Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Ethan Madore on the Essay Review

One of the first emails I received as the co-editor of the Essay Review was from a Vietnamese college student who wanted the grammar of one of her essays reviewed. A few days later, I learned that if you accidentally use a dot-com in place of a dot-org on your way to our webpage, you will instead reach the website of two men in Delhi who can help you write an MBA application essay. Now, it was easy for me to quickly learn to reach the correct Essay Review and to recognize which emails I should forward to the other one, but it is also easy for those of us immersed in the world of the literary essay to forget that, to a great many more people, an organization that styles itself something like the Essay Review would be expected to perform a significantly different—and more immediately useful—function. For not only does essay fail to evoke the artistic sense of a loose and lusty sally of the mind (or much more than memories of chewed pencils and in-text citations) to a lay audience, so too does review, or any idea of criticism, fail to mean much more than evaluation and correction. And yet there are those of us who are still excited by the idea of reviewing essays, or even reviewing the essay.

The Essay Review was born a couple years ago from the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program. I want to consider its first issue as a small study of the dynamics of essaying the essay, of the terms and customs of nonfiction criticism.

Its editors begin with with the words of Jeff Porter: “Because the essay has been neglected by critics and scholars for so long, its formal and stylistic strategies—not to mention its history—cry out for attention.” There is something about the essay’s self-consciousness that compels it to draw attention to its own neglect. To write criticism of the essay, it seems, is to constantly acknowledge past oversight, to place oneself again and again at the beginning of something.

Its cover is a drawing of Montaigne. Each of the journal’s essays uses the word essay in its title. Each retains something of the tenuousness, the self-consciousness trying, of Montaigne’s Essais. Jeff Porter calls for a history of the essay and begins one. Ned Stuckey-French says he has come to “evangelize for the personal essay.” Tim Bascom visually maps the essay’s form, tracing narrative and argument with the playful sweeps of doodles and charts. David Shields recalls falling out of love with the novel and coming to the essay as an act of discovery. Micah McCray describes his own essaying on the essay as a “gut-wrenching and tergiversating process.”

Porter repeats Roland Barthes’s proposal that the essay, as a natural consequence of thought and emulation of the genesis of thinking, may have long preceded the concept of genre. The irony is that this ancient pre-genre genre, something close to instinct, seems to exist in a constant state of being discovered. So do the critical essays of the first issue of the Essay Review treat themselves as conscious discoveries and advancements. Criticism of the essay appears to announce itself more than any other kind of criticism; it seems like it must always be, in part, about itself.

The Essay Review’s stated goal is to help provide the essay with the same robust critical life as is afforded to the novel, to short fiction, to poetry. Though it is difficult to imagine critics of those genres needing to make such a case for themselves, to still be engaged in the process of definition that marks so much of the criticism of the essay.

It could be the literary essay’s relative newness as an object of academic study that keeps the essay in the self-conscious, teenage phase of its critical life. There is a lot in the first issue that seems like important groundwork, that feels necessary for me to be exposed to in order to understand the state of our genre, and which can provide justification and support for the essay’s critical future. And yet criticism of the essay also faces its own unique difficulties and dimensions. Where writers of novels can rely upon the support of a world of critical essays on the novel, novels themselves likely remain the most essential vehicle for their critical conversations. Other genres can stage these conversations both through critics’ essays and through their mediums’ works. But the essay, already the most self-conscious of genres, relies solely upon further essays for its critique. Every essay is a kind of criticism of the essay, but so too is every criticism of the essay an essay. The essay cannot escape itself.

In the same issue, David Lazar writes about “Queering the Essay”:
The essay is not and has never been genre normative; this is essential to the nature of the essay. Calling the essay “lyrical” or even “personal” puts a generic leash on it, domesticates it under the guise of setting the essay onto to new territory. However, for four hundred and thirty years the (not so) simple noun “essay” has allowed us to resist the normalizing impulses that govern other genres, and led to Pascal and Sebald and M.F.K. Fisher. What is queer about the essay is its resistance to stability, categories—even the one I’m advancing in this essay. The best theories of the essay, Lukacs, Adorno, Montaigne, Emerson, DuPlessis . . . turn in on themselves, lose argumentative coherence in the direction of passionate, expansive thinking about the essay. Essays about the essay tend to be transgressively shapely as much as any other essay, if we think shapely and circuitous are lively and harmonious concepts, as I do.
And so maybe all good criticism of the essay must turn in on itself to access its passion. Criticism of the essay can benefit from its own extreme self-consciousness; it can dispense with a false separation between criticism and art and be as lively, diverse, and transgressive as the essay itself.


The Essay Review is a yearly online journal run out of the University of Iowa dedicated to providing the essay with robust and exciting literary criticism, in the belief that the essay deserves a body of criticism that is as lively as the essay itself. We’re looking not only for traditional academic criticism, but also more experimental works that challenge and reshape conventional conceptions of criticism and response. Ideal criticism puts active writers in conversation with scholars and scholarship, and so we are particularly dedicated to presenting essayists’ thoughts on craft alongside interpretive criticism.

Criticism should have an eye on the future as well as the past, and in addition to the consideration of contemporary essayists, we’re looking for work that ekes out new historical territory for the essay and makes new claims for the essay’s growing canon. In our view, the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, poetry and prose are in constant flux, and we look to publish criticism that challenges and reshapes these boundaries, which traces not just the development of the essay as a genre, but the proliferation of essayism across genres, from essayistic novels to video essays and the essayistic spirit in visual art and music.

This year we are launching a new and improved website with the goal of making the Essay Review more accessible, shareable, and accommodating of multimedia works. We welcome submissions of original pieces of criticism on the history, development, and future of the essay; essays on essaying; reflections from instructors of nonfiction; and anything other work that fits a broad definition of nonfiction criticism in any length and form.

Deadline: February 19th

Submit to


Ethan Madore is an MFA candidate at the University of Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program and the co-editor of The Essay Review. He is a former Appalachian Trail guide.

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