The essay is in a bad way, according to Cristina Nehring. It’s not because essayists have gotten stupider, she says. It’s not because they’ve gotten sloppier. And it is certainly not because they’ve become less anthologized. More anthologies are published now than there have been in decades, indeed in centuries. The Best American Essays series, which began in 1986, has reached 20 volumes.
The problem is that these series rot in basements—when they make it as far as that. I’ve found the run of American Essays in the basement of my local library, where they’ll sit—with zero date stamps—until released gratis one fine Sunday morning to a used bookstore that, in turn, will sell them for a buck to a uni student who’ll place them next to his dorm bed and dump them in an end-of-semester clean-out. That is the fate of the essay today.
Hardly a ringing endorsement of a genre that once marked the careers of literary luminaries like Orwell, Edmund Wilson, Vidal, Sontag and their ilk. Writing at Truthdig.com, Nehring asks is it our fault; are readers actually responsible for the decline of the essay?
Have we become lazier, less interested, less educated? Attention spans, to be sure, have shortened. Gone are the days when people pored over periodicals at languorous length during transatlantic crossings. But this is not the reason why essay collections gather dust and why essayists so often count themselves “second-class citizens” (in the words of E.B. White). If the genre is neglected in our day it is first and foremost because its authors have lost their nerve. It is because essayists—and their editors, their anthologists and the taste-makers on whom they depend—have lost the courage to address large subjects in a large way.