As I write this, I have about an hour before I'm due to take the shuttle to the airport to begin the trip home. I'm sitting at a table in Michelangelo's with Tom, who's begun composing an exam he needs to give tomorrow, while I read a few of the reviews in the latest issue of The American Book Review which I intend to finish reading on the plane. One review particularly interests me (and seems apropos, given all the discussions about democracy that I've participated in this weekend. Donald McQuade, writing about The Best American Essays 2011, remarks:
Of all literary genres, the essay has remained, throughout its distinguished history, and especially in this country, the most egalitarian form of literature: in its subject matter, structure, voice, and readership. The essay's accessibility--for writers and readers--exemplifies the art of democracy.
That accessibility remains both its most distinctive and problematic features. The essay is one of the most readily intelligible and attainable forms of self-articulation and individual power in contemporary writing. So, too, virtually anyone can write an essay marked by recognizable literary merit. This may well be one reason the essay as a literary genre has been marginalized for so long in literary "canons" and in the academy, which privileges the exceptional and the seemingly unattainable.This assertion fascinates me. I myself am a voracious reader of essays-- if I'm browsing in an interesting bookstore, I'm almost certain to end up purchasing a book of essays. The shelf holding collections of essays is the shelf in a bookstore I always go to first. I'd never thought of the essay as a particularly "democratic" form of literary expression, but now that I consider his assertion, I'm certain McQuade is right.
It occurs to me to wonder if it's not the case that it's easier for a writer to avoid cliches when writing essays than when writing fiction. How many people, after all, sit down to write an essay for a general readership when they don't actually have something to say that fascinates and compels them to articulation? So much fiction seems not to be driven by a passionate fascination with the subject of the story as written because its writer is a writer and that is what he or she does, such that the story is the end product that must be marketed to justify the time spent writing it. Passion-driven writing, it seems to me, is less likely to produce tired, lackluster prose, regardless of the technical skills of the writer.
In "The Modern Essay," Virginia Woolf offers an incisive assessment of the state of the essay as a literary genre at the turn of the twentieth century as well as a prescient forecast of its near demise in the decades that followed. Woolf points to the emergence of expository writing-- in the ascendancy of the magazine article in an era fixated on a systematic measurement and generalization-- as the source of the "common greyness [that] silvers everything." With the widespread application of Frederick Winslow Taylor's principles of scientific management far beyond corporate enterprise, reading habits shifted from pleasure to information. The "gentle reader," long assumed as the primary audience for such established periodicals as Harper's, the Atlantic Monthly, and The Century, was soon lost amidst the crowd's pressing need for new information about the world and seeking advice about how to manage and succeed in it. More and more magazines surfaced to address the increased demand for timely and specialized information from impatient audiences as well as to capitalize on the pervasive fascinating with consumption. Popular magazines quickly evolved into the informational counterpart of the retail department store.The end result of the shift is the "voiceles dullness of utilitarian prose" replacing the essay. McQuade quotes Woolf's propsal of an antidote to this dull prose essay writing that "has for backbone some fierce attachment to an idea...and thus [employs] compelling words to its shape..." He notes the shunning of teaching the essay as literature in the academy, "relegating instruction in essay writing to the margins of the university-- to first-year 'service' courses in composition."
Not surprisingly, McQuade hails the "democratic spirit of the essay" for serving as "an especially important portal for self-expression among writers in post-1960s America-- particularly women and people of color--whose voices weren't featured nor even heard in most literature courses well into the 1980s." Reading this, I am struck by the realization that this must be why I am so addicted to essays. (And I will admit it here, that this addiction was part of my compulsion for starting the Cascadia Subduction Zone. Essays and poetry were essential to me in the 1970s and 1980s: they gave me much of what I needed to sustain and nurture me as a feminist in a hostile world. They helped me to go beyond my own experience-- and to connect my own experience to that of others. Essays and poetry, over the years, have repeatedly assured me at my loneliest moments that others are thinking about what I am thinking about and willing to spend the time to give me the benefit of their insights and the pleasure of their company in print. (We don't, after all, having WisCon more than a few days a year.)
So here I am, linking poetry with essays, essays with poetry. It feels right to do that. They're both under-appreciated forms. They are both, in McQuade's terms, "democratic." And they are both forms that, like the best fiction, bring us to our senses. We need them all, don't we? And as much (if not more) than we ever did.