When I teach nonfiction writing, I tell my students that an essay needs to have something that it’s about; that it’s better if takes the form of a story; and that a good first question to ask oneself is: What makes me a good teller of this tale? A lot of what I believe as an editor comes out in these classes, and a couple of years ago a student of mine, an experienced journalist and a wonderful writer who had taken the class in order to experiment with form, did me a tremendous service. He made notes of all my observations—my exhortations, my admonishments—and at the end of the class he printed them all out and gave them back to me.
It was a remarkable gift. I have almost never tried to codify my views on writing. After more than twenty years of editing and a dozen teaching, I just trust in my reactions to the work. But, of course, there is a philosophy behind what I tell my students, and it is essentially the same as the philosophy that animates my editorial decisions at Harvard Review.I believe, for example, that nothing should terrify a writer more than the prospect of being boring; that writers should aim for something bigger than an essay about themselves; that obscurity is not a virtue; that simplicity is; that emotional honesty is important but that confession is distasteful; that the single most important thing about a piece of writing is the quality of the prose.
This last point is worth emphasizing because not every editor feels this way. Many years ago, I had an exchange on this subject that I’ve never forgotten. At the time I was the editor of another literary magazine and I was having a conversation with a professor who was a member of the board. We were talking about the kinds of work that we considered worth publishing and he said that it didn’t so much matter to him how a thing was written, what mattered was what it said. “That’s funny,” I told him. “Because that’s exactly the opposite of how I feel. I don’t care what a piece is about. To me, what really matters is the prose.”
Of course, it’s not really true that I don’t care about content. But what I meant was that I don’t judge work based on its subject matter. I am not looking for pieces that make certain points or take certain positions or express certain views. I am not, essentially, interested in the political angle. What I am interested in is artistry, that is, an author’s demonstration of mastery of his craft.
I like writing, for example, that shows evidence of control. I like to feel that an author has made conscious decisions, has considered the weight and heft of his own writing, has toyed with his sentences and read them aloud. I like writing that’s witty and playful. I have a soft spot for erudition but not for self-regard. I often like writing that’s unpretentious: it doesn’t always have to sing, sometimes clean and clear is exactly what’s called for. On the other hand, it’s always exciting to come across something that sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard.
It’s actually impossible to define good writing in the abstract since it comes in so many different forms—which is why, when editors are asked what they are looking for, they throw their hands up in despair. The best tactic is always to give examples. So, here are a couple of opening paragraphs from essays published in Harvard Review that illustrate some of the qualities I look for.
The first, from an essay called “Manatees” by Patricia Vigderman, appeared in HR 26 in 2004. What I particularly admire about this lovely, unhurried opening is the way it perfectly mimics the action of the gently bubbling water and the slow-moving creatures.
By late January the manatees have swum up the St. John’s River to a warm spring in central Florida. A ring of such springs comes up from the vast Florida aquifer, rising at the edges of an uneven circle around the limestone under the land between Daytona and Gainesville. The place where the water comes up is called “the boil,” as if the heat and rumble of the earth’s core had forced it up against gravity. In fact, it’s a very gentle motion, a quiet flowing movement, transparent water spreading out into a strong current, so clear that the algae living beneath it turn the whole stream a brilliant, glowing green, and the submerged manatees become great, quiet green blimps until they rise slowly to the surface. Then their gray, leathery skins make apparent the patterning of sunlight on the water’s surface, a wide net constantly in motion. The unruffled beast ruffles the surface briefly with its rudimentary snout, breathing and then sinking down into green again.
A deft and graceful stylist, Vigderman exemplifies for me the idea of a writer with a perfect ear. But there are many kinds of wonderful. For a completely different effect, consider the opening of an essay called “Unprepared” by Jerald Walker, which appeared in 2010 in HR 39 (and was reprinted in Best American Essays 2011), and which contains a line so unexpected that it made me laugh out loud in the line at Starbucks where I happened to be standing when I read it for the first time.
We drove cautiously through the downpour, making the kind of small talk one would expect of strangers, when my companion slid a jacket from his lap, exposing his penis. It rose up high through his zipper, like a single meerkat surveying the land for trouble. To be sure, there was trouble to be had because, despite being a skinny seventeen-year-old, I never left home without my razor.
Walker’s essay is about cultural attitudes toward mass murder and also, to some extent, about race. It is not only wonderfully well written—direct, funny, confident, and slightly understated where it could so easily have gone over the top—it also does something at a structural level that I greatly admire, which is to move fluidly back and forth between narrative and exposition.
What I really like—what I’m always looking for—is writers who know what they’re doing. This is not necessarily the same as those who have been writing a long time, though, to be sure, practice helps. The real difference, I think, is between those who see writing simply as a means of communicating something they feel needs to be said, and those who see writing as an art form. While there is certainly a place in the world for the former, it is not Harvard Review. Harvard Review is for people who are trying to create something and who see words as the medium in which they work. This notion, which would be completely self-evident to any poet, holds just as true for writers of essays. In fact, I am increasingly inclined to see the essay as a kind of poem—just one with an explicit argument composed in unbroken lines.
Christina Thompson is the editor of Harvard Review and the author of the memoir Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All.