A HIGHER DEMONOLOGY … OR NOT
by Chris R. Morgan
We who are inclined to listen to such talk are sometimes told of an “age of the essay,” and every so often we might be told that we are living amidst a new “age of the essay.” Quite where the essay went in the intervening time is hard to say. On the one hand, anyone who professes such a view is, almost inevitably, an essayist who is, much more certainly, framing his or her idea of the essay by the kind of essay he or she prefers to write. “This is the new age of Woolf,” says one. “No, this is the new age of Baldwin,” says another. “Fuck off, this is the new age of Sedaris!” “But David Sedaris isn’t dead.” “Not according to my latest essay ‘How I Killed David Sedaris.’” “Touché. Your turn to pick up the diner tab.” On the other hand, essaying in itself seems ever constant well outside the sphere of these writers. Even before the encroachment of the internet, idiosyncratic self-expression ranks somewhere near breathing as one of mankind’s great reflexes. Even if the audience is someone over the phone, what is expressed often meets the base Montaignean requirements of “attempts” to convey “some traits of my character and humors.”
I am less interested in any one age of the essay than I am in the ongoing dilemma of the essay. Writing in general is among the most superfluous of the vocations, almost to the point that throughout time it barely ever was one to but a fortunate few. Samuel Johnson, who once said “no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,” made a decent living at it, while his frequent critical target Jonathan Swift was only ever paid for Gulliver’s Travels. Hazlitt’s, the £227-per-night hotel in London’s Soho district, is a renovation of the boardinghouse where essayist William Hazlitt died in abject poverty. Though all three writers’ bodies of work are taken up almost entirely by essays and related occasional works, Hazlitt is the most emblematic of the genre’s dilemma. Out of Hazlitt’s numerous and sometimes furiously written essays came the skeletons of modern journalism’s tropes: narrative reporting, the sports feature (the boxing essay specifically), the hatchet job, the thinkpiece, and the overshare, all the while going into financial—and personal—free fall, shedding friends and wives as most of us shed skin cells. He was less the “first modern man,” as a biographer has claimed, than the first modern freelancer, churning out elegant, provocative pieces that were largely forgotten.
The essay is something that must balance profundity and triviality, craft and conversation, peculiarity of the singular and utility of the multiple. The essay is not something that’s supposed to work, it’s a Darwinian reject not meant to survive out of water, and it’s not something that we really need to talk about or formalize. It’s hard to tell which is more pressing to people actually concerned about this: that the essay is ever present, that people with mouths to run, if not ideas to articulate, seek it fruitfully or that some people are naturally inclined to the form and pursue it in spite of the minimal reward it offers. But these are dark thoughts, fraught with angst and anxiety, usually felt by people who write essays with a mind to do more than just offer a flowery opinion, thoughts which clearly can only be worked through towards solution by the writing of an essay. Or not.
This was certainly what Jason Guriel had in mind with his essay against other essayists, specifically critics who lace their work with memoir. “[I]n recent years there has been a surge of confessional criticism,” he writes, criticism centered on the “I” pronoun and personal experience at the expense of actual critical faculties. He lays this accursed thing at the feet of many parents: rejection of the “dead white” canon, embracing of the informality of pop culture, and the ever engulfing prevalence of the internet. Mostly, though, he blames a writer. “[David Foster] Wallace wasn’t primarily a critic,” writes Guriel, “but the critical essays he published in the 1990s and 2000s presented a model to my generation. He eschewed irony, embraced sincerity, and choppered himself into his analyses of assorted cultural phenomena.” Writers like Wallace and his heirs—Guriel singles out Leslie Jamison, Geoff Dyer, and John Jeremiah Sullivan—are well regarded for their work, with Sullivan getting especially tasty bylines, but they also corrode the standards of old, the cold, scientific examinations of Eliot, Frye, Adorno, and Wilson or the “living, breathing personalities” of Parker, Jarrell, Kael, and Bangs.
Though there is much to agree with in spirit, “I Don’t Care About Your Life” has its weaknesses. It spends too much time lamely standing athwart the zeitgeist, for one. In a way it is just as confessional as the work of any of his targets: stating a disposition first and an aesthetic principle second, like serving an overdone steak with a side of soggy peas. His focus on Wallace overlooks his place in a long tradition of subjective, self-indulgent nonfiction writing that is rooted in Hazlitt and was sped up in the 20th century with the dawn of the modern magazine and headhunters like Clay Felker and Harold Hayes. (There wasn’t so much an age of the essay as an age of the editor.) His citing of Lester Bangs, who was susceptible to his own personal longueurs, and was a cited influence on Wallace, is also similarly weak. Still, what remedy he has—an escape from confession to “smart sentences, one after the other”—is instructive, but also obvious and not particularly interesting in its present state.
Saying what is objectively good and proper in an essay is basically pointless. The closest thing to a solid rule I can think of is that it should be factual. But even this rule seems apt to be broken. For all of its faults, I mostly didn’t care for Guriel’s essay because it was boring, but he’s in good company. I find Wallace, Sullivan, even Orwell just as boring. I base my standard of what I find valuable in an essay on my years spent reading them.
The essay is so pervasive it is almost impossible to canonize, but if I had to break it down I would do so between the idiosyncratic and the authoritative. The former is composed by writers who, whether fascinated, frightened, angered, or aroused by an idea, explore it within the confines of their own limitations. The subject is at the mercy of the writer’s personality, talent, and intellect, whether or not that is his or her intention, other considerations are secondary. The editor works with what he or she is given, and the reader is drawn to it like a moth to a lamp. The authoritative essayist is actually not much different from the idiosyncratic one, only he or she is more aware of the platform in use and has an added agenda, writing in such a way as to attract the widest possible attention. Subjects aren’t curiosities to explore, but problems to be solved or lessons to be imparted. They direct readers like beacons to ships. Both types have merit, and usually the essay writer’s passion is stoked by the latter and brought into maturity with the former. Or so it was with me. A good essay is one that discards the personal for the expressionistic, or the didactic for the demonological.
How this guides other readers I can’t say. In fact, no mystery is more unsolvable than that of the essay reader. Does such a person exist? One who does not aspire to be or already is an essay writer, or some other creative person looking to feed off someone else’s creativity? Anyway, an essay born out of a dislike of another essay is hardly any more instructive than the disliked essay. My own personal dilemma can’t really be escaped or explained away. I write knowing few people will likely read what is published, knowing it, in all likelihood, will amuse a few total strangers but neither enlighten nor inspire them.
That, at least, is the better attitude to have. As the one thing that links writer and reader is that, to a certain extent, they are free. The writer is free to pursue his or her interests and problems to whatever end he or she seeks, and if it is done with invigorating style at least, not to mention for decent money, all the better, while the reader is free to imbibe its wisdom or its wit or go somewhere else. In effect, to take up Ambrose Bierce over Ralph Waldo Emerson, Agnes Repplier over Edmund Wilson, Walter Bagehot over H.L. Mencken, Virginia Woolf over T.S. Eliot, Jonathan Swift over Samuel Johnson, George Scialabba over Christopher Hitchens, Wayne Koestenbaum over Camille Paglia, Thomas Carlyle over George Orwell, Maggie Nelson over James Wood, Chris R. Morgan over Jason Guriel. Or maybe just some YouTuber.