Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The "Writing" Essay

I just finished reading the Spring 2011 issue of Gulf Coast (I'll probably put up a review a little bit later on) and there was one specific essay that has been bothering me: "Nobody's Friend" by Molly Giles. The essay is about how Molly wrote an essay where her daughter and granddaughter show up as characters, and how her daughter--even though she was presented positively in the story--swears she will never forgive her mother for it. The essay explores typical memoir territory (do we have a right to tell other people's stories? Do we ask permission to write on certain subjects? James Frey, libel, etc) and how it applies to Molly's particular experience as well as writers everywhere.

There was nothing particularly wrong with the essay, and maybe this is my editorial impulses talking, but it didn't feel right appearing in Gulf Coast. I wouldn't mind if this article had showed up in Poets & Writers or some similar venue, but showing up in a literary journal felt somehow inappropriate.

Here, I should admit my bias: it's not that I dislike writing "on writing," but I hate when it appears in literary journals/creative venues. Admittedly, it is mostly (if not entirely) writers who are reading literary journals, but that doesn't mean we should be publishing work that would be of little to no interest for a casual reader. I think literary journals should be pushing in the opposite direction--looking for ways to bring in readers from outside of academia--and the inclusion of writers writing about writerly subjects feels incredibly insular.

Writing this, I feel like I'm being a bit harsh on Molly, and I don't mean to be, but I am wondering what y'all think about the "on writing" essay: does it belong in literary journals? If not, where is the appropriate venue? Does publishing this type of nonfiction close off the genre from the mainstream?


  1. Fourth Genre does a nice job of segregating the 'essay' essays from the 'about writing' essays, and I enjoy them both, but I share a bit of dleg's consternation when running into one of these inside baseball essays unannounced. And since we are in griping mode: you guys really should sign your posts, with actual names. -- Dinty W. Moore

  2. I think with a journal like Fourth Genre, the name itself implies that there's going to be some discussion/exploration of the genre (Same goes for /Creative Nonfiction/ or /Poetry Magazine/).

    It's one thing to advertise a craft writing section, but I read literary journals to be both entertained and moved. Anything else feels like a bait and switch.

    -David LeGault

  3. I tend to agree that essays on writing feel out of place in a literary journal. Or maybe I just don't care about them. When I read a literary journal, I hope to see something I haven't seen before or understand something about craft in a new way, as illustrated by the piece. (This, on top of interesting subject matter.) Essays on writing function well, perhaps, in books where a reader might wonder about an author's intentions; in journals, they feel like a missed opportunity.

    I think the exploration of a genre is probably important in the way it illuminates trends or new things, but isn't that different than a [personal] essay discussing the [personal] act of writing?

    --Margaret Kimball, in appeasing mode