Monday, April 4, 2016

The Uncertainty at the Heart of Things: A Conversation with John D'Agata

Last month, on the occasion of Graywolf Press releasing The Making of the American Essay, the third of John D'Agata's trilogy of provocative essay anthologies (the others being The Next American Essay and The Lost Origins of the Essay), John and I sat down to talk about the essay, anthologizing, genre, risk, collaboration, and uncertainty, among other sexy topics.


Ander Monson: One underappreciated aspect of these anthologies is how they serve as a kind of reverse history. I don’t just mean literary history, how the essays themselves are texts often relatively unknown by most contemporary readers now brought to light (with whatever the essays themselves illuminate in terms of history and human experience), but how your mini-introductions to each text anchor each text to real history, if history in fragment. This anchoring is probably more necessary as we go back further in time so the further back we get the more useful it becomes.

Reading the intros, then, I thought about the sort of one-subject history book, like Mark Kurlansky’s Salt, that filter history through one object or substance or idea. In this case, you’re not just sieving essays from history in order to assemble a narrative of the essay; you’re also filtering history through the idea of the essay. How did you come to anchor these essays this way? Was that just a function of what you were doing in The Next American Essay that spilled forward?

John D'Agata: Well “spill over” makes it sound accidental. History is actually what motivated me to do the books in the first place.

I started the first volume, The Next American Essay, back when I was a still a grad student at Iowa. I was studying poetry and nonfiction, but because of the strangely territorial nature of writing at Iowa, poetry and nonfiction are two completely different programs. They have different faculties, different curricula, different admissions policies, and they’re even housed in different buildings. There are literally acres that separate the genres at Iowa. So for three years while I was in grad school I ran back and forth across campus to take classes in poetry and then nonfiction, week after week. After class I’d go out for drinks with one genre, and then again with the other. I’d play softball with one genre’s team, and then switch and play for the other. To graduate I had to write two different theses, conduct two different defenses, and when I finished I got two different diplomas—even though they both said exactly the same thing: “MFA in Creative Writing.” So even though it was clear to me then that this sort of separation of genres was utterly artificial, I still felt the separation. I think when you’re forced to move between genres in so physical a way you feel the rift between them powerfully. It affects you powerfully.

My poetry classes were informed by a canon that hung over every discussion that we had. It’s a canon that was both invigorating and menacing at the same time, because it was always there, always letting you know that you were engaged in a practice that was far older than you. Most of us in the poetry program had come to grad school with that canon already in our grips. We had been English majors after all, and if you’re at a decent school as an English major in America you can get a pretty solid foundation in poetry. That’s because poetry has been a formal course of study for a couple centuries in academia. We know how to talk about poetry, and we know how to teach it. And when you’re engaged in that conversation you become a part of something that’s been going on since the dawn of literature. I found that inspiring.

On the other hand, my nonfiction classes often felt like organizational meetings for a new political party: “Who are we? What do we stand for? What should we call ourselves?” A lot of our discussions were exhilarating and liberating, but they also sometimes felt like we were winging it in ways that landed on the wrong side of bullshit. I would go home pumped by the energy of our conversations but ultimately still foggy about who I was, what I stood for, what I should call myself, etc. I longed for the same kind of history that I felt in my poetry classes. So I went searching for it. Obviously I was not the first to do this. Nor was I even the 10,000th. But it was my search, and so each discovery that I made felt new to me. When I came across an approach to writing essays that I’d never seen before, it felt like a revelation.

I wanted these anthologies to have that same kind of revelatory feeling for the reader, because that’s what I love about history: not its weight (which can of course come with a lot of cultural and political problems) but rather its wider potential for inspiring a sense of camaraderie with something outside of yourself. I love exploring the history of the essay because I feel like it’s inviting me into an artistic heritage. It’s a chance to feel like I am part of something that’s bigger than I am. So in that first anthology, The Next American Essay, the history that’s explored is filtered through me and my excitement about what the essay can do and has already accomplished. To use your metaphor, I guess I am the “salt” in that first book. And in a lot of ways I’m still the salt in the two subsequent books, just a little less explicitly so. And I think that’s because the second anthology, The Lost Origins of the Essay, came out 6 years after the first, by which time I was older and felt more confident. I had found that history and that community that I’d been looking for as a writer, and I sensed that there was indeed an artistic heritage that had my back. So I think Lost Origins is a lot less anxious a book than Next American. And the new one is even less so.


AM: I definitely feel that confidence. I mean, there’s a little of the cheeky John in NAE where you’re drafting Kincaid’s “Girl” or a lineated poem, a provocation inherent in recategorizing these texts. Those decisions are, of course, fun to talk about and fun to teach.

That’s certainly still happening in the subsequent anthologies, but it feels to me less provocative, which is probably a function of that diminishing anxiousness (and now we sort of know the deal: that the anthologist isn’t necessarily a slave to what we traditionally have thought about when we thought about essays).

Is there some aspect of assembling the anthologies where you’re having fun with people’s expectations of what the essay is? I guess I’m wondering, seeing how much sheer work these anthologies must have been to put together, what was the most fun aspect of it for you?

JDRight after I finished The Next American Essay, the first volume, I wrote a letter to Guy Davenport thanking him for his permission to use an itty bitty text of his entitled “And,” which came from his collection of short stories, A Table of Green Fields. I thought that his publisher had cleared the permission with him first, but apparently they hadn’t. And so my thank you note came as a surprise to him. He wrote me a letter in which he called my choice to publish “And” in an anthology of essays “perverse.” And I freaked, because I love Guy Davenport and I thought that my selection had offended him. So, little neurotic 20-something D’Agata wrote back to Guy Davenport and tried to explain—in an insanely long and overly-apologetic letter—why I thought “And” belonged in the anthology. At the same time I also begged him for his forgiveness, because by that point the book was already in production and it was far too late to replace anything.

Davenport responded with the greatest postcard I’ve ever received—just three words: “Perverse is good.” Nobody did perverse better than Davenport, so ever since then I’ve used his blessing to give myself permission to openly misbehave in these anthologies.

In truth, though, I don’t think that there can be any such thing as “misbehavior” in art, because I think art is supposed to push against our assumptions about how things “ought” to be—including, for example, how art itself is made. So what I cherish in any art form is that moment when a project asks “what if?” Like recruiting Kincaid’s “Girl” as an essay, as you point out, or using a sonnet by James Wright in that same volume of the series. I think that there are a lot of fictions and poems that function essayistically, and I think that it’s not only fun to read them as such but also to ask ourselves what that means. For instance, this final anthology uses a part of Melville’s Moby-Dick and presents it as an essay. The second volume, The Lost Origins of the Essay, similarly uses William Blake’s “Marriage of Heaven and Hell.”

Now, does the inclusion of texts like those in essay anthologies mean that they’re essays? No. But my hope is that the inclusion of Moby-Dick and “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”—smack in the middle of a bunch of essays—might encourage open-minded readers to question what an essay is. What happens, for example, if we notice the same essayistic movements that are in Famous Essay X also happening in Moby-Dick? Does that change our perception of Moby-Dick and our notions of what essays are? What is an essay, after all, if we can see it as the primary propulsive force in a work of fiction or poetry? Can we call the essay its own genre if it’s so promiscuously versatile like that? Can we call any genre a “genre” if, under certain lighting conditions and from certain angles, there are few differences between it and something else? 

Genres are helpful in bookstores and sometimes they’re helpful in classrooms, but at the break of day aren’t all writers basically pulling from the same fundamental toolbox? Don’t we just choose to call our finished products different things? If our perception of a text can so easily change the moment that text is placed under different lights and in a different context—an essay collection one day, a poetry collection the next—is it possible that the borders between genres are not the towering blockades that some people fiercely defend them as?


AM: You spoke about this a bit in that conversation on anthologies with Phillip Lopate in The Essay Review, but: to what extent were the essays in The Making (or the other anthologies) the ones that you could get permission to include? Like, were there any pieces you would have included but were too expensive (or straight-up impossible)? I imagine that your longlist of inclusions here was massive, so that this wasn’t really a problem, but still I find myself curious what you might have loved to include but couldn’t because of permissions or other logistical or production considerations. 

JDI’ve been lucky. In fifteen years no one has prohibited me from publishing anything. I’ve had to trim down some of the excerpts of book-length essays that I’ve wanted to include, but other than that no one has explicitly said “No.” I’ve had some sticky run-ins, of course. Susan Sontag gave me an earful when she heard I’d secured permission to reprint one of her short stories in The Next American Essay. And for this last volume I had to make elaborate pitches to some of the estates that represent the dead folks in the book. But luckily everyone has understood the spirit of the series and has tried to help me out.

And you’d be surprised how generous some estates are. The people representing James Baldwin’s estate might be some of the most heroic supporters of the essay that we’ve got at the moment. I mean that. You’d think that the lawyers representing the granddaddy of the modern essay would demand astronomical fees for his work, but once I made my pitch his estate essentially said “we get it, here ya go, have fun.”

But of course there are texts that I would have loved to have included but simply couldn’t because of the limitations of book-making. Just as James Agee said he wanted to do in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, I think the ideal essay anthology would be less a book than a collection of experiences. Agee imagined his book could take the form of a shoebox filled not just with his writing about his subjects, but also with scraps of cloth from the clothes they wore, handfuls of dirt from the land they worked, recordings of the music they sang, etc. Right now, in a parallel universe somewhere, there’s an essay anthology that’s made up of sculptures, maps, video games, concerts, stand-up comedy, paintings by elephants, walking tours, performance art, and every project that Kenneth Goldsmith has ever thought about but never produced. 


AM: Thinking of Agee and Evans it occurs to me that one thing that you seem to hold sacrosanct in these anthologies is that an essay must be the function of one I. I mean, another obstacle to including Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is that you’d have to decide whether you wanted to use just Agee’s work, or Evans’s, wrenching one from the other, or include them both. I find myself wondering: are there essays that you might have included that are explicitly collaborative or the function of two voices? I don’t just mean the ways that surely many of these have been worked on at the least by one or more editors in addition to the author herself. I guess I’m wondering (and this is a question I wrestle with from time to time in trying to isolate what I believe about essays and essaying) whether you believe there is something singular (meaning nonplural) in the very act of essaying?

JDHmmm. That’s a really good question. Good observation, too. Off the top of my head, I would say no, I don’t think essaying is necessarily a singular act. For me, an essay is the evolution of a mind on the page as it works through an idea. But there’s no reason why the performance of that thinking couldn’t be shared by two minds as they simultaneously knock that idea around. The classical dialogue is a good example of this. Dialogues by writers like Plato or Seneca were probably written singularly, but their conceit is that they’re performed collectively, by two or more minds taking turns picking something apart.

Still, it’s worth noting that the “dia” in dialogue doesn’t mean “two,” as we often think it does. It means “through” or “across.” So to dialogue just means to think—from logos—through an idea, which is something that a single mind can do on its own. I guess that’s why I’m still personally drawn to essays that come from a single well. That’s why I write, at least: because I think better on my own. I don’t even let my dog in the room when I’m trying to write. But I acknowledge that mine is an old fashioned and romantic notion. I forget that not every writer is as shy as I am, or that the vocation of “writer” wasn’t invented in order to give the world’s bashful people something productive to do as they sit alone in their rooms.

So let’s build an anthology of collaborative essays. It would have to be massive, I think, because most of the collaborative projects that I’m thinking of are all book-length texts.

I’d start with one of those funky Sumerian debates from the 3rd millennium. Scholars call them “disputations,” but they’re really just dialogues by two non-human characters who each take turns extolling their own effectiveness in the human world. There’s a “Debate between Sheep and Grain,” for example, in which a little lamb and a clump of wheat each try to explain why they are more useful to human culture than the other is. Similarly, there’s a debate between silver and copper, another between a bird and a fish, and one between Winter and Summer. I think the convention is that at the end of each debate the gods step forward and declare a winner. But I won’t tell you who wins the debate between sheep and grain. You’ll have to read the essay to find that out.

We’d want to include a dialogue by Plato from the 4th century, right?

I’d also include Plutarch’s dialogue “On Love” because he’s my special guy, and also because I think it is a spectacularly inventive text. It’s really a novel that’s disguised as a dialogue, but both are essentially essays.

We’d have to include Seneca’s “On Tranquility of Mind,” which is less a collaboration than it is a full-blown essay by Seneca with an assist from a man named Serenus.

I think the love letters of Abelard and Heloise from the 12th century are an extraordinary collaboration. It feels yucky to call them literary texts, because they were achingly intimate exchanges by two lovers who were about as star-crossed as they come, so even just reading them feels invasive. But my god, their story is awful.

Abelard was a famous philosophy teacher in Paris, and Heloise was his student, about 20 years his junior. They fell in love and had a child out of wedlock, but when Heloise’s guardian found out about their affair he hired someone to break into Abelard’s home, attack him while he was sleeping, and castrate him. Abelard fled Paris, humiliated, and became a monk in exile, but not before forcing Heloise to become a nun so that no one else could have her. (Which she agreed to!) And then a decade later, after they’d been living apart for years, Abelard wrote a letter to Heloise, and then she wrote back, and they went on like that, back and forth for a little while. But instead of the letters rekindling Abelard and Heloise’s love, they just twisted a knife into their awful situation, because the letters are far less love letters than they are regret letters—a collaborative essay on how to forget love.

I love an essay from the 13th century in southern African called “Question and Answers.” I’ve been teaching it every year for about ten years and still have no idea what it means.

The 16th century “Florentine Codex” by the Spanish monk Bernadino de Sahagun is definitely a collaboration, even though Sahagun is the only writer who gets credit for it. It’s a 12-volume encyclopedia about the native culture of central Mexico, written with a number of Sahagun’s native students from that culture, and composed just 8 years after the Spanish succeeded in conquering them. So the book has an urgency like you wouldn’t believe. You hear it in the Aztec (or the Nahua) voices that Sahagun quotes from liberally. And you see it in the images that are made by the Nahua.

Sahagun wasn’t a saint—he was there to convert his students to Christianity, and I think we could also say that he was pretty much complicit in the annihilation of their culture—but because he believed that in order to properly convert someone you needed to first understand their belief system, he managed to accidentally preserve a tremendous amount of their culture for us. I think it’s a beautiful book, as horrible as the circumstances of its creation were.

For the sake of time let’s leap forward to Gertrude Stein’s bizarre “Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas,” which I guess is less a collaboration than a novel masked as an autobiography masked as a biography. But I think in Stein’s mind she was collaborating with Toklas.

I’d stretch and say that HD’s fantastic modernist memoir “Tribute to Freud” is a collaboration.

Borges and Adolfo Bioy-Casares collaborated on a work of fiction that poses as nonfiction in “The Chronicles of Bustos Domecq.” It’s a spoof on modernist criticism.

I love the ingeniously egomaniacal personal essays of Richard Kostelanetz in his book Autobiographies. One of them is titled “Remembrances,” in which Kostelanetz does no writing of his own, but rather orchestrates a personal essay by requesting various people who knew him at various points in his life to write short profiles of him. One guy writes a poem. Another woman invents a recipe that is meant to represent what Kostelanetz would taste like, I guess. There’s even a composer who writes a few pages of music about Kostelanetz. And then Kostelanetz gathers all this under one title and hopes that all the parts collectively create an impression of him on the page. And they do. But the really admirable thing about the project is that it’s not a flattering picture at all.

Tony Labat and Carlo McCormick have a great and chilling book called “The Strange Case of T.L.” It was published by Art Space Books, which is a press that actually devotes itself to collaborations.

I really adore a tiny and quiet project that Terry Tempest Williams did with artist Mary Frank called “Desert Quartet,” which is a sequence of essays on the four elements accompanied by some surprisingly erotic drawings. (I say “surprising” because I don’t find the images all that risky, but apparently some people find them super naughty. I remember bringing the essays into one of my classes when I was a beginning teacher at a school that shall remain nameless, and the program director that I worked under heard about what I had brought into class and scolded me afterward because “images of women masturbating are not allowed on campus.”)

John Ashbery and Joe Brainard’s “The Vermont Notebook” is a classic modern collaboration. It’s kind of sexy, too, but in a more subdued way.

How about “Voices from Chernobyl” by Svetlana Alexievich, who just won the Nobel Prize? It’s a symphony of monologues from the villagers of Chernobyl who survived the nearby nuclear plant’s meltdown. It might be the most elegant example of oral storytelling in contemporary literature. A mix of journalism and pure guttural wailing.

A modern version of Abelard and Heloise’s letters would be the email exchanges by Nada Gordon and Gary Sullivan, which they published under the title “Swoon.” (It’s a happier version though. No one gets castrated.)

I love Michael Ondaantje’s geeky love fest with film editor Walter Murch in “The Conversations.”

We could stretch and say that erasures, like Mary Ruefle’s “No Woman in Her Senses,” are collaborations, since two minds are always at work in such texts. But I guess if we want to get technical, an erasure is really a demonstration of what happens when one mind totally Borgs another. But the fun thing about anthologizing is that you get to set your own definitions. So we’ll include it.

I’m sure there are loads more we could include in the anthology. But there’s a start.


AM: Nice. This is excellent. It's too bad that more of those texts aren't available digitally, so as to make it more possible to really go deep on the virtual anthology. So there’s a moment at the end of your “To the Reader” essay in A New History of the Essay that I’d like to talk a little more about. Though you’re present in the brief essay-introductions that perforate all three collections (and in the selection and organization of the essays), this is by far the most clearly a character I’ve seen you become in these anthologies. So we get to the moment toward the end where you’re contemplating Plutarch’s throne, the destination of your long journey:

Here’s the truth: even after spending fifteen years championing these essayists and what makes them strange…I still feel the pressure of other people’s fears that I might be ruining the genre. I still stand and wonder whether I should sit on his throne, or stay where I am, three feet away, and continue to take photos of it empty.

Here, as in all essays, your “I” is to some extent standing in for all of us essayists and readers and thinkers here on this long journey with you to this moment. But it seems to me the question isn’t just whether or not we’re going to be “aggressively bold” as you say just a couple paragraphs up, whether we’re going to seize the throne or wuss out and continue “the second-tier efforts of the already resigned.” It also reads as a hey, here’s the throne; I’m John D’Agata; do I want to be the king or do I not? As if to nail that, you write: “I’m forty years old this year. Does the invitation ever come?”

I very much like that we go there, even if it’s here in this essay that’s only appearing in the slipcase. Then, of course, the essay shifts away from the moment and we don’t find out what you answer, though the coda to the essay suggests it.

What’s the risk in this moment for you? Is this sort of move something you feel the intros in each anthology had led you toward?

JDGood golly! I do not want to be king, Ander. For me, that moment represents the responsibility we all have to assume greater ownership over the essay. And by “all” of us I mean everyone. Not just the people who are making anthologies and deciding who gets in and who’s left out. Not just the folks teaching nonfiction and amassing small armies of devotees to their cause. Not just the websites with the biggest number of visitors or the most vitriolic comment threads. Not just critics, or readers, or the minority of essayists who are popular at any given moment. As with any form of art, the essay belongs to those who make and consume essays. And that’s everyone who reads Essay Daily. Plus, you know, a lot more people.

But what this also means is that none of us has the right to insist that everyone else interprets the essay the way we do. We should disagree about what makes a great essay, because those debates will help us all become better practitioners of the form. But our genre will die if we allow anyone to dictate how essays “should” be written or what rules a text ought to follow in order to be deemed an essay. Most art forms have already gone through this growing pain. Poetry figured this out at the end of the 19th century when writers demonstrated that something could still be a poem without adhering to the constraints of meter—that texts didn’t have to fulfill the requirements of a villanelle or a rondelle in order to be poetic. In other words, they discovered that there are other organic structures that can define poetry. But for some reason the essay hasn’t caught up to other art forms. We don’t embrace rule-breaking very much, which is weird for a community of artists.

What’s at risk for me, then, in that moment with Plutarch’s throne, is hypocrisy. I visited Plutarch’s home just after I finished this last anthology, and fifteen years after I first started the series. And by that time, I had made countless arguments on behalf of the experimental nature of essaying. I had started teaching full time, encouraging a generation’s worth of essayists to take risks in their work, using the essays in these anthologies as models. I had even started directing one of our country’s leading programs for the essay, helping to get our students’ often wacky interpretations of the form into the hands publishers. And yet, when that moment came, face to face with Plutarch’s throne, I couldn’t sit in it. I couldn’t take the risk.

To be clear: the “risk” that I felt in that moment was only in my head. Nothing would have happened if I had plunked down on the throne. Plutarch is dead, so I don’t think he would have cared. And I doubt the woman who gave me access to the throne would have cared either, since just before that moment she and I had to clear off a mound of junk that was being stored on top of the throne. 

So the risk was metaphorical, as are all risks in art. In most cases, nothing is going to happen to us if we go out on a limb to try something new. Nevertheless, the risk that I felt in that moment was palpable to me. Some of my hesitation was a result of having been beaten up, several years prior, for my previous book The Lifespan of a Fact. Those attacks knocked the wind out of me for a bit. I expected a spirited response to the book, but I hadn’t really expected personal attacks, or tweets calling me a “fraud,” or people sending emails to my university and demanding that I be fired. There was even one person in a blog comment who suggested that I kill myself. I’m not sure we can claim to be having spirited intellectual debates about nonfiction if some of our debates inspire threats of violence. In any other arena we’d call that bullying, or worse. And while I obviously didn’t enjoy the personal attacks, I have gotten over them.

But what I haven’t gotten over is the fear that we are sending the wrong message to the next generation of essayists when we respond so hysterically and so hostilely to writers who break what some people presume to be the “rules” of essay-making. That’s dangerous stuff in art—if indeed we all agree that we are working in an art form.


AM: Holy shit! I had no idea that people had come after you as personally and insanely as that, and all on account of Lifespan? I wonder what accounts for the hysteria of that response? I mean, as you know, it seemed clear to me that you (and Jim, in the roles you were playing) were deliberately being provocative, but at least in my mind the conversation felt energetic, productive, amusing, frankly enjoyable, the sort of spirited debate that on one hand entertains and on the other invigorates an art form. Hardly the sort of thing to elicit threats. But there’s the fact of it. In retrospect, what nerve exactly is it that you think you touched in Lifespan? Or do you chalk it up to the way that the Internet and social media tend to amplify controversy?

JDWell, in Lifespan’s case, some critics seemed to respond hostilely to it—by which I mean personally—because the character that I play in the book is openly hostile toward his foil, Jim, the fact-checker. I think that my character’s assholiness gave some critics the license to respond to the book in a tenor that matched my character’s.

And that’s what was the most revealing thing about the experience for me. It was striking to see how powerful a grip the term “nonfiction” has on our perceptions of what nonfiction should be delivering. I’m a character in that book, and Jim is a character, and in most of the interviews that we gave about the book we openly discussed the partially constructed nature of our conversation and the characters that we were playing. The discussion that we have in the book is based on a real fact-checking experience, but it was an experience that was congenial and tepid compared to the immature pissing fight that’s depicted in the book.

And yet, even people who know me personally, people who know me as the meekest individual on my side of the Mississippi, thought that those characters were real. After the book came out I got a couple emails from friends who asked me why I had behaved like such a jerk toward "that poor Jim guy." There were even reviewers that pondered whether I was involved with the book’s publication, because I was so despicable a character in the book that the only way they could imagine it getting published is if it were done behind my back!

What this tells me is that even when we know better, even when we’re told otherwise, we’re still willing to blindly believe what the term “nonfiction” is selling us: that’s it’s an unvarnished, unpolished, unshaped document of reality.

This is why I don’t like the term “nonfiction.” I think it’s hurting the genre. And it’s also hurting the reader. I understand why a reader might get upset when a text that was sold to them as “nonfiction” turns out to be partially not, because while there are lots of nonfiction writers who spend their energy insisting that a nonfiction text is defined by its verifiability, there are many other writers who disagree with that characterization. Unfortunately, those of us who disagree just don’t happen to Tweet or blog or want to wade into the fever swamps of the Internet. So I think the vast majority of readers just don’t know that the very idea of “nonfiction” is itself contested within the nonfiction writing community.

But that’s not the reader’s fault. The fault lies with the claim that’s made by some people that every book that wears the badge of “nonfiction” must enter into a contract of verifiability with its readers. It’s that claim of a contract that’s fraudulent, not the books that waiver from the idea of a contract that they might not even agree with in the first place. Because art is either good or it’s bad, but it can’t be fraudulent. It can be insincere or it can be shallow, it can be unfulfilling or mediocre or derivative or even offensive, but I don’t believe that it can ever be fraudulent, because art’s not a commodity and it’s not a moral pact. Or at least it shouldn’t be. It’s something that we experience. So if I have an experience with a piece of art, then I have that experience. It’s done, it happened, I experienced something that connected with me on an intellectual or emotional or spiritual level. You can’t take that experience away from me, even if you tell me after the fact that the trigger that gave me that experience was a put-on. If it touched me then it touched me, if it moved me then it moved me, if it felt transcendent then I’m not going to scold you for breaking your “contract” with me, I’m going to say thank you very much for giving me that experience. That’s why I turn to art. I turn to my bank and to my boss for “contracts.”

Yet what we’re talking about here is literary nonfiction, right? And the problem is that “nonfiction” is so broad a term that it shelters both literary and nonliterary texts. It shelters journalism, which sometimes likes to claim that it’s literature and sometimes not. It shelters medical text books, which we all hope don’t have literary aspirations. It houses history, which pretends to get its facts right but of course, as history itself has shown us, very often manipulates facts in order to tell the story it wants. And lastly, it houses the kind of texts that I think we’re talking about here, which is what most of the readers who find their way to Essay Daily are probably interested in. And none of that has any need for a “contract.”

We don’t have contracts with fiction, do we, or with poetry? So why are we comfortable being the genre that likens its art to a business transaction? Aren’t there artistic constraints that we can place on our work other than the challenge that we‘ve verified all our dates? This series of anthologies says yes, there are other constraints, there are other ways to make essays. Verifiability is certainly one of them, but it is only one of hundreds.

So, for example, on an aesthetic level, I don’t put a lot of stock in verifiability in nonfiction because for me there are other exciting ways to make nonfiction. But on a deeper level, on a spiritual level, I also just don’t believe in the conceits of facts.

Some of this comes from how I experienced the world growing up. I grew up in a very loving home and a very supportive home, but it wasn’t a stable home by any means. We were poor. The most vivid and consistent memory I have from childhood is of my mom crying through the night because we were always on the brink of losing our home. I was kicked out of high school. (I am a certified high school drop-out.) My brother and I were apparently the only kids at our school from a “broken” home, which we sometimes got bullied for, even once by a teacher in my brother’s case. And I figured out that I was gay just as AIDS was hitting the mainstream consciousness, so that my sexual awareness was not only a reluctant identification with a thing that my culture was telling me was “wrong,” it was an identification with a thing that was so “wrong” it was apparently going to kill me. So, you know, if you’re 10 or 12 years old and God seems to be on a rampage to kill all the faggots, how do you trust your own feelings (how do you trust your gut, your instincts, your very nature) when even Nature itself seems to be telling you that you’re mistaken, that you’re on the wrong path, that your very heart cannot be trusted. If the feelings in your heart don’t go away, what do you do? What do you trust?

My brother and I grew up together, and we’re still really close, but as adults we’ve reacted to the instability in our childhoods in different ways. My brother lives a nearly perfect life—gorgeous wife, gorgeous kids, gorgeous home, gorgeous friends, and a spectacularly successful career in finance that pretty much guarantees that he will never experience instability again. He’s constructed a life that’s almost an antidote to how we grew up. And while I too live a much more comfortable life now (thankfully), I’ve chosen to respond to our background differently. I like exploring the uncertainly that’s at the heart of things, the instability that I think is hiding under almost everything that we experience.

I think that defines a lot of artists’ work: not whether or not we recognize the instability in the world, but what we do about it. Some of us want to mask that instability and some of us want to expose it. You can see this reflected aesthetically in artists’ work across media. But the reason why this issue gets particularly heated in nonfiction isn’t because it’s an issue of different aesthetic tastes, but rather because it’s a reflection of different spiritualities. Fundamentally it’s a reflection of how you experience the world. Do you trust? Do you believe? Do you feel that you can really know something?

For some of us the answer is yes. For some of us the answer is absolutely not. So when we challenge each other regarding the verifiability of facts, it feels sometimes like we’re challenging each other’s belief systems. And that can feel scary, and it can hurt. I suspect it hurts in both directions. 


AM: It also seems to me it’s good news that people do feel strongly about the essay. Of course it is ridiculous and terrible to have been personally threatened in the way you were, but from the perspective of the genre, I guess I prefer the idea that people care enough to feel that it threatens something hot and emotional and deeply held to an indifferent response. You seem to speak to that directly in the “To the Reader” essay-intro as your call to arms to essayists to feel like we matter. Clearly we do, but we also seem to need to be told.

That there are real stakes to this conversation makes your work as an editor feel particularly relevant right now. Did you think of this anthology (or that introduction) as a response to that controversy? An opportunity to try to build a more educated reader? I guess I’d like to hear you talk a bit more about the moment of the contemporary essay that this anthology enters into or addresses.

JD: I think it’s a writer’s responsibility to ensure that the heritage that they think they’re a part of is known to the readership that they’re trying to write to. That’s why these anthologies exist. It’s my way of saying, “These are my heroes. I’d like to think of them as my kin. This is the context in which I want you to read me.” Some of the best criticism ever written about Seamus Heaney is the criticism that Heaney himself wrote. He didn’t write about his own work, of course, but he wrote about other poets in ways that indirectly illuminated his own poetry. He gave us a set of instructions on how to approach the poetry that he cared about, which he did as part of a long tradition of poets providing criticism for their own genre. And it’s paid off, because after a few millennia we now know where to turn if we want to learn more about certain kinds of poetry. There are hundreds of different opinions available to explore.

Yet where do we turn if we want to learn about nonfiction? Where is our tradition of criticism? For that matter, where’s the current conversation about nonfiction happening? I spoke to Guernica recently, which asked me why these anthologies don’t seem to include a lot of political essays. And what I said is that while my agenda for the genre is political, my interest in the genre is not. What I care about is promoting the essay as an art form, and a lot of the best essays (in my opinion) that I’ve found to showcase that artfulness just happen to be in forms other than the political.

But what I also said is that these anthologies represent my take on the essay, and nothing else. They are my own personal explorations into the history of the essay, and they shouldn’t be viewed as anything but that. I’m not a committee of Norton editors trying to represent every single aspect of the essay. This is A New History of the Essay, and that article is very important. Just because we don’t have many other histories that have been gathered for us doesn’t mean that we ought to settle for what we’ve got. I think Phillip Lopate would agree with me that we need a lot more versions of the essay’s history. And while I don’t know Lee Gutkind or Dinty Moore personally, I bet that they would agree with me about the need for a broader field of criticism, too. Let’s forget about the fact that we’re all white guys. What should be more troubling is that we’re just four people, and each of us has his own specific interpretation about what nonfiction is and where it’s come from and where it might be going. There’s room for a lot more opinions in nonfiction. There’s a crucial need for them.

If I were Essay Queen for a Day, I’d propose that for the next few generations every time we each published an essay we had to follow it with a review of someone else’s work, and that every time we published a book we had to follow it with a volume of criticism about the genre. That’s the only way we’ll be able to get to a place where readers don’t blindly assume that if the banner that’s flapping above a book says that it’s “nonfiction” then it must be 100% verifiably accurate. That’s the only way readers might start learning that there are other interpretations of what that banner might mean, or even that there are questions about the veracity of the banner itself. If we want a readership that’s going to think critically about what we’re writing, then someone’s got to give them the criticism with which to do it. And if you’re not going to do it, who will?


  1. Best usage of "good golly" I've ever heard. I love the list of collaborative essays. Let's write one!