Monday, June 26, 2017

Int'l Essayists: Chris Arthur, An Irish Essay(ist)?

Recently, as I write my essays, I’ve been thinking a lot about allegiance and influence, about belonging and not belonging, about feeling at home and feeling alienated, about nationality and a sense of exile. Increasingly, these reflections leave me feeling close to stateless. This isn’t surprising given the context in which I’m writing. Let me explain.

I was born in Belfast and spent the first eighteen years of my life in Northern Ireland, so my youth was spent in bitterly contested territory where conflicting loyalties raged. One of Northern Ireland’s tribes sees itself as Irish, the other as British; one is predominantly Catholic, the other Protestant; one aligns its political compass to Dublin, the other to London. Growing up was an education in how difference can lead to discrimination and how the sense of injustice that discrimination spawns can easily spill over into violence. The Troubles that ignited in 1969 and burned and smoldered for a quarter of a century, wrecking so many lives, were a potent factor in my decision to move to Scotland. I lived there for the next decade.

Edinburgh was a welcome contrast to life in County Antrim. No one there cared what religion I belonged to. There was no Irish-British tension. Ulster folk were as welcome as Americans, French, Indians, Japanese and all the other nationalities who, like me, were drawn to the city’s ancient university. There was a sense of easy internationalism, a tolerance of diversity, an openness to new ideas. Scotland’s capital – the Athens of the North – seemed secure enough in its own history, culture and traditions for differences to be considered a source of interest and enrichment rather than a threat.

My next move came about for reasons of professional advancement not personal choice. I was offered a lectureship at the University of Wales, so I moved three hundred miles south, settled in Ceredigion, and lived there for nearly twenty years. This period of my life brought new senses of divisiveness – between the indigenous population and incomers; between Welsh-speakers and non Welsh-speakers; between Wales and England. The conflict of loyalties that was evident and the discrimination it fuelled – particularly in the local schools – was an unwelcome reminder of my Northern Irish past.

I’ve recently moved back to Scotland and have no plans to move again. But since I last lived here there have been momentous political changes. Unlike England and Wales, Scotland voted to remain in Europe (as did Northern Ireland). The Brexit process has, accordingly, caused rancor between the Scottish and Westminster governments. Scottish independence – when I lived here first an eccentric minority stance – now looks increasingly probable. Issues of nationality and belonging have come to the surface as people struggle to decide whether they are British, Scottish, or European. Their loyalties and loathings have become more openly vociferous. There’s a sense of contested territory, opposing traditions and identities. Jagged fault lines are sundering society into increasingly adversarial groups. It’s almost enough to make me feel I’m eighteen and back in Belfast again.

This fragment of resumé, a quickly sketched autobiographical tracing of the main steps in the route by which I got to where I am today, is intended as a kind of personal prolegomenon to my musings about my allegiances as an essayist. What tribe or nation, if any, do my essays belong to? Does it make sense to link nationality with literature? Where do my literary loyalties lie? Of what country, tradition, set of values, ethnicity are my essays an expression or endorsement? What now defines my sense of home, of homeland? What nation do I consider mine; where do I belong? I suspect few, if any, of these questions would have arisen, at least not with any real insistence, if I’d been born and raised in some rural part of England – Shropshire, Devon, Cumbria – and remained there all my days. The trajectory my life has followed has taken me to places whose unsettledness has unsettled me; whose mongrel mix has made me suspicious of any claims to pureblood pedigree or allegiance to a single nation, faith, or tribe.

* * *

In one sense it might be thought entirely unproblematic to say that I’m an Irish essayist. This is certainly how I’m often presented and how, not infrequently, I present myself. I was, after all, born on the island of Ireland and spent my youth there. But there are many who would prefer to see Belfast as British, or failing that as Northern Irish; plain “Irish” falls like a discord on their ears. To many of my friends and family, “Irish” carries with it a note of betrayal – as if, by embracing it, I’ve changed sides. In any case, given that I’ve spent longer living in Scotland and Wales than I have in Ireland, does it make sense to shackle the country’s name to mine and to the writing that I do? A friend used to jokingly refer to my first book, Irish Nocturnes, as Welsh Preludes – given where I was living at the time of writing it. Joking apart, is there not as strong an argument for describing my essays as Scottish or Welsh as for insisting on their Irishness? It’s interesting that Scotland’s national newspaper, The Scotsman, has shown far more interest in my writing than The Irish Times. The Scotsman has carried positive reviews of all my books – together with a long feature article/interview (see:; The Irish Times, by comparison, has acted as if I don’t exist, with none of my books ever mentioned, let alone reviewed, in its pages. Or, looking beyond Ireland, Scotland and Wales, since I write in English and have been hugely influenced by the literature and language of that nation, why not just align myself with the English, or British, essay?

Thinking about the question of national identity, I’m reminded of a remark wrongly attributed to Irish-born Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, victorious commander at the Battle of Waterloo and great British national hero. His response to being called Irish was, supposedly, to retort that “being born in a stable does not make a man a horse.” In fact this infamous disclaimer of Irish nationality was something said about Wellington by someone else; it was never uttered by the Duke himself. But turning the remark from the personal to the literary poses the interesting question of whether an author’s birthplace is enough to decide the citizenship of his or her books. 

How useful is it to think of there being different national traditions of essay writing? Are there sufficiently clear differences in substance, style, subject or structure between, say, American, English, French, Chinese and Australian essays to warrant making them sub-categories of the genre? Or are any demarcations between these purported types rooted simply in the language in which they’re composed and/or the geographical location of the essayist’s birth or present whereabouts, not in the nature of the writing itself?

It’s interesting to look at the coverage given to national traditions of essay writing in the main reference volume for the genre, the Encyclopedia of the Essay. Edited by Tracy Chevalier and published in 1997, this thousand-page tome has much to recommend it. It provides a multi-dimensional perspective on the form of writing it explores. But it’s a book that’s also in need of an updated edition given how much has happened in the world of the essay in the last twenty years. There are entries, by a range of contributors, on:

American Essay
Australian Essay
British Essay
Bulgarian Essay
Canadian Essay (English)
Canadian Essay (French)
Chinese Essay
French Essay
German Essay
Japanese Essay
Polish Essay
Portuguese Essay
Russian Essay
Scandinavian Essay
Spanish Essay
Spanish American Essay

To what extent are these discernibly different types of writing, as opposed to convenient categorizations by which the huge territory of the essay may be mapped via a series of encyclopedia entries? Suppose that sample essays from all these nationalities were translated into a single language and placed (without their authors’ names being revealed) in front of a reader. Could they be told apart immediately, parsed into their national groupings, simply because each country’s essays possess uniquely identifying literary plumage? Are they as readily distinguishable from one another as robins, woodpeckers and swans? Is it accurate to see them being as separate as different species, or are any differences between them more a case of character trait than bloodline? It’s worth remembering, I think, that species don’t interbreed and that one of the key characteristics of the essay, evident from Montaigne to the present, is an openness to outside influences – something seen most obviously in the inclination of essayists to quote from other sources.

* * *

There’s no entry for “Irish Essay” in the Encyclopedia. Given the Irish essayists who are given individual coverage, this seems a strange omission. There are eleven of them: Edmund Burke, Hubert Butler, Maria Edgeworth, John Eglinton (William Kirkpatrick Magee’s pseudonymn), Oliver Goldsmith, C.S. Lewis, George Bernard Shaw, Richard Steele, Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, and W.B. Yeats. It’s interesting that C.S. Lewis – born in Belfast – is described as “British,” and that Richard Steele – born in Dublin – is described as “English.” It’s a literary irony I particularly enjoy that one of the great figures in the origin of the eighteenth century English periodical essay was an Irishman. The fact that Steele was Irish torpedoes below the waterline of credibility any simplistic ship of national identity in which we might want essays to set sail. 

As an aside – essays of course are full of them – Steele is a figure I’ve been meaning to write about since discovering that he spent his last years living in Carmarthen, a town in Wales close to where I used to live. Indeed I must have walked within feet of his body – unknowingly – many times. I only discovered that he’d been interred in St Peter’s Church in Carmarthen when a news story emerged in 2000 about the discovery of his head. This gruesome remnant was found in a Victorian lead casket, inscribed with Steele’s name, during renovation work at the church. Debt had forced him to leave London and seek refuge in Wales, where he owned a small estate inherited from his beloved wife, Prue. Apparently his remains were first uncovered during excavations in the 1870s – about a century and a half after Steele’s death – when the head was boxed and reburied. There is, I think, an essay (or several) waiting to be written in the circumstance of a living essayist walking repeatedly past the head of this eminent dead one. Such an essay – to continue the aside – would surely draw from Frances Larson’s fascinating book, Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Found (2014). It might also bring in Russell Sholto’s Descartes’ Bones (2008), intriguingly subtitled A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason. The postmortem peregrinations of this great philosophical essayist’s skull make for interesting reading. I suspect that soon enough in this piece (perhaps simply entitled “Essayists’ Heads”) F.Gonzalez-Crussi’s elegant pathological essays might also receive a mention.

If the Encyclopedia of the Essay was being updated today and “Irish Essay” was one of its additions, who else might go in alongside the eleven Irish essayists already there? (Many of them, incidentally, as well as having their own individual entries, are given brief mention in Douglas Hesse’s entry for “British Essay” – the concluding section of which, intriguingly, almost as an afterthought, talks about “the British and Irish essay.”) Robert Lynd (1879-1949) is perhaps the most obvious omission from the Encyclopedia of the Essay’s first edition. He was a prolific essayist and an influential figure on the early twentieth century literary scene. It’s unfortunate he was overlooked. One hopes at least that his omission was due to simple oversight rather than being part of the partisan trend in Irish letters noted by John Wilson Foster in a recent issue of the Dublin Review of Books. According to Foster, Irish essayists have been marginalized and neglected because they’ve been perceived as “failing to contribute to cultural nationalism.” Thinking of philosophical essayists, Steele’s contemporary Bishop George Berkeley (1685-1753) would surely deserve an entry, if only because of the impact of his Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision (1709). A case might be argued for Flann O’Brien (one of the pen names of Brian O’Nolan), in terms of the essayistic leanings of some of his journalistic output. John Stewart Collis (born in Dublin) has written books described by Robert Macfarlane as being “structured as a mosaic of tiny essaylets, riffs, visions, meditations and comic pieces,” so he should surely go in. Does novelist Joyce Cary’s posthumously published Selected Essays (1976) constitute a case for seeing him as an essayist too? Seamus Heaney’s prose is sometimes neglected because of his poetic stature, but the essays in Preoccupations (1980) – to name just one source of his essay writing – would surely warrant his inclusion. And Heaney isn’t the only Ulster poet to have written essays – Leontia Flynn, John Hewitt and Tom Paulin are three of several who might be considered under this heading. Others who might be mentioned in the “Irish essay” entry for an updated/revisioned Encyclopedia of the Essay include George Buchanan, Thomas Davis, Stephen Gwynn, Thomas Kettle, Robert Lloyd Praeger and Filson Young. And of course Yorkshire-born Tim Robinson’s work would demand extensive consideration. I like the fact that an Englishman – albeit long domiciled in Ireland – is at the forefront of essay writing in Ireland today. That constitutes a complementary torpedo to Steele’s (though fired in the opposite direction) in terms of sinking overly neat notions of Irish/English essay traditions. Whatever nationality it stems from, or is claimed for, Robinson’s writing deserves all the plaudits it has received.

* * *

Even from this kind of rapid preliminary sketch of possibilities, it’s clear that such a putative encyclopedia entry veers as much toward “essays written in Ireland,” or “essays written by Irish men and woman” as it does toward “Irish Essay.” This last title is suggestive of a literary type, but I’m not convinced that any such type exists as a truly distinctive form of literature. As for “the Irish essay” I become yet more suspicious when the definite article is added. Could such a thing be identified any more successfully than “the American essay” or “the French essay”? The title of his fine anthology notwithstanding, David Pollard’s The Chinese Essay (2000) is notable more for the sheer variety of writing it contains than for any unifying national characteristics. I strongly suspect that the same thing would be the case with The Russian Essay, The Nigerian Essay, The Swedish Essay – or whatever other nation one cared to nominate. In this kind of context, “the” suggests something singular, uniform, predictable, even normative – all of which are far from being characteristics of the essay. Remember Adorno’s perceptive observation, that “the law of the innermost form of the essay is heresy.” The (intelligently) heretical bent of this kind of writing inevitably challenges all of the conformities that national outlooks would impose on it.

There are several Oxford essay anthologies that select their contents by country. From The Oxford Book of American Essays in 1914 to the more recent (both 1997) The Oxford Book of Australian Essays and The Oxford Book of Latin American Essays. It’s easy enough to see the appeal of organizing an anthology along national lines. Not only does it provide a manageable territory but it identifies the whereabouts of likely readers. Imre Salusinszky, editor of the Australian volume, opens his Introduction by saying that “Although the Australian essay might not have attained the seriousness of its British, or the urbanity of its American, counterpart, for sheer democratic variety you cannot beat it.” How well-founded are these comparisons? One of the representatives chosen by Salusinszky to illustrate the “sheer democratic variety” of Australian essay writing is Pierre Ryckmans. Born in Belgium in 1935, Ryckmans only moved to Australia in 1971. I can understand any country wishing to claim this brilliant essayist’s work as its own – writing of such caliber adds kudos to a nation’s literary profile. But in what sense are Ryckmans’ essays really “Australian”? His The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays (2011) – published under his nom de plume, Simon Leys – are mostly about China (Rykmans/Leys is a distinguished sinologist), English literature, the university and the sea. Whatever their national affiliation, these essays are as serious and as urbane as anything in the British or American repertoires that Salusinszky points to. 

Ilan Stavans, editor of the Latin American anthology, likewise emphasizes variety – talking about “the wide orbit of themes” touched on by his assembled essayists. He identifies the philosophers Ortega y Gasset and Miguel de Unamuno as bringing the essay to the fore in the Iberian peninsula in the nineteenth century and that prior to this late beginning essayistic writing in the region was not much practiced. But he also makes the intriguing suggestion that a much earlier beginning might be seen in the letters Christopher Columbus wrote to his royal patrons (and in what he recorded in his diary):

In chronicling what he witnessed, Columbus…intertwined fiction and reality; thus he could be considered either the first magical realist novelist in the region or its first enchanting essayist.

It puts an interesting spin on literary history to think of a pre-Montaigne origin of essay writing in South America. But as with the Australian anthology, what is most striking about the Latin American one is not any particular national or ethnic flavor to the writing but its fluency, vigor, and sheer variety. In other words, the gathered pieces owe their first loyalty to the form, not to the nation.

* * *

Yet clearly an essayist’s provenance is not unimportant; it’s likely to influence their choice of topic, their range of reference, perhaps even the style in which they write. The particularities of place can, at least to some extent, be correlated to the particularities of prose written by the people who inhabit them. Though I’m wary of placing too much store on what “Irish” conveys when I say that I’m an Irish essayist – I’d prefer the emphasis to be placed on “essayist – it would be disingenuous to try to give the impression that what I write contains no national markers. 

My relationship to Ireland – and to the wider world beyond it – is something I’ve touched on in all of my books. I’m still not sure if I’ve got the measure of it, but some comments I made in Irish Nocturnes (1999) still hold good today. I suggested there that, on the one hand:

These nocturnes [i.e. essays] are rooted in the same parts of Ireland as I am. They took shape where I was born and grew up. Inevitably, they derive much of their tone and colour from the places, people and events that constitute my background. To the extent that writing has a voice, they speak with the same accent whose inflection and intonation mark every word I utter.

But on the other hand:

Though the Irish dimension does indeed provide a linking thread, under-running all the different themes with the same familial bloodline, the nocturnes [= essays] are the outcome of many intermarriages, brief encounters, unexpected alliances, which often take them far away from their ancestral roots. Kinship does not rule out distance, difference, or diversity, as I hope the pages that follow will illustrate. The ground covered in them, if it does not sound too grandiose, belongs to the human tribe, rather than to some little County Antrim clan, even if the universal issues are addressed in an Ulster accent; even if the points of departure are minutely local. 

Ten years later, along similar lines, I suggested in my fourth collection (Irish Elegies) that:

Although there’s a definite Irish tinge to all my writing, it would be fatuous to expect it to be the kind of clear unbroken color you might find on a flag. As an Ulsterman of uncertain loyalties, flags with all their divisive simplicities are not things I readily give my assent to. 

And in Reading Life – a new collection due out this year – I acknowledge that because “I was born in Belfast and grew up in Northern Ireland, at a particularly turbulent time in that small country’s history,” many of my essays will “bear distinctive Ulster markings – sometimes scars.” But, on the other hand, the fact that I left Ireland after my schooldays and that, in any case, “my reading had already taken me to distant destinations,” means that my essays also “swim far beyond any Irish waters.” Yes, among the books considered in Reading Life there are those by Irish writers (Flann O’Brien, Seamus Heaney), but it is not a collection of essays about Irish literature. English, French, Italian and German writing is also considered – and in any case the “reading” implied in the title is often meant not in the literal sense of reading books, but in the broader, metaphorical sense of reading the objects and events around us. (Another aside, but a briefer, parenthetical one: The fact that I frequently avoid the term “essay” in the early pages of my books but instead use “nocturne,” or press “haiku” or “elegy” into different use, stems from an awareness of how much negative baggage – particularly on my side of the Atlantic – the term “essay” still carries. It would be nice to think that there will come a time when such dissimulation will be rendered redundant and the essay will be given the same automatic recognition that poetry or novels enjoy as legitimate forms of imaginative writing.)

* * *

I’m always delighted when people read my essays – whether in Ireland or elsewhere – and one of the pleasures of publication is the feedback offered by readers from all around the world. I’ve also been pleased by the critical reception my books have received. But sometimes I’m left bemused by what reviewers think I’m doing. For instance, writing in Nordic Irish Studies – a journal published by the University of Aarhus – Irene Gilsenan Nordin observes:

While there are strong reminders of Heaney, especially with regard to the linking of moods with landscapes, Arthur stakes out his own personal space and reclaims the landscape for the Protestant sensibility, describing a terrain that is at times as immanent with a sense of the numinous and sacred as any Heaney landscape.

I certainly never set out to “reclaim the landscape for the Protestant sensibility.” Apart from anything else, by the time this review appeared I inclined more to Buddhism than the precepts of my native Presbyterianism. Nor, when I think about it, am I even sure what “the Protestant sensibility” would be. If I’ve succeeded in suggesting a sense of the numinous that’s on a par with what Heaney invests in his sense of place, I’m well satisfied, but I’d be uneasy to be cast in the role of spokesperson for Ulster’s Protestants. That said, I’m pleased if my writing challenges mistaken points of view. An unsigned piece in the Contemporary Review suggests that “not the least valuable effect of reading Arthur’s essays” is that “the reader will be given sympathy for a group that has so often been stereotyped in the modern media.” I know the tribe I was born into tends to emerge from media (mis)representations as dour, bigoted, humorless, intransigent and unimaginative. But challenging stereotype is one thing, acting as a religious or ethnic exemplar is quite something else.

In a review of Irish Nocturnes that appeared in the New Hibernia Review James Silas Rogers writes:

The author – an Ulster-born, Buddhist-influenced, Scottish-educated, former Irish game-warden-turned-essayist now living in Wales – must, on the strength of this collection alone, now be counted among the most innovative advocates of creative nonfiction in contemporary Irish writing, and certainly the one most committed to creating a distinctly Irish habitation for the essay.

It’s nice to have some of the main influences on my writing identified, and to be cast as an innovative advocate of creative nonfiction – even if I have strong reservations about foisting this unhappy title on the essay. But whilst I’d be keen to see more interest in reading and writing essays fostered in Ireland, I’m not at all sure I know what it would mean to create “a distinctly Irish habitation for the essay.” I’m committed to writing essays as well as I’m able; I’m not committed to – indeed would be suspicious of – any effort to make that writing follow national contours.

Given the competing mix of tribal loyalties I’ve experienced in the places where I’ve lived, and the way in which strident nationalisms so often go hand-in-hand with discrimination, intolerance and bigotry, I’m wary of giving my allegiance to any grouping of the sort that clusters smugly beneath some flag which is then waved with provocative fervor in the faces of others. In a world in which the boundaries of nation, family, class, religion, culture have been rendered increasingly permeable to distant and diverse influences, retreating to some supposedly impermeable national enclave and insisting on its singular superiority seems at best an impoverished response. Certainly when it comes to literature, should we not simply give our loyalty to the best there is, rather than caring where it comes from? If we don’t do that it would be perilously easy to drift into the insularity and parochialism of those varieties of chauvinistic nationalism that insist the school curriculum should be governed by the language and the literature of just one country. As Salman Rushdie puts it – in Imaginary Homelands (1991) – “we are inescapably international writers at a time when the novel has never been a more international form.” Is it any different for the essay? Rushdie continues: 

a writer like Borges speaks of the influence of Robert Louis Stevenson on his work; Heinrich Böll acknowledges the influence of Irish literature; cross pollination is everywhere.

Such cross pollination has surely always been an important feature of the essay – consider Montaigne’s range of reference; consider how he stresses the importance (in Of the Education of Children) of learning about other countries so that we can “rub and polish our brains by contact with those of others.”

I hope my essays will be judged not on the basis of my ethnic identity, but on their quality as pieces of imaginative writing. My loyalties as an author, such as they are, lie more with a genre than with any country. I may no longer feel at home in the world in terms of a place that I can call my own, a nation to which I could give unqualified allegiance, but I do feel at home in the territory of the essay. Citizenship of that territory is not determined by the accident of birth, or by religion, language, or ethnicity, but by a simple test of disposition. This is well summed up by one of the key modern authorities on the form, Graham Good:

Anyone who can look attentively, think freely, and write clearly can be an essayist; no other qualifications are needed.

It doesn’t matter if you’re Irish, British, American, Chinese, French, Kenyan or Peruvian; it doesn’t matter if you’re Catholic or Protestant, Hindu, Jew, or atheist; it doesn’t matter if you write in English, Cantonese, Arabic or Polish; your age, gender, color, sexuality is irrelevant – the essay’s criteria of belonging are the same for everyone. The fact that an essayist’s lookings, thinkings and writings will, inevitably, carry the fingerprints of their individuality and provenance adds interest and variety, but this is an entirely secondary and far from defining matter.

I know this allegiance to a genre rather than a homeland may sound unpatriotic. But consider the diagnosis of a nation given by one of our best medical essayists, Lewis Thomas. In The Lives of a Cell (1974) he warns that “For total greed, rapacity, heartlessness, and irresponsibility there is nothing to match a nation.” Would we really wish to pledge our fealty to such an entity? Nations, Thomas continues, “survive by detestation” and “live for the death of others.” Are such stances deserving of our loyalty? However these questions are answered, essays stem from and are addressed to individuals not nations. “At the heart of the essay,” as Graham Good puts it, “is the voice of the individual.” If that individual voice speaks only after looking attentively, thinking freely and writing clearly, what it says will, hopefully, act as a humane counterweight to the bullying rhetoric that nations too often favor. A final thought: since it is ideas, not merely territory, that underlie a sense of national identity, are attentive looking, free thinking, and clear writing not precisely the kind of qualities that are closely aligned with the core ideas – the ideals – of democracy? Perhaps, in the end, essay writing is more politically, less nationally, attuned than many might imagine.

Chris Arthur is a Royal Literary Fund Fellow. His essay collections are: Irish Nocturnes, Irish Willow, Irish Haiku, Irish Elegies, Words of the Grey Wind, and On the Shoreline of Knowledge. Reading Life will be published later this year. Hummingbirds Between the Pages will appear in 2018 in Ohio State University Press’s “21st Century Essays” series edited by David Lazar and Patrick Madden. More information about Chris and his writing can be found here:

Craig Reinbold was the managing editor of Essay Daily from 2013-2016 and co-edited How We Speak to One Another: An Essay Daily Reader. He curates this Int'l Essayists column. Send suggestions, thoughts, comments to @craigreinbold @essayingdaily

Other installments in this series include:

Toni Nealie on migration and cultural echoes

Monday, June 19, 2017

Melissa Matthewson on Desire, Design, and the Lyric Moment

Enter Here: Constructing Extended Lyric Prose of Desire
access a threshold
When I sit down to write, I approach with a sort of compulsion, and what I mean is that I feel crazed to find the most resonant and booming way to express a moment, a story, an experience. It’s what we know as the creative impulse, the urge to fashion a narrative which takes a reader on a beautiful journey that engages all the senses, the story reaching for some sort of epiphany or state of transformation. It’s quite the ambitious task. I am thoughtful in my approach, aware of my disadvantages, or doubts, my ego, but in essence, what I’m always reaching for, is that place in writing that revolutionizes or surpasses daily function, that place which takes ordinary practice and pulls it into something greater, to persist in the lyric moment.
the lyric moment as…
How to prolong the lyric moment? How to reconcile poetic techniques with extended narratives? These are the questions Carole Maso asks in her essay, Notes of a Lyric Artist Working in Prose: A Lifelong Conversation with Myself Entered Midway,” of which she reveals a number of poetic techniques writers must incorporate in order to prolong the lyric moment—architecture, music, constellations, and image intensity. She refers primarily to works of fiction, but these strategies, of course, can be applied to nonfiction works as well, and that’s my primary genre of interest. Maso references the erotics of extended lyric prose, which to her, works in the elongation and expansion of a prose text. She calls it an opening.” She writes, There is compression in lyric fiction, yes, but also expansion. Elongation. The longing for clearings. An opening up of perceptions, possibilities, every time the writer or the reader sits down. And duration, and the obvious erotics of this.” This idea of the erotics of duration, of expansiveness in writing lyric prose, of opening, works in various layers here. There is the layer of possibility in the composition of lyric prose, but there is also the prose of desire and the ability of two writers to write within this expansiveness, to approach the work as anticipation, as intimate linking. Not to mention the erotic as power, which Audre Lorde has espoused in her essay “The Uses of the Erotic.”
two texts
In Anais Nin’s autobiographical novel (perhaps we call it a nonfiction novel, or a hybrid text), A Spy in the House of Love, Sabina, the narrator, is struggling with her own identity and freedom within various sexual relationships. She is torn between the safety of marriage and the excitement of sexual affairs. It’s a story of sensual restlessness. In the introduction to the novel Anita Jarczok refers to Anais Nin as among “the most notable experimental writers of the twentieth century.” While Nin is widely known for her diaries, this novel exemplifies some of her extraordinary lyrical writing. As Jarczok says, Nin’s carefully selected words and elaborately constructed phrases are woven into expressive and memorable passages. Together with the rich imagery and lyrical language, they create the spellbinding and dreamlike atmosphere of the narrative.”          

Katherine Angel’s book, Unmastered: A Book on Desire Most Difficult to Tell, is an experimental nonfiction work in which the narrator explores her love affair with a man through personal experience and philosophy. In this book, she considers the feminine, the masculine and the relationship between those two as she questions the nature of women’s sexuality and desire.
In her essay, Carole Maso writes of architecture. This term describes what we’re all trying to do when we construct a narrative. It’s the art of design. How are we to design our essays, our stories? Which form works to fit the content? Her idea of architecture is one of spaciousness in which the passion of the mind can release its creativity onto the page. Virginia Woolf, wrote, in reference to form, Stand at the window and let your rhythmical sense open and shut, boldly and freely until one thing melts into another, until the taxis are dancing with the daffodils, until a whole has been made from all the separate fragments.” Maso refers to the construction of form as an organic process, one that is mysterious and elusive, where the construction is an experience of space. Often, we don’t find the architecture of an extended prose piece until we begin writing, as we explore what story we’re trying to tell and how the form may enhance the content. Maso suggests, To create whole worlds through implication, suggestion, in a few bold strokes. Not to tyrannize with narrative. Allow a place for the reader to live, to dream.” That’s our aim in assembling a narrative: creating a cathedral to enter in as readers, to look up and around at the space in which we can feel a story’s depth.

Angel’s book is constructed in such a way that allows for the elucidation of concepts, namely that of the feminine struggle with desire. Without the chosen architecture, without the form, the story would/could not hold as much weight. Angel extends the expansiveness of the story by setting her book into eleven titled sections. She titles each with a lyrical title, allowing the reader into the substantial space of her exploration of desire. This allows for possibility and rumination on what’s to be discovered in revealing the details of the affair and the subsequent questioning of the narrator. Subtle connections are made between the text in the chapters with the titles themselves. For instance, in a section titled, I Would Even Say: To Open Her Mouth,” the narrator covers several subjects having to do with expression, dialogue, voicing opinions about women’s sexuality, the differences between the feminine and the masculine, even a simple argument between the narrator and her lover. The titles are a clue to what we may find on the pages that follow. And they are beautiful on their own. As poems. In addition, the notes to the book tell us that each title references another writer’s work. For example, Harnessed to a Shark” references a phrase from Virginia Woolf’s Selected Diaries, October 27, 1935.

Within the eleven sections, Angel splits her book into further segments: Roman numerals create distinct sections and within that framework, numbered sections with the text. She uses white space in building the architecture of the book, something that poets have at their disposal in order to give the reader contrast, weight, pause. Angel writes in sparse prose with sometimes only one sentence on a page, usually revealing some dramatic content or language, followed by white space, leaving the reader to consider the meaning of the text. For instance, early on, Angel writes, Fuck me. Yes, fuck me!” and then leaves the rest of the page open. Using white space presents ideas in fragments and can be quite provocative. It creates tension. For instance, in another example, she writes in reference to women and women’s sexual identity, So, we’re all whores now?” then white space, followed by, Silly grown women.” The white space here is a way to cue. To pause. To suspend the lyric. To upset the conventional structure of storytelling.
Angel asks questions of the reader as an opportunity for engagement with the narrative creating a storyline by questioning. For instance, Angel writes, Must I either take or be taken? Must I either do or be done?” Again, Is this a compulsion to be what the other person wants? Am I sitting in the draft, taking the leg? Am I not quite myself, but someone else?” She continues to build the narrative, even validates it, with many feminist authors, most notably Susan Sontag and Virginia Woolf. Angel responds to the quotes, or in addition, the quotes are connected to various events taking place within the story of the love affair. She quotes Sontag, Fucking vs being fucked,” wrote Sontag. The deeper experience—more gone—is being fucked.” She responds by telling of an event in which she wants to make love on top, to be in control, but then she second guesses herself and wonders if The Man” as she calls him will not be fully satisfied if she’s on top. This goes on for several pages in which she investigates the nature of sexual positions and how they relate to power and femininity, but again it’s almost as if it is a call and response, a technique to build space within a storyline. Later on she quotes Foucault: Pleasure, wrote Foucault—pleasure in the truth of pleasure—is sustained, ‘but not without trembling a little,’...” The rest of the chapter is devoted to sexual acts and defining pleasure within them.

If Angel were to go from point A to B in a linear fashion, we might not get the dramatic pauses that her particular construction allows us. In terms of content, this exploration of desire and sexuality is dramatized in this form. It’s a lyrical subject in itself—the erotic, the sensual, and to use a lyric form for construction heightens the effect of the text. You could call it an erotic form.”
Nin’s book does not follow a traditional novel form in that time is murky within the framework of the story. She creates a dreamy atmosphere on the page. One never knows where Sabina, the narrator, is in time. We switch between multiple encounters with various men—five in fact—as well as switch between Sabina’s fantasies and anxiety about what each lover thinks of her, or whether her husband will find out about her affairs. In lieu of a traditional timeline to create a framework for her novel, she blends the events, fantasies, and dreams together to create a new architecture, one that is expansive and actually reflects reality as stories never unfold in the way we design them to. This does not create confusion because we understand this is how the book has been constructed. We float with the narrator in and out of affairs and dreams. For example, there are no chapter breaks, numbers, or titles. Further, in one section, Sabina is visiting her lover, Philip, in three different places. First, on a boat. Then, the sand dunes. Then, the city. It’s drawn out as fragmented memoir. Sabina muses moving between lovers and desire and insomnia and calm moving between these section without pause, in a floating atmosphere which mimics the narrator’s own drifting between erotic affairs.
Maso writes that we should sing in prose, to somehow get the urgency of bone and blood and hair, entire histories, into prose.” She calls this type of writing symphonic, fugue.” We can manipulate sound in our sentences as Maso suggests by reading everything we write aloud. Nin is a master of music in her language. It seems to fuel her prose,

Desire made a volcanic island, on which they lay in a trance, feeling the subterranean whirls lying beneath them, dance floor and table and the magnetic blues uprooted by desire, the avalanches of the body’s tremors. Beneath the delicate skin, the tendrils of secret hair, the indentations and valleys of flesh, the volcanic lava flowed, desire incandescent, and where it burned the voices of the blues being sung became a harsh wilderness cry, a bird and untamed cry of pleasure and cry of danger and cry of fear and cry of childbirth and cry of wound pain from the same hoarse delta of nature’s pits.

This passage moves like how a body might move. It evokes the erotic. Her use of repetition heightens the music, like beats, like what it’s like to get lost in a song we love. The music of the language also works to intensify the desire, makes us feel the eruption that’s taking place within the narrator. There is movement in the word choice. And the cries toward the end beckon music and desire at the same time, ending on the right beat, a consummation of the desire and the song. Use of punctuation is important for the pause, but also to keep the music of the sentence in continuity. In an interesting blog post by Ken Carroll, he writes about the idea of variation in sentence length, which he believes is the key to making music in language because in fact, our human speech has variation as well. He recommends contrasting short sentences with longer ones.

“The present - Alan, with his wrists hidden in silky brown hair, his long neck always bending towards her like a very tree of faithfulness - was murdered by the insistent, whispering interfering dream, a compass pointing to mirages flowing in the music of Debussy like an endless beckoning, alluring, its voices growing fainter if she did not listen with her whole being, its steps lighter if she did not follow, its promises, its sighs of pleasure growing clearer as they penetrated deeper regions of her body directly through the senses bearing on airy canopies all the fluttering banners of gondolas and divertissements.”

That’s one sentence, extending the lyric over many images, sounds, tunes. One could say that it’s important to vary sentence length and to even use fragments, one word sentences, to mimic music, but here’s it’s like an opera of sorts. The use of punctuation, again, helps in this sentence to contain the music. Again too, we hear a repetition that makes the music with the clauses of its” over and over again, drawing out the lyric. On one end of the sentence, the narrator struggles with her husband and his faithfulness, his solidity and then, we flow into the narrator’s desire, which unfolds as a melody would, both in rhythm and tonality and extension.

Later on, Nin writes about Stravinsky’s Firebird” as Sabina’s place in music where she might find self-revelation, “The fireworks were mounted on wire bodies waving amorous arms, tip-toeing on the purple tongues of the Holy Ghost, leaping out of captivity, Mercury’s wings of orange on pointed torches hurled like javelins into space sparring through the clouds, the purple vulvas of the night.” Much of Nin’s book is akin to this type of prose. And while she brings the music, she also returns to this notion of desire, by comparing clouds to vulvas in the night.” It’s a delicacy and an attention to the sound that makes for prose that unites the reader in their quest for connection and understanding.  

of patterns
The definition of constellation is a group or cluster of related things. It comes from the Middle English as an astrological term denoting the relative positions of the stars. Maso refers to constellations in lyric prose as patterns or accidental associations. These constellations evolve throughout a story or narrative, change and augment the lyric work. In reference to her own work Maso writes, I wanted it all: the moment and the elongation of the moment, and then another moment, and the cumulative pleasures of an intensifying, building content.” She goes on to explain what she wanted in her prose, The pleasure of accumulated meanings, of accretion, which is the narrative act. A fragile constellation, through time and space, of relationship.”

From the beginning of her work, Angel builds connections between the feminine and the masculine, liberation versus connection. She does this through sexual encounters with her lover in order to ask, find, provoke the larger questions. These layers build upon each other as we go on in the reading. It’s like tree branches crossing over each other, lattice work possibly, spider webs, knitted scarfs, any number of things that layer meaning by associative connection. A really good example of this type of constellation work occurs in the middle of Angel’s book. There are three numbered sections that build upon each other that explore the idea of the masculine versus the feminine. In the first she writes, My man. This man. The Man. No wonder, sighed Ellis, that ‘so few women, so very few men”—the anguish in that ‘very’!—‘come safely into port.” In the second section beneath, Coming safely into port. He puts down anchor in me, and finds his masculinity there. I put down anchor in him, in his masculinity, and find my femininity there.” She’s also creating an intensity of images in the patterns as well. In the next section, facing the page, A port: a place to rest. A place also to traverse, to pass through. Putting down anchor, but only for a while.” She’s started with the man, and man’s need to find his maleness with a woman, though she uses the port as a metaphor, that its not an easy landing, its temporary, a resting place, but not permanent. She builds in just two pages and three numbered fragments this constellation of meaning. If we were to craft our prose with this careful attention to patterning, our prose becomes complex and elaborate. In addition, Angel builds upon the entire idea of desire throughout the work as a constellation, as hunger, and she uses different ways to approach the subject, but each fragment is working to build upon the previous one in order to create that cumulative intensification. Desire becomes hunger. Hunger becomes the female wanting more. Hunger becomes the voice. Then the man. And it all starts to interplay.

Another example in Angel’s book of this kind of constellation that I want to point out is two separate fragments that appear side by side.

My desire to speak desire, as I struggle against their weight, is revisionist: of myself, and of what I understood to have made that self. Of the feminism that made me, and that forbade my desire; or the feminism I made make me—for what makes us choose the canon we choose?

And next,

The desire to speak desire is a desire to burst through silence, to puncture. As such, it is also erotic; it contains its own excitement. Speaking undoes the perceived straitjacketing. Unlaces the corset, winds down the hair.

Angel struggles with her desire to speak desire, calls it out as a retelling, a revision to herself, to what she knows. Calls out feminism that denied her desire, or that she denied herself. She’s struggling to find the voice and so she continues to build the tension in the next passage. She wants to burst through the quiet, the woman who does not speak her desire. The sentence, As such, it is also erotic; it contains its own excitement,” which likens back to Maso’s idea that the elongation of the lyric prose is erotic: the excitement, the expansiveness, opening. So here, Angel unlaces the corset, winds down the hair,” an opening of speaking of desire, taking risks, bursting, elongating.  

Nin also creates connections and patterns within her work as she writes desire in a different way, through a fictional narrator who struggles to find her own identity within various sexual relationships, but because this is the pulse behind the narrative, each section continues to build on this pattern of associations. For instance, the association that she works to build throughout the entire novel is that of the multiple self. She writes,

Slowly what she composed with the new day was her own focus, to bring together body and mind. This was made with an effort, as if all the dissolutions and dispersions of her self the night before were difficult to reassemble. She was like an actress who must compose a face, an attitude to meet the day.”

Consistently throughout, she writes of re-design, of designing a new self, of masks, of being an actress in her own life, of pretending. This continues to build with each new affair, each new man she encounters. It becomes a chaos of constellations. She also uses her cape as a way to build this question of identity. Always she’s running away from someone or something with this cape hiding her true self, or masking her chaotic, restless inquiry into who she is. In reference to a man who gazes her way, she writes, It was the alchemy of desire fixing itself upon the incarnation of all women into Sabina for a moment but as easily by a second process able to alchemize Sabina into many others.” The fractured self. The search for identity. One woman and many women. To be honest in our exploration of patterns, we must immerse ourselves in the pleasure of creating those links, in seeking the wholeness that Nin and Angel do in their narratives. It’s the under layer of our prose. The working layers. The associations built into a round ball, a whole sun. An erotic embrace.
forced to see
Intensity meaning force, potency, strength and if we are to use imagery in our prose, then they should carry the intensity of the thing they are trying to portray. Just as in poetry. Images are our means for bringing meaning to a story, for exploring the weight of a narrative, for bringing intensity of imagination. It’s how the reader can picture a whole world. Maso writes, Images follow a progress through interplays and modulation until they reach a level of nearly unbearable intensity.” She goes on, 
Throughout, images such as boats, dream, figs, swans, roses, horses, gloating, angel, butterfly endlessly repeat themselves in varying configurations as the imagination gropes and tries to make sense of chaotic experience. As the imagination tries to save, the outward world distorts to speak of the interior world. The internal world informs the external world. A hallucination.”
So imagery, and the intensity of certain imagery, becomes a dream, or a hallucination for the reader. A mirror for what we feel inside of us. The strength of a writer is when they can take an image, intensify it over an extended prose piece, and make it work in such a way that our imaginations are making sense of experience as Maso suggests. Both Nin and Angel rely on image intensity throughout their extended prose works to provoke the imagination and to sense the external world. They do not rely on one image alone, but multiple that work with each other, against each other, through each other.

Nin returns to several of the same images again and again. Fever is a common one to evoke the sensual restlessness of Sabina. She has throughout feverish breathlessness,” “not yet warmed by her feverishness,” “the fever had reached its peak.” As well, the flesh and body are repeated. Sabina wears a cape throughout the story which works as a way to intensify the narrator’s search for an identity, for her masculine freedom, for her multiple selves. For instance, she writes, Also the cape held within its folds something of what she imagined was a quality possessed exclusively by man: some dash, some audacity, some swagger of freedom denied to a woman.” Again she writes, ...the warrior’s shield for his face in battle, all these she experienced when she placed a cape around her shoulder.”

Nature in various forms repeats itself as a building and intensifying image—the dark, the ocean, trees, the moon—all imagery she calls upon to build the desire of the narrator.
The song ascended, swelled, gathered together all the turmoil of the sea, the rutilant gold carnival of the sun, rivalled the wind and flung its highest notes into space like the bridge span of a flamboyant rainbow. And then the incantation broke.”

All of these things—constellations, image intensity, music, architecture—should be on our minds when we sit down to write. Let’s write like poets do, remembering that our job as essayists is to embrace the expansiveness of language, to create a place that a reader enters with awe and wonder, to bring about an erotics of words and images. Think of writing an extended lyric prose piece as an opening to the passion and desire we all hold within us, as Audre Lorde has suggested is the “power of the erotic.” To do this, we compose for music, design images for intensification, constellate and pattern meaning, and architect an expansive space. Approach our writing as we do the erotic.
Melissa Matthewson lives and writes in the Applegate Valley of southwestern Oregon. Her essays have appeared in Guernica, Mid-American Review, River Teeth, Bellingham Review, New Delta Review, among others. Her work has earned an AWP Intro Journals award and has been listed as notable in Best American Essays. She recently completed a fragmented memoir of lyric essays about desire, marriage, farming, and identity. She teaches writing at Southern Oregon University and runs an organic vegetable farm. You can find her at

Monday, June 12, 2017

Eric LeMay: On the Essay in Our Time

The quality of being constantly contemporary—
or of stubbornly surviving the vicissitudes of history, taste and the whimsicalities of fashion—
is the single quality most commonly found among major works of art…

- William Gass, “Tests of Time” (2003)

What makes an essay timely? How does an essay, like a needle on a nerve, tap the zeitgeist? What, for example, is the essay equivalent of Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones,” which in 2016 The Washington Post described as “the poem that captured the mood of a tumultuous year.” And just how do you go about gauging whether a poem or any artwork has captured a year?

It’s impossible to know how many people have read the poem, though one estimate in August put the number at nearly a million. The poem has been interpreted into a dance by a troupe in India, turned into a musical score for the voice and harp and been translated into Spanish, Italian, French, Korean, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam.

It looks like going viral and global is one measure. If so, then maybe Fan Yusu’s “I am Fan Yusu,” Amy Krouse Rosenthal's "You May Want to Marry My Husband," or Brian Crooks’ "What it's like to be black in Naperville, America," which he originally wrote as a Facebook post, might be among our timeliest essays.

And what makes an essay timeless? How does an essay survive its moment and capture readers in some unimaginable and far-off future, like the reflections that Sei Shōnagon have done? She recorded them over 1100 years ago in what English readers now call The Pillow Book while she was one of the attendants to Fujiwara no Teishi, a consort of the Japanese Emperor Ichijō. And here I am enjoying them in 2017 on a sagging couch in Appalachian Ohio. “I am the sort of person,” she writes, “who approves of what others abhor and detests the things they like.” I find myself liking this sort of person, despite the differences of time, language, place, and culture that should make my experience of The Pillow Book less like reading essays than encountering aliens.

There are, of course, limits to this distinction. Can’t an essay speak to its time and also say something timeless? Can’t an essay be, in Gass’s words, “constantly contemporary”? Take Woolf’s Three Guineas or King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” or the suddenly timely essay written in 1963 by Hannah Arendt on the banality of evil, where she describes Donald Trump:

The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication was possible with him . . . because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such.

I found this passage in one of Maria Popova’s posts on her blog Brain Pickings, which is itself a timely update of a method used by the “timeless” essayist who invented the genre, Michel de Montaigne. The commonplace book was something like a modern-day book of quotations, where Renaissance writers organized passages by classical authors so that they could use them for practical and spiritual guidance. Montaigne kept a commonplace book, as did Francis Bacon, who brought the essay into English. When Popova offers us excerpts from Arendt’s “increasingly relevant masterwork,” she’s turning Arendt’s words from a half of a century ago into commonplaces that can help us make sense of these troubling times.

So what’s the point of making this distinction? Why ask how time and “the times” shape our experience of an essay? After all, essayists seldom sit down to write an intentionally timely or timeless essay. A topical essay, sure. A moving essay, an entertaining essay, an essay that takes up a crucial issue of shared concern or strives toward a private reckoning, even an essay that explores some oddity or curiosity or everyday happenstance so familiar we no longer see it for what it is. These are all recognizable motives for essays. But intentionally taking on the times? Or rising above them? That’s not the usual instigation for essays.

And yet, what if I asked you, as I have other essayists, to give it a try? Take an experience or event about which you might write an essay—maybe a recent march in your hometown or maybe your first experience of death—and write two versions of it, one that makes it as timely as possible and one that makes it as timeless as possible. What literary strategies would you use to show your subject’s immediate relevance? Alternatively, how would you approach it to show its lasting importance? What linguistic choices would you make? Would you allow yourself shorthand phrases? Slang? Would you drop in a little Latin, a vox populi or a Caesar non supra grammaticos, which Montaigne himself would have recognized? Or would you avail yourself of text-speak and emojis? And how about form? A nut graph? A listicle? A series of lofty periodic sentences that close on a final image like boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past like snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead?

It’s an interesting experiment. And one point of it, I think, is that it recasts how we approach crafting essays. When we have to imagine how an essay would strike a reader, right now, in this very moment, or when we have to imagine how an essay might endure, might speak to a reader wholly unlike us in a wholly different future, suddenly we see anew the literary gestures and stylistic techniques to which we’ve grown accustomed. Does this really work? Toward what end? For whom? Do the essays of the past that have somehow remained compelling have something to show us about how essays remain compelling? Do the essays of the present—the lyric essay or the braided essay or the argumentative essay—truly speak to our moment? What, in the end, are our ambitions for our essays? And if it turns out that your ambition is neither to write a timely essay nor an essay that transcends its time, imagining how to do both will likely clarify what you do want your essays to achieve. 

A more personal reason I’m interested in the timelessness of essays is that my own work always seems both behind and ahead of the times. Take the new collection of mine. It’s essays, mostly about essays. It uses text, images, audio, video, code. It’s interactive. It incorporates material in real time from social media sites such as Twitter and Flickr. It is, I’m pretty sure, the first collection of essays that’s “born digital,” made to be experienced electronically, with no other medium in mind. Now this innovation doesn’t mean that the essays are good. It’s just means they’re doing something new in the genre. And here I’m quick to add that what’s new for the essay isn’t new when it comes to the genre of electronic literature. Compared to works such as Blood Sugar by Sharon Daniel and Erik Loyer or The Network Effect by Jonathan Harris and Greg Hochmuth, my collection looks very behind the times.

And it is, even if you don’t compare it to the vanguard of electronic literature. First off, the collection really only works on a desktop computer. And since you’re probably reading this on your smartphone, you know my mistake. According to website-tracking services such as StatCounter, as of October 2016 more users are accessing the web with their mobile devices than their desktop computers. So for those of us interested in the digital future of the essay, that future is literally in the hands of our readers, unless they’re wearing some version of Google Glass or an Apple Watch, in which case writing essays for a hand-held mobile device may already be dated. (Should I mention that my previous book includes several essays designed to run on the no-longer-supported and gradually disappearing platform of Flash?)

Then there’s the fact that the collection is free, readily available for a click, as though it were a plain-text file posted on Project Gutenberg in 1998. Publishers have yet to figure out how to monetize electronic literature, which is one reason e-books are, technologically speaking, so lame. To make them a commodity that works across various e-readers, the files have to remain simple and stable. My previous collection, the one I probably shouldn’t have mentioned, was published in three different formats: a print version, a regular e-book version, and an enhanced multimedia version that includes video, audio, and images that don’t work on any of the major e-readers except the iPhone and iPad. At the time I designed the enhanced version, the only other e-book that had audio and video features was Steven Tyler’s memoir, Does the Noise in my Head Bother You? So in a way, my essays are as timely as a 2017 performance of “Dream On” by a drug-ravaged septuagenarian.

That said, this noise in my head doesn’t bother me. The essay has always been a capacious genre. It has room for the timely and the timeless, the ahead-of-time and behind-the-times, even the ill-timed. And doesn’t any essay not about our pressing political moment seem ill-timed? Our polis is in flames—what else should we be writing about? I’m grateful for those essayists now speaking truth to power and for the technologies that allow us to hear and share their voices. Yet, even in this moment, I think we also need our non-political essays, essays that take up the song of starlings or laundry chutes or moods and metaphors. For me, the appearance of these essays is a heartening sign that the complex, reflective, and generous thinking found in our genre continues to thrive, even as our governing powers become cruder and more cruel. These untimely essays, with their surprising range and deeply felt curiosities, show our minds working at their fullest and most far-reaching, which is to say at our best and perhaps our most timeless.

Does that mean these essays will survive the times? Some of them will certainly find their way into anthologies—the Best Essays or the Pushcart—and some will be read and quoted by literary scholars of the future hoping to make sense of this moment once it’s passed. Just what was going on with the literary essay in that horrible Post-Postmodern Time of Trump? What were the essays that mattered? If I’m around, I’ll be curious to find out. Right now, as one essayist in the midst of it, I believe the answer will center on essays by women. As Marcia Aldrich’s new anthology demonstrates so well, women are not only crafting essays that give voice to perspectives and concerns that men have overlooked, neglected, or silenced, but they are also transforming the very nature of the essay to yield new knowledge and new ways of knowing. In the work of such essayists as:

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Kim Adrian
Marcia Aldrich
Susanne Antonetta
Kristen Arnett
Mary Kim Arnold
Jocelyn Bartkevicius
Jo Ann Beard
Allison Bechdel
Amy Benson
Chelsea Biondolillo
Eula Biss
Barrie Jean Borich
Jenny Boully
Nina Boutsikaris
Tisa Bryant
Amy Butcher
Lina Maria Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas
Mary Cappello
Anne Carson
Joy Castro
Lyn Chapman
Durga Chew-Bose
Jill Christman
Meehan Crist
Meghan Daum
Alison Hawthorne Deming
Emily DePrang
Danielle Cadena Deulen
Jaquira Díaz
Sarah Einstein
Beth Ann Fennelly
Thalia Field
Patricia Foster
V. V. Ganeshananthan
Roxane Gay
Sarah Gerard
Stephanie Elizondo Griest
Vivian Gornick
Carla Harryman
Lily Hoang
Fanny Howe
Kerry Howley
Sonja Huber
Leslie Jamison
Margo Jefferson
Sarah Kendzio
Amy Leach
Dinah Lenney
Ariel Levy
E.J. Levy
Lara Lillibridge
Sonja Livingston
Sandra Tsing Loh
Valeria Luiselli
Jennifer Kabat
Cheryl Diane Kidder
Sarah Manguso
Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
Carole Maso
Rebecca McClanahan
Meghan McClure
Brenda Miller
Sarah Minor
Angela Morales
Michele Morano
Kyoko Mori
Jessica Hendry Nelson
Maggie Nelson
Susan Neville
Bich Minh Nguyen
Randon Billings Noble
Wendy C. Ortiz
Anne Panning
Adriana Paramo
Jericho Parms
Kate Partridge
Elena Passarello
Jennifer Percy
Torrey Peters
Kristin Prevallet
Lia Purpura
Kristen Radtke
Claudia Rankine
Wendy Rawlings
Marilynne Robinson
Lisa Lanser Rose
Bonnie J. Rough
Mary Ruefle
Selah Saterstrom
Sejal Shah
Heather Sellers
Christina Sharpe
Sue William Silverman
Aisha Sabatini Sloan
Zadie Smith
Rebecca Solnit
Katherine E. Standefer
Megan Stielstra
Alison Stine
Cheryl Strayed
Kelly Sundberg
Jill Talbot
Catherine Taylor
Joni Tevis
Abigail Thomas
Dana Tomasino
Erica Trabold
Patricia Vigderman
Nicole Walker
Christy Wampole
Elisa Washuta
Shawn Wen
Terry Tempest Williams
Amy Wright
Lidia Yuknavitch

the essay is becoming a new epistemological engine—deftly felt, fiercely intelligent—capable of taking us through this maelstrom we're now living.  These essayists are capturing the truths of our time in essays that will long outlast our time. 

Eric LeMay’s Essays on the Essay and Other Essays was recently published by Zone 3 Press. He thanks Sarah Minor, Dinty W. Moore, and Jill Talbot for their help in recommending essayists not to miss. He also apologizes for likely missing some great essayists and he encourages you to mention these essayists in the comments so that he and other readers can find their work.