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.

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