The Literary Essay in 2017
Interview by Paul Haney, Nonfiction Editor, Redivider
Ned Stuckey-French teaches at Florida State University and is book review editor of Fourth Genre. He is the author of The American Essay in the American Century (University of Missouri Press, 2011), co-editor (with Carl Klaus) of Essayists on the Essay: From Montaigne to Our Time (University of Iowa Press, 2012), and coauthor (with Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey-French) of Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft (Longman, 8th edition). His work has appeared in journals and magazines such as In These Times, The Missouri Review, The Iowa Review, Walking Magazine, culturefront, Pinch, Guernica, Tri-Quarterly Online, middlebrow, and American Literature, and been listed six times among the notable essays of the year in Best American Essays.
Haney: Hi Ned! Thanks again for agreeing to judge this year’s Beacon Street Prize. When it comes to reading and evaluating literary essays, I can’t think of anyone more qualified. After all, you did write The American Essay in the American Century, and you co-edited Essayists on the Essay. It seems to me these titles, plus the very helpful “Our Queer Little Hybrid Thing” in which you tackle the question, “What is an essay?,” contribute to both an understanding and a complication of the genre, especially by tracing its development through the decades. I also know from being your student, friend, and occasional golf partner, that you’re about as supportive and generous a creative writing professor as it gets. So let me start with a big question: What would you say are the hallmarks of a successful literary essay in 2017, and how can we help writers succeed in writing them?
Stuckey-French: Thanks for those kind words, but I still want four shots a side and chance to press on the back nine.
As for your question about writing essays in 2017, I find myself intrigued with the 2017 part of the question. In one sense, I think the problem of writing essays is the same as it’s always been. Our form was split at the root. In the beginning there was Montaigne and Bacon, so the choice for an essayist has perhaps to do with those two guys and their examples. Are you a Montaignean (digressive, skeptical, personal, tentative, conversational, open, etc.) or are you a Baconian (impersonal, instructive, closed, aphoristic, polished, etc.)? That comparison is reductive, of course, but I do think those strains have always twined their way through the essay tradition.
But what about 2017? What is different now? What is the nature of the essay in our moment? I have been thinking about this. It’s an exciting time. The essay, once seen as dead or moribund, some stuffy, belletristic relic of the nineteenth century or a service genre used by composition teachers, has definitely had a revival. The rise of creative nonfiction in MFA programs, the Best American Essays series, new journals (Creative Nonfiction, River Teeth, Fourth Genre, Assay, etc.), and great new anthologies (Lopate, Oates & Atwan, D’Agata, etc.) have spurred this renaissance. And then, of course, there is John D’Agata, whose influence as a writer, teacher, anthologist, and provocateur cannot be overestimated. We are in some sense living in the Age of D’Agata. As you know, I’ve butted heads with D’Agata but I’ve also begun to make my peace with him. I guess if there is one thing I’d say to young essayists right now, it would be that you need to consult the long tradition of the essay in order to figure out what D’Agata’s lyric essay means to you. To my thinking, he muddies the waters by arguing that you can make stuff up gratuitously and for strictly formal reasons, thereby fooling the reader, and by saying that essays don’t need to be occasioned, engaged, or political. That said, his call for lyricism, figurative language, borrowing formal devices from other genres, eschewing logic or conventional narrative, and using section breaks so that you proceed in something like stanzas rather than traditional paragraphs are all to the good. I think our most exciting essayists, writers such as Eula Biss and Claudia Rankine, are writing lyrical essays that also value facts and research and take on the political issues of our day.
Haney: Deal—four shots a side, though I imagine I’ll be pressing you, given the decline of my game since moving to Boston. Speaking of Boston, I’ve always been fascinated by your time here in New England. You graduated from Harvard, spent a couple years as a grad student at Brown, then left academia to take a job as a janitor and communist trade-union organizer at Massachusetts General Hospital (all of which you detail here). My first thought is, What were you thinking? My second thought, That’s so effing cool. Third, my mind wanders to Theodor W. Adorno’s “The Essay as Form,” which, if I remember correctly, argues that the essay genre is essentially communist in that it challenges hierarchical thinking and incorporates all other literary forms. Do you feel this ideologically egalitarian nature of the essay genre is part of what attracted you to it?
Then again, I hesitate to get too high-minded, since at AWP 2012 in Chicago, you said of John D’Agata, “maybe it’s time for you to stop being quite so high falutin’. I worry that you’ve gone so Continental, so post-modern, so highbrow, so, dare I say, lyrical because you’re running away from journalism.” (If I recall, that’s when the AWP field guides-turned-projectiles started flying.) Which makes me wonder, to expand on the question about the nature of the genre, how has your political background informed your approach to reading, writing, and editing essays?
Stuckey-French: I wouldn’t say, and I don’t think Adorno was saying, the essay is inherently communist. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Adorno was opposed to dogmatism, of the left or the right. He was an independent Marxist, not a Communist Party member; in fact, he criticized Lukács for remaining in the Party and, under Party pressure, renouncing his early work. Adorno was attracted to the essay as a genre because, as he put it, the essay “proceeds so to speak methodically unmethodically,” “the law of the innermost form of the essay is heresy,” and the “essay shies away from the violence of dogma.” I agree with him. I like the essay because it is about following your thinking wherever it might go and questioning yourself and your presuppositions along the way. “Que sais-je?” as Montaigne put it. What do I know?
I did work at Mass General Hospital for ten years in the late 1970s and early 1980s, leading a kind of double life as a janitor and undercover trade union organizer. You could lose your job for speaking out for the union. I was single, male, and white with Ivy League degrees hidden in my back pocket. It was easier for me to challenge the hospital and support the organizing effort than it was for the older, West Indian men and women I worked with, but they did speak up and organize. The hospital had a Chicago-based union-busting firm that it brought in to try to intimidate and confuse people every time support for the union heated up.
I lived in Dorchester for most of that time working as a precinct organizer on the Mel King mayoral campaign and the Jesse Jackson presidential campaign. My neighborhood was just off Dorchester Avenue, which divided white neighborhoods from black. The busing crisis still had the city torn apart. School buses with little kids had been stoned. The student population of the public schools was a majority minority but the school committee, which was elected at large, was almost all white and not a single member had a child in the public schools. We organized a successful campaign to get school committee members elected by district so that minority neighborhoods in Roxbury, Jamaica Plain, and the South End could be represented. This was long before Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, but it was not unusual for black kids to lose their lives by straying into white neighborhoods at night or unarmed black—and white—kids to lose their lives because they ran from the police. When I finally left Boston and returned to the Midwest and teaching, I had begun to study the essay. This was the 1980s and the essay renaissance I mentioned above was just taking off. I was especially drawn to nature writers (Edward Abbey, Gretel Ehrlich, Scott Sanders, Barry Lopez) and political essayists (James Baldwin, Joan Didion, Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer). These are wonderful writers and independent thinkers who were also activists. They provided models for me at a time when I was meeting my wife Elizabeth, teaching high school in rural Indiana, and later returning to graduate school and a writing life. In a time when post-modernism, high theory, and jargon dominated most English graduate programs, these essayists wrote in clear accessible prose, valued the facts, and sought a close, democratic, and honest relationship with a wide readership. All that appealed to me and helped me find a way forward in my own life, and, as you pointed out, later led me to challenge John D’Agata’s willingness to toy with the facts and fool his readers.
Haney: It’s interesting to think about this essay renaissance in the late twentieth century, especially in view of the subsequent growth of creative nonfiction concentrations in MFA programs. As you know, I’m finishing up the three-year MFA in nonfiction at Emerson College. Among workshop submissions, plus the oodles of submissions I’ve read at Redivider, I’ve noticed a few trends within the genre. Many students gravitate toward scene-driven memoir, and when they turn to essay, they frequently structure their work around narrative, often linear and chronological. Other times, striving writers rely on lyricism to guide their work. It strikes me that the essayists you mention above seem to follow a third route. We know their voices so well—could pick their style out of a lineup—because they are “following their thinking,” as you say, “wherever it might go.” For both the narrative and the lyrical writer, one of the most difficult maneuvers (and this is certainly true in my own work) is getting that thinking mind to work on the page. Why is that? Is it a matter of how essayists address their material, approach the page? Are there methods or insights we can glean from the origins and development of the genre?
Stuckey-French: I do think I could pick the essayists I mentioned above out of a lineup; in part because I know their work but also because they each a have distinctive voice. But, I think you’re asking about something that while connected to voice is also distinct from it: how to get to the story of the mind thinking. Alfred Kazin is good on this: “We are dealing here with a form that is peculiarly personal. It is personal not because it is necessarily about the self, but because it is an expression of the self thinking. The beauty of the form is that it allows the writer, as himself, the freedom to discover and to develop his individual statement on things. This is the freedom to find out what one wants to say and has to say.”
In a narrative essay the story of the mind thinking is different from the story of the events that happened. In a lyric essay, the story of the mind thinking is different from the mere movement from one trope to the next. A more complicated story arises from the juxtaposition of images. Or, as Deborah Tall and John D’Agata put it in that first call for the lyric essay in The Seneca Review in 1997: “the lyric essay often accretes by fragments, taking shape mosaically—its import visible only when one stands back and sees it whole.” Think of Eula Biss’s great essay “Time and Distance Overcome.” She gives us two sets of seemingly direct, short images from history—first, images having to do with America’s resistance at the end of the nineteenth century to the telephone and telephone poles, which people thought were absurd, unnecessary, and unsightly, and second, images of how those telephone poles were used by white people to lynch black people who were resisting racism at the beginning the twentieth century. Through the use of juxtaposition, Biss finds new and horrifying meaning in words she has recovered and put in a new place:
Early telephone calls were full of noise. “Such a jangle of meaning- less noises had never been heard by human ears,” Herbert Casson wrote in his 1910 History of the Telephone. “There were the rustling of leaves, the croaking of frogs, the hissing of steam, the flapping of birds’ wings…. There were spluttering and bubbling, jerking and rasping, whistling and screaming.”
Great lyric essays – Biss’s On Immunity or Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, for instance – go beyond lyricism. They also make an argument, value facts, demystify history, and make rigorous use of research.
I love narrative and some of my favorite essays are, or can be read as, narrative essays: E. B. White’s “Once More to the Lake,” George Orwell’s “A Hanging” or “Shooting an Elephant.” These essays each tell a story but they also offer, respectively, meditations on war and mortality, capital punishment and complicity, and groupthink and imperialism.
In my experience teaching essay writing (and I’ve been doing it since before Tiger Woods won his first dollar on the PGA tour), I’ve seen many students who write a first draft that is just the story. It shows but it doesn’t tell. Events are recollected but the author tells us little or nothing of what she was thinking either at the time of the events or what she discovered about those events later, Wordsworth’s “emotion recollected in tranquility.” There is neither reflection nor retrospection. Sue William Silverman talks about the horizontal plot (what happens) and the vertical plot (what is thought and felt): “Because I am pregnant (horizontal), I am scared (vertical).” She goes further, makes use of William Blake, and says, “You can think of the Voice of Innocence much like the horizontal plot line: it’s the voice that tells the story of what happened, the events. On the other hand, think of the Voice of Experience like the vertical plot line: it’s the voice that interprets or reflects upon the events.”
Figuring out what we think about our lives requires time, bravery, honesty, revision, and perhaps even research. My students get tired of me asking them, “What’s this essay about? Or what could it be about if you didn’t flinch here, or if you followed this clue your subconscious gave you there? How can you drill down deeper into this material?” I think essays need to be archeological in a sense. We need to get down into the layers, the subtext, the contradictions, the difficulty, the stuff we’re afraid of. An anecdote is not an essay. It’s a bar story. Or as William Kittredge once said (according to my friend Bob Cowser), “Nobody pays to see you juggle one orange.”
Does that help? Does that describe the kind of essay you feel you’re not seeing enough of? The kind of essay you hope will win this contest?
Haney: That’s extremely helpful. These are great examples of great essays, both classic and contemporary, and I love how you’ve included a few different concepts and metaphors – the vertical/horizontal plots of an essay, the interplay between innocence and experience, the “need to be archeological” – to help us understand how they work. Certainly I will be thrilled if a narrative essay that offers a meditation on a broader issue, or a lyric essay that complicates its content through juxtaposition, or some other form of high-functioning essay wins the 2017 Beacon Street Prize. Then again, that’s why we brought you on as nonfiction judge. Would you say the above response describes the kinds of essays that might jump out at you while choosing a winner? Are there any other tips you can give to our submitters (and myself, because I’m paying close attention here—and I don’t just mean putting tips)?
Stuckey-French: I guess I’m a little leery of sounding prescriptive, or becoming a judge that people try to psyche out. I don’t want to be the tail that wags the dog. People should trust their own work and send their best work. I hope that writers who submit their essays work hard, revise fiercely, don’t forget to show and tell, attend to their sentences, and find a form that fits their subject, and then I hope I’m a good enough judge that I will recognize quality, bravery, and beauty even if the essay is, as they say, outside my wheelhouse. In fact, I hope I get introduced to something new. That’s where the real fun is.
I love the personal essay for many reasons, but I especially love it for its malleability and its variety. In some sense our genre is a collection of sub-genres. If I may quote myself (“Our Queer Little Hybrid Thing,” which you cited above): “Over the years the word essay has collected its own passel of adjectives: personal, formal, informal, humorous, descriptive, expository, reflective, nature, critical, lyric, narrative, review, periodical, romantic, and genteel. And it keeps collecting them. Now there are radio, film, and video essays.” Reading essays is kind of like going out to dinner in Manhattan or some other big city. There’s always a great family restaurant that introduces you to new décor and food and presentation and wine and service. In judging this contest I’m hoping for an unexpected dining experience.
I also like to think that my tastes are broad, democratic, and always expanding (though I’ve never been a big fan of anchovies). I like essays that use humor and research. I like essays that make me say, “Wow, I’ve felt that or sensed that, but never heard it put into words.” I like essays that are brave and engaged, essays that tackle big issues though they may go after those issues via a small, quiet, and personal opening. I like essays that are formally inventive but that don’t indulge in form for form’s sake, but use form instead to reveal something about a subject in such a way that when you’ve finished reading the essay, you think, “Of course, that’s the way to say that.” I like essays that are skeptical and unafraid of the contradictions of life. I like essays that recognize that history is sly and we don’t have the universe all figured out even as they try to figure things out. I like essays that describe the beauty of our world – be that beauty wild, natural and inhuman, or urban, constructed, and social.
That said I’ve judged contests before and enjoyed doing it. Here are two recent winners I picked: Sheila Webster Boneham’s essay, “A Question of Corvids” for the 2014 Prime Number contest, and Molly Gallentine’s “Powder House” for the 2016 Mike Steinberg Prize, sponsored by Fourth Genre. Your readers are certainly free to try to read those tealeaves.
As for your putting, Paul, relax your shoulders, don’t get handsy, take the putter straight back and straight through, commit fully, and remember that it starts with distance control even on the big breakers. But you knew that.
Haney: Duly noted, on all counts. Thanks again, Ned—we can’t wait to announce this year’s winner!
Originally published by Redivider.