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The New Essayists
February 22, 2013 7:53 AM   Subscribe

"A talented writer such as John Jeremiah Sullivan might, fifty years ago, have tried to explore his complicated feelings about the South, and about race and class in America, by writing fiction, following in the footsteps of Walker Percy and Eudora Welty. Instead he produced a book of essays, called Pulphead, on the same themes; and the book was received with the kind of serious attention and critical acclaim that were once reserved for novels. But all is not as it seems. You do not have to read very far in the work of the new essayists to realize that the resurrection of the essay is in large measure a mirage." (via)

Old essays mentioned in the story:

Addison on Paradise Lost (No. 267)

Mill on Coleridge

Hazlitt on Hating
posted by Rustic Etruscan (13 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
Seems like what he wants to be talking about is blog posts, but those clearly aren't curated or high-culture enough.
posted by cthuljew at 8:08 AM on February 22, 2013


I was pretty young when Me Talk Pretty One Day came out, but I have wondered on and off if this current trend of 'funny, mostly autobiographical, confessional book of essays' began with David Sedaris. Was anyone else doing this before?
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:11 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


I wonder what responsibility David Foster Wallace bears for all this? Everyone is name-checking Sedaris, but when I read all this "I am behaving badly just as anyone would" worm's eye view of humanity, it seems like a lazy person's Wallace, a way of making a vaguely Wallace-esque observation but then totally letting oneself off the hook.
posted by Frowner at 8:26 AM on February 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


Was anyone else doing this before?

I'd be curious about this too. I mean, some celebrity autobiographies (especially comedians) have always been like Sedaris -- episodic, humorous, self-deprecating and probably half made up.

I remember Fran Lebowitz's books (Metropolitan Life & Social Studies) as somewhat proto-Sedaris, but it's been a while since I've read them.
posted by pete_22 at 8:46 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't think it's necessary to credit Sedaris or DF Wallace or Hunter S Thompson or anybody else with the invention of the humorous, observational essay with a self-effacing (or actively flawed narrator). It's been around forever, in various guises.

Was anyone else doing this before?

The TNR essayist mentions James Thurber.

Mark Twain made several fortunes from them. There must be plenty of others.

I recall one mid-morning in the High School Library skimming a book of humorous observational essays written by Bob Hope. At the front, near the checkout desk and the rack of paperbacks, a guidance counselor and reps from several universities explained the university and scholarship application process to the sixty or so promising students who were gathered there. App deadlines were coming up soon and we'd better get started lest we get left behind. I caught the giggles terriblebad and could not restrain my snickers and chortles and especially my wide grin. Shushing from the students seated around me and glares from the mentors gathered at the front of the room made it worse.

Yes, in fact a Bob Hope book of commonplaces ruined everything for me, and I wound up at the local Junior College. And two more after that.
posted by notyou at 8:58 AM on February 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


I was pretty young when Me Talk Pretty One Day came out, but I have wondered on and off if this current trend of 'funny, mostly autobiographical, confessional book of essays' began with David Sedaris. Was anyone else doing this before?

You can find plenty of humorists doing it. Less so essayists. Sedaris is probably the first to really straddle the line effectively; and even so he straddles it less because he tries to be analytical and more because he mixes his humor with pathos.


Speaking of essays, this one is weird. He opens with Sullivan and Sedaris, but doesn't lay a glove on the former and offers Sedaris grudging respect, then spends most of the essay going off about what a sap Davy Rothbart is. There's a better essay to be written about this phenomenon but he misses it entirely --- the missing link here is radio and This American Life specifically. Sedaris, Rothbart (and a number of other writers whom he does not name but whom are far more well established as icons of this genre, like Sarah Vowell and the late David Rakoff) have all had their careers started or boosted by TAL. The kind of tone and perspective they use --- wry, introspective, intensely personal, a little shallow --- it used to be a TAL trademark. In their later years TAL has become more hard news focused, but through the beginning of the 2000s this was the kind of thing they did 80% of the time. The constraints of radio have shaped the print genre to its detriment.
posted by Diablevert at 9:03 AM on February 22, 2013 [9 favorites]


What I want to know is, who is the new G. K. Chesterton? Who is the cranky, romantic, erudite, encyclopedic, faux-faux-faux-humble contrarian with an unclassifiable socio-political bent?

Christopher Hitchens was (sort of) our new H. L. Mencken...
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:28 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


You know, I was working on a whole long comment about the multiple failings of argument in this piece: how it completely misses the Internet-based boom that the serious essay is in fact currently undergoing, its dismissal or even more damningly its ignorance of the many women writers who have been working for decades in exactly the genre it claims to love (like Jenny Diski), how its general worldview seems to be composed of false nostalgia and fatuous ignorance about the present. But then I looked at the byline and realized I'd been trolled by the loathsome Adam Kirsch once more, and instead of finishing the comment I realized it'd be better just to move on.
posted by RogerB at 9:40 AM on February 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


Pulphead (previously) is utterly fantastic - one of the best books of essays I've ever read. Writers who can so smartly, eloquently and hilariously move from pop culture deconstruction to sweeping and profound truths about humanity are rare. Seriously great stuff.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:39 AM on February 22, 2013


There's so much wrong with this piece--not to mention the typo in the last line.

Still, despite its bumbling to make a point that could have been made much better, there's a kernel of something wise in there, a valid point about a certain species of perpetually infantilized non-fiction writing. Because really, there's nothing worse than reading reflections on someone's self-indulgence framed as light comedy.
posted by yellowcandy at 12:25 PM on February 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


Was anyone else doing this before?

Erma Bombeck
posted by Toekneesan at 1:16 PM on February 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


I certainly enjoyed Sullivan's Unknown Bards: The blues becomes apparent to itself
posted by y2karl at 12:12 AM on February 23, 2013


I think it is totally valid to be crankily pedantic about the drifting definition of "essay" away from its use to mean "literary essay." I think he's right when he says "What we now call an essayist used to be called a humorist." (Part of the problem there is that "humorist" is too broad to be a very good identifier, and there's no unambiguous noun to describe the thing they produce. Novelists write novels, journalists write articles, essayists write essays, humorists write...um, a piece of humorous writing.)

But it's silly to make the point that these writers aren't actually essayists, but humorists, then criticize them at length for being poor examples of literary essayists. He does start to critique the work of contemporary humorists, but only in comparison to each other, with no real context from the longer tradition of this type of writing. But he's got to move along, he's got sexy-headline quips to make about essayists being the equivalent of reality TV -- staged and shallow and pandering. (Is he comparing the new essayists to the reality TV performers? Writers? Producers? Who knows. I think he imagines that he's making a point about identity by constantly conflating authors with their writing.)

Then he shames the new essayists for not being memoirists, disdaining the essayists' personas as fiction because their pieces are fashioned to be clever. (Wait, I thought they were humorists?) Instead, they should be more like this novelist who wrote a fictionalized autobiographical story; she's more honest because she uses autobiographical elements woven into a fictional work which is brilliant for using the...well, let's call it the "now familiar game of meta," which is what he called it a paragraph ago when it was cheap and inauthentic in the hands of the new essayists/humorists/shallow memoirists.

Sigh. What? Sigh.

If I were more clever and better-read, perhaps would write an article about the decline of criticism, noting that without a depth of familiarity and knowledge of the field being critiqued, the writer isn't actually producing a critique at all, merely a rant. Then, I could tear apart this article in comparison to actual critical writing to prove my point. And THEN, I would go ahead and judge it fairly as a rant, assessing his merits in comparison to other ranters, such as selected examples of ranty personal bloggers, columnists, writers of letters-to-the-editor, etc. And I'd probably digress into thoughts about poststructuralism.
posted by desuetude at 5:18 PM on February 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


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