira y Lopez is from New York. He has an MFA from the University of Arizona and is an Olive B. O’Connor Fellow at Colgate University. He’s at work on a book about resting places, cemeteries, and burial grounds.

1 comment:

  1. I love this essay, Tommy. This is perfect: "Personal or not, the essays in the 2012 edition that resonated with me the most were ones that showed a mind forced to adapt to a new world and thus reveal or conceal its desires." That's what I would like from the essay.