Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Whither the Essay?

In the 2003 edition of Best American Essays, more than three-quarters begin with the first person singular pronoun. More than three-quarters are memoirs of one sort or another. Essay, from the French, means "attempt". An essay is an attempt to deal with an issue, an idea, or an event in some way. Some definitions add that an essay is written from a particular point of view. That enough can be granted. But what topic can be better understood by the fact that the author's father wore lavender aftershave?
In collections of Emerson's essays are titles such as "The Oversoul", "On Liberty", and so forth. These are ideas. Emerson dealt with issues that face each person, by virtue of their humanity. He did not dwell on his father. He looked outward and upward, not into a mirror, to find the truth of a matter.
Alas, this seems to be an exception now. Too many authors substitute memoir for essay, and focus on themselves. But what else can be expected? The present American culture, or at least popular culture, is obsessed with self. How to be happy, self-fulfillment, self-actualization, these buzzwords fly around the self-improvement bookshelves like bees around a picnic trashcan. And the modern essay has followed suit. To read an essay is to read a story about the author, and usually some childhood event that still plagues the author's memory. When seeking informed opinion, or insightful analysis, a reader has someone else's therapy session inflicted upon him.
Modern essayist, especially the honest ones, must face up to some truths, if the essay is to be saved:
  • The best essays, or the ones that are most lasting, are about ideas. Focusing on some moment in time, or some particular pair of pants you just bought, will eventually fall into the same box as your pet rock and Depeche Mode CD.
  • You're not that interesting. Biography, and autobiography, used to be the realm of the Great Achievers: Presidents, Generals, Saints. There is an unfortunate movement to democritization of the biography. Ordinary lives are ordinary. You can't make them extraordinary by putting them between two covers and jazzing them up with soft-focus photography.
  • Essays are vehicles for communicating thought, not emotion. If you want to grapple with an idea, this is the tool for you. If you want to write about how you felt because Daddy didn't buy you the purty pink princess phone you so desperately wanted, write poetry. Poetry is the tool for "spontaneous overflowing of the soul" according to Wordsworth.

Perhaps, if enough authors took these points to heart, a new category of Best American could be published: Best American Memoirs. Then all the self-obsessed, whiny psychotherapy addicts could find a home, and leave the essay to those who can think. At any rate, it would make a book of essays more enjoyable.