Last week I was having dinner with a poet and two fiction writers. Dinner was late and simmering and at this point the conversation was on its third and fourth drinks. We weren't in literary society, just a very small town, and as often happens among small town companions with too much in common, our differences stood out in relief.
Our host, a novelist, explained that she had never taken a nonfiction workshop because she couldn’t bring herself to put up with all of the—and here she took a loud breath and sang—me mee meee! in perfect vibrato, flourishing a spoon. During some version of the protest that generally falls to me afterwards, the second novelist, familiar with this banter, interrupted. “Oh come on, even you have to admit that nonfiction is all about the me,” she said, “the essay you talk about is just the short memoir.”
Which is an idea that irks me deeply, even among good friends whose shit I'm used to taking. But it's also an idea I’m inclined to give some thought to when it’s so unshakable among writers of non-nonfiction whose work I often respect and learn from. Whose work shares, like what most people read, some of the conversational tones, the skepticism and the wonder pioneered by our man Montaigne.
I have previously blamed the essay-as-short-memoir on publications that strictly feature micro traumas, personal narrative, and sometimes braided shorts that lay bits of the political or the scientific down inside a personal history and leave them there. I recognize of course that the literary memoir is a sub-genre that has fought its own battles for airtime, especially among non-cis men and non-academics. Indeed, it is funny to consider that almost three decades ago Phillip Lopate was writing “What Happened to the Personal Essay?” and grieving his audience’s familiarity with the essay as “a two-birds-with-one-stone approach designed to sharpen freshman student’s skills at argumentation.” Instead I’ll say here what I can’t after three glasses of chianti: While short memoir is certainly valuable and arguably the most widely consumed nonfiction dish, the essay was a particular thing created to do more than house narrative. Moreover, because the memoiristic brand of nonfiction has roared loudest in the past few decades, it can handle being put into check so that we don’t forget about what an essay might do that is not, primarily, about a writer’s lived experience.
The Best American Essays series is one of the venues where I’ve seen the definition of essay-as-memoir develop and the 2015 edition, edited by Ariel Levy, seems to make this argument in part, especially during its first half. Full disclosure here: I read this year’s BAE (which I like best to pronounce “Bay,” as you do) cover to cover without recalling that the selections there appear in alphabetical order. This means I read it the way I might read a single-author collection, searching for its larger, curated themes, which I’d argue wasn’t totally unhelpful in considering the sub-genres contained. Strangely, when read this way, Best American Essays 2015 is a book thinking a lot about the approach of death, or dying and what comes after it. Which makes me think, grumpily: If a highly literate alien culture comes searching for traces of nonfiction from 2015, will they think the essay was a genre so personal that it was where the ego went to process its own self-consumption? But then also: Do I enact my generation's cyclic diligence here in mourning for our essay in 2015?
Because I’m navigating a doctoral program and I, like my dinner companions, still sink many weekends into writing papers, I’m currently thinking a lot about Hepzibah, the old maid haunting Hawthorne’s House of Seven Gables, perhaps best known as American Literature’s eldest heroine or its longest sufferer of RBF. Which is why, while reading Mark Jakobson’s essay “65,” I felt that particular kind of dismay that only students and persons privileged enough to spend a good portion of their thoughts on writing experience in discovering that someone else has gotten to use a weird historic diagram first. Jakobson employs “The Stages of a Man’s Life from the Cradle to the Grave,” an 1851 Currier & Ives lithograph that stacks men (or women, in the version I've hoarded) on a stepped podium according to their age, as a way to talk about the progression towards death and what it means to be mid-way. Here's the image—It's yours now too. I had planned here to use the lithograph as a sort of schematic mapping BAE 2015's contents on a spectrum from Montaigne to Short Memoir (read: where the essay has gone to die?) but there seemed many things inherently disconcerting about visually likening an essayist to an infant and the memoirist to a Hepzibah-type, and so I gave that up. Nonfiction too, can sometimes divide like a small town and this entry is not one ultimately about exclusion, but restoration instead.
Still, like Levy’s theory of the essay-as-wave, or the essay as an idea that “you need skill and nerve” to catch and then navigate, many of the selections featured in the 2015 BAE are indeed moving on the thing that pulls a person towards the underworld, first up and then down as a tide moves toward the shore. Levy makes note of aging as a popular subject in the submissions this year, and attributes this to the fact that the baby boomers are deep into that process by now. Most specifically, as Jacobson writes it, “As we speak, more people are growing longer in the tooth than at any time in the history of the species. I’m talking about my generation, the one that claimed to want to die before it got old.” And later, “No one has ever really been old, not the way we will be old.”
And it’s fun to think about how, after Montaigne, a great number of these selections might slip as easily into the prefix “On Aging:” as they might into a blue-haired special. As if each was directed first by a mind focused on a topic, as the earliest essays were. Perhaps because it was announced so early, death as lens became a thing I couldn’t unsee in Levy's version. Almost every text seemed to consider or follow after a death or, as in Tim Kreider’s contribution, a Cat. Kreider explains, “A house without a cat in it feels very different from a house with one. It feels truly empty, dead.” The reaper also hovers close in Justin Cronin’s “My Daughter and God,” a narrative about evading death and navigating faith after Cronin’s daughter and wife walked away from a car accident neither should have survived.
Except for a handful of selections like Cheryl Strayed’s “My Uniform,” Kate Lebo’s “Loudproof Room” and Margo Jefferson’s “Scenes from a Life in Negroland” which do not seem explicitly about or motivated by loss, I can’t help but see the grim extending itself. Death spans Ashraf H. A. Rushdy’s “Reflections on Indexing My Lynching Book” where he writes about the emotional toll of indexing the names of lynching apologists alphabetically beside the names of those “who had become defined as victims or as statistics simply because their life came to an end at the hands of a mob.” Death clots even Meghan Daum’s “Difference Maker” about foster-child advocacy and her decision to remain childless, despite her husband’s wishes: “He wanted to use what he knew about the world to help someone find his or her own way through it. He wanted 'someone to hang out with' when he got older.”
In one of my favorites (On Aging:) “My Grandma the Poisoner,” John Reed writes: “In Grandma’s defense, she came to consciousness during the Great Depression and never mentally left the era. When the economy turned sour, in the 1990s and 2000s, she would point out the cultural similarities, laying it all out: during times of scarcity there’s a turn to mystical thinking, self-help, and the occult, she’d tell us. I have no doubt she was right. Even in her old age, she was insightful and informed. She’d rattle around her disgusting house with public radio blaring in every room.” For me, this essay’s insight speaks to the collection’s themes about a generation’s relative awareness of its own doom. BAE 2015 makes me think most about how we are very likely a culture leaving behind texts that are “on death” in the way those written in the wake of some of the great dyings-off were. Like the spiritualist novels following the civil war, a time when few bodies came home to prove human loss, our texts are those that will expect and extend a mass mourning. Inevitably now, death must be more visible than it has ever been, though now it’s death in the most abstract. In “This Old Man,” Roger Angell, at 93, writes laughingly about what it’s like to finally be old and sometimes invisible, and then wisely that “We have become tireless voyeurs of death…Not the celebrity death, I mean, but the everyone-else death…the transportation dead. The dead in floods and hurricanes and tsunamis, in numbers called ‘tolls.’ The military dead, presented in silence on your home screen, looking youthful and well combed.”
What this collection seems to posit then is that in 2015 and for some time before this, the essay is the place to parse trauma and loss. Seen together, these works suggest that this genre is perhaps less about the essayist’s brain as the engine for a text, and more about which events they experience and are able to parse afterwards. Contrary to this thematic study, as introductions sometimes are, what series editor Robert Atwan says this year is that it comes down to not what essays are but rather what they do. As happens in all essay defining, Atwan calls upon etymology in his foreword: “Essai can be traced to the late Latin exagium, which meant to weigh or a weight.” I myself am interested in this doing—in the weight of the self as mind, certainly, but most importantly, the weight of what that mind does with an idea.
Recalling Montaigne's essays, Atwan describes “the mind in process,” and the kind of inconsistency there that emerges from and mirrors the act of writing. But it's Montaigne’s personality that Atwan suggests is perhaps the most significant element of the doing of an essay. Or “the sincerity and the marrow of the man” as Emerson says, the kind that has left me, during more than one stage of my short life, crushing on Montaigne—a hundred-years-dead Frenchman captured across some pages. What seems significant in both of these cases is that it's Montaigne’s mind-self, his conversational, worrying, lecturing self, and not his life (the privilege of which allowed him to devote it, mid-way, to a desk in a high tower) that populates the essay genre from the start. It is not that Montaigne looked sweet among his dogs or that he had a bizarre childhood that weighs most in the essay—indeed, these details are rarely featured and when they are it is very briefly. It is rather what his mind does, and how that relates to the world outside himself. Montaigne’s mode of self-critique tricks the audience into listening to his ideas about them, his endless thirdhand descriptions of cannibals and spittle and what might be wrong with the way we think about How the Soul Discharges its Passions on False Objects When the True are Wanting. "There is nothing so contrary to my style as narration," writes the Frenchman who made a famous study of himself.
What this long comparison serves is the different role the self plays in most of this BAE’s collected writings. My hunch is that the first person singular “I” may have been recently rephrased as something that is, rather than something that does, in the essay. Here, perhaps I’m asking: When did the “me” replace the “I” in the personal essay? Or, what happened to the essay as a place where the capabilities of the essayist’s mind weigh more than the essayist’s life and how they can retell it?
Does this mean that short, narrative memoir is bad or not literature? Certainly not. Particularly, Kendra Atleework’s “Charade,” a personal narrative about the preteen years before her mother died, characterizes a peculiar blend of rural life and late 90’s “scene” generation in decisive prose like I’ve never read before: “We woke, shivering under holey baby blankets dotted with wood chips tracked around by the guinea pig, Hitler. He lived wild under the stove, and he had his name because Elizabeth loved terrible things.” What short memoir does best in allowing the reader to inhabit a life they might not otherwise know is truest for Kate Lebo’s “The Loudproof Room.” Lebo’s “earmoir” chronicles a “half-dead ear” and her decision not to operate on it and lose the way sound is so amplified within her body that she can hear herself blink. “Disability can create sensibility” Lebo writes, “My disability is invisible, my limitations are aesthetic, they make art and they make mistakes.” So you ask then, what is lost through the inclusion of nonfiction that does not frame the self exactly as Montaigne’s essays do? It might be very little, except that to call a thing a Best American Essay is significant for the hard-won genre it names.
Near the end of his 2015 foreword, Atwan (a second crush) writes that the essay is a modest setting “widely acknowledged to be unequal to fiction, poetry, and drama.” He explains: “There are poets and novelists who excel at essays and whose work frequently winds up in these books. That is why the series is called The Best American Essays and not The Best American Essayists. But that is a discussion for another time.”
I say, maybe here and now is that time. In my experience, especially among non-essayists, the essay is considered lesser because it is often seen as less artful, more documentary, and more me mee meee. It is curious then to note that many selections from BAE 2015 match a list of bylines that frequent The New Yorker (though there are certainly a number of new faces) and that many of the selections it houses support the idea of essay-as-memoir very like the “personal histories” featured by the same publication. Which leads me to think: What does it mean for this genre to be routinely defined by people who do not primarily write it? Or must a writer first establish themselves in another genre before they can write great essays? And if so, won’t they be writing them in a style they believe to be lesser? Even bent on writing the stereotypical me?
Perhaps what this comes down to is readership and the kind of profits that buzzword guarantees. Perhaps we assume or think we have proven that the reading public does not want to navigate the register and form that essays contain and therefore BAE is actually saving the good name of the essay by cushioning it here, away from sour academia, with marketability. Perhaps BAE staves off that reaper after all.
In Atwan's Essayism from 2006, he suggests that the essay is not a genre, but a gesture or a literary action at work across genres, where it eeks into novels and short stories. This means that to write essays, one has to essay, to move as the mind does after Montaigne, but not necessarily to write nonfiction. This essayism, unfortunately, does not seem to have taken strong hold, and the E-word is still taboo in many circles. Montaigne's classic form is certainly no longer experimental, as it was in his time. It has shifted and become more endearing to a modern audience. It has become tactful and concise, but what it hasn't lost is that doing, that gesture the essay makes. And I am interested in how, despite its vintage, the self-as-mind in writing remains some kind of avant/othered thing.
"Don't call them essays—they're chapters," runs the advice I heard secondhand from a New York agent last summer. Which may also explain strange biases across metaphoric big city lit., like submission guidelines from the Fine Arts Work Center that call for fiction and poetry but accept nonfiction submissions on the condition that they will be read "as works of fiction, among other applications in that genre" as if, on a craft level, all nonfiction should read and compete in the way fiction does. As if this might scare it away.
In the landscape I roam, publishing and its limitations are the actual specters haunting and caging nonfiction today, and in that terrain personal narrative certainly moves and sells most readily. But if this well-established series poses an opportunity for the essay then I say, is it not time that we populated it with essayers?