The essay as reality television

montaigneAdam Kirsch, The New Republic

By any measure we’re living in a golden age of essays. Take a look at any best seller list. Many of their authors are media stars. More accurately, these anthologies are more fragmented collections of ruminative writings than they are a faithful continuation of Montaigne’s originale.

Which is why you do not have to read very far in the work of these new essayists to realise that the resurrection of the essay form is in large measure a mirage. For while the work of writers such as David Sedaris, Sloane Crosley, John Jeremiah Sullivan, and Davy Rothbart are described as essays — My Heart Is an Idiot: Essays, is the title of Rothbart’s new book — they have little in common with what was once meant by that term. The new essay, like the old essay, is a prose composition of medium length; but beyond that the differences are more salient than the resemblances. Philip Larkin was not at all wrong when he said “the essay, as a literary form, is pretty well extinct”. This was in 1984.

The essay, traditionally, was defined by its freedom and its empiricism—qualities that it inherited from its modern inventor, Montaigne. “What do I know?” Montaigne asked, and the essay is the form that allows both the “I” and the thing it knows equal prominence. For this reason, the essay could address any subject, exalted or trivial, as long as it displayed the mind of the writer engaged with the world. The subjects in The Oxford Book of Essays, edited by the late John Gross, range from truth and dreams to wasps and the Hoover Dam. Not coincidentally, some of the greatest essays, from Addison on Paradise Lost to Mill on Coleridge, are engaged with texts, which is to say, with other minds. For the essay is one of the purest ways for a writer’s mind to record its own motions, which are the basis of prose style.

The self, then, has always been at the heart of the literary essay. But the new essay is exclusively about the self, with the world serving only as a foil and an accessory, as a mere staging ground for the projection of the self. Formally, one might describe the work of Sedaris, Crosley, Rothbart, and company as autobiographical comic narrative: short, chatty, funny stories about things that happened to me—weird things, or ordinary things that are made weird in the telling. What we now call an essayist used to be called a humorist. Sedaris’s books are sold as essays, but he is plainly trying to be Thurber, not Addison.

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