Until A few years ago, a new nonfiction anthology would mostly pop up in the form of a new essay anthology every 5-10 years: Phillip Lopate’s, John Gross, Lydia Fakundiny, Joseph Epstein, etc. Occasionally a how-to would come down the pike, mostly focused on memoir. But we seem to have entered The Age of Nonfiction, at least in the Academy, and there has been a spate of nonfiction anthologies recently, several of them focused explicitly or implicitly on the essay. These include Ned Stuckey-French and Carl Klaus’s Essayists on the Essay, Nicole Walker and Margot Singer’s Bending Genre, Jill Talbot’s Metawritings: Towards a Theory of Nonfiction, Dinty Moore’s The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction, Jeff Porter and Patricia Foster’s Understanding the Essay and my anthology Truth in Nonfiction and forthcoming Essaying the Essay and After Montaigne, the last edited with Patrick Madden. To add to this sudden cornucopia of anthological choices, one can now buy actual books, it seems, that say “essay” on the cover. In fact some people are now saying “essay” so much—“Essay, essay, essay!”—that it’s a bit of delirium. It’s okay to say other things once in awhile.
When I was starting out, back in the Nonfiction Pleistocene period, despite Phillip Lopate’s bold gambit to bring the essay form more mainstream legitimacy, it was considered box office poison (I like to compare myself to Katherine Hepburn whenever possible) for a young writer to try to overtly publish a book of essays. In fact, I think I can boldly say it just wasn’t done. Now, in fact, it is. And this is a lovely thing. When I recently went back and forth with my editor about whether to subtitle my new collection “Personal Essays” or “Essays” (she heartily agreed to “Essays”), I thought this is actual progress. Twenty years ago I would have been talking about whether to call it memoir, or autobiography, or whitefish salad.
To return to the point at hand, the question is, why now? To this I would say there are both a reason and a large dose of fortuity. Have you ever had a large dose of fortuity? It’s quite delicious. Nonfiction programs started gathering steam over the past ten to fifteen years, fueled by a combination of Phillip Lopate and other essayists apostolic literary zealotry, and the fact that nonfiction was a clear area of possible growth in creative writing, which had maxed out its fiction and poetry programs. But autobiographical writing also conveniently matched the zeitgeist. The hangover from the seventies, which, as Woody Allen might say of Scott and Zelda’s New Year’s Eve party, lasted a decade or two, and encouraged self-exploration, while the internet, with its nonstop interpersonal connections and sites for personal expression made everyone everywhere a potential, and in fact immediate diarist, autobiographer, essayists manquée. In short, out of the bog came the blog. David Shields has eloquently covered much of this ground in his work: Reality TV, the need to self-perform, etc.
In short, we’ve had the Perfect Nonfiction Storm, and this has made nonfiction and the essay popular. But I don’t think it will last. At some point people will probably start surfeiting on the details of life, and only half the population will be writing blogs. Remember when everyone was tiring of memoirs a few years ago? There were too many memoirs. Now we’re back to a memoir bubble. But there are only so many interesting lives to go around. Memoirs aren’t for the faint-hearted. It’s all in the writing. We’re headed for a memoir crash. Keep your most valuable memoirs and sell the rest very soon.
I’m grateful for the relative torrent of anthologies because I’m not sure that the tide of nonfiction programs has been accompanied by all that much serious interest in the form beyond its contemporary borders and boundaries. Taking myself out of the equation, I think the ones listed above feature mostly serious writers writing seriously. And they’re geared, I think for the MFA market and serious literary nonfiction writers, so they should have significant shelf lives.
But what do I know when it comes to prognostication? The Age of Nonfiction, like global warming, may be here for longer than I think. Really, what do I know? Have I heard that somewhere before?
David Lazar’s books include Occasional Desire (University of Nebraska Press), The Body of Brooklyn and Truth in Nonfiction (both Iowa), Powder Town (Pecan Grove), Michael Powell: Interviews and Conversations with M.F.K. Fisher (both Mississippi). Forthcoming is Essaying the Essay (Welcome Table Press) and After Montaigne, co-edited with Patrick Madden (University of Georgia Press) He is the founding editor of the literary magazine Hotel Amerika, now in its thirteenth year, which has featured groundbreaking issues in transgeneric writing and the aphorism. He teaches at Columbia College Chicago.