On August 28, Dick Jones brought to my attention a question about contemporary essays and essayists posed by Bob Harris on Paper Cuts, the blog about books written by the book review editors of The New York Times:
In early September, Yale University Press will publish “The Great Age of the English Essay: An Anthology.” It’s a useful crash course in what the periodical essay once was. There’s Addison and Steele; Dr. Johnson and Boswell; Hazlitt, Lamb and De Quincey. There’s gossip and scandal, obsession and addiction, even the blurring of fiction and nonfiction. All of a high order, of course. It certainly seems as if there would be contemporary equivalents of such fare. But, all due respect, I don’t see much of it on the so-called literary blogs, including this one. The collection’s editor, Denise Gigante, writes of the “clubby environment” provided by the coffeehouses of Enlightenment London, reminding us that the best essayists of today are unlikely to be hanging at Starbucks. For that matter, who — and where — are the great essayists working now?
Commenters brought up a number of writers and publications, some predictable and some not, mostly from the print world, but of course Dick and I were both delighted to see this one, from a reader named Felix Blume:
The so-called literary blogs are links clearing houses. They are part of the business of books, part of the structure through which it’s bought and sold. They gain their fame by being part of an echo chamber but, fundamentally, they have very little to contribute.However, there are many essayists with a strong literary bent who are doing great work far from the limelight of the lit blogs. Precisely because they are earnest, non-clubby and light on the links, these people are not better known. They are poets, fiction writers, philosophers but, in keeping with the etymology of essay, what their blogs are are “attempts” or “tries.” These essays are broad and of flexible form; they include memoir, thoughts, criticism and original creative work.
Mr. Blume went on to give four examples, all familiar to readers here: Dave Bonta's Via Negativa; Dick Jones' Patteran Pages; Peter's "Slow Reads;" and my own Cassandra Pages. "Very high quality work," wrote Mr. Blume, "as good as what you’ll find in magazines, and I don’t think they are what most people think of when they think of blogging. I’d call them the Hazlitts of our time. It would be nice if the mainstream media someday featured them (as a phenomenon)."
I second that wish, but mainstream literary opinion still clings rather desperately to the traditional, dismissing blogs as a essay medium for reasons such as those cited by a later commenter:
The key is to find a forum that allows for length. Blogs are not great for lengthy pieces… blogs are generally for quick and snappy (and mostly puerile) observations.
Well. It's true that a blog is not the same as Harper's or the New York Review of Books, both favorites of mine for serious essay writing. But neither brevity nor lack of seriousness are valid reasons to dismiss essays found on blogs. Bloggers have many ways of getting around issues of length, such as serializing their posts, and readers are quite willing, I've found, to read single-post essays of substantial length so long as that's not the only thing the author ever offers. And as for the quality of the writing -- I think Mr. Blume made the point.
The greater differences between older and newer formats, I feel, are rooted in the fact that many bloggers write essays with different purposes and goals from the essayists who've always written for prestigious, traditional print publications. The whole phenomenon of essay writing is evolving within blogging to a related but different form, with authors willing to descend from the marble pedestals from which essays have traditionally been written and delivered, into a much more rough-and-tumble exchange of ideas.
My own roots as an essayist grew more in the compost of conversation than in the reflected light of words written by others, i.e., the "tradition of the literary essay." The women of my family read a great deal; that was the heyday of the essay-rich New Yorker, from the time of Harold Ross, E.B. White and Calvin Trillin to that of John McPhee and Oliver Sacks. Harper's, the Atlantic, Esquire, New York and many other magazines were part of the mix, as well as a steady stream of books -- and we talked about what we read. Of course it was influential to read all that excellent writing. But it was sitting around the dining hall at my university with a group of intense, smart friends, whose interests and studies spanned the whole gamut of the liberal arts and sciences, that really honed my ability and love for the process of developing one's ideas on a topic not so much through solitary research, but through conversation, integration, and staying open to left-field comments and associations that often gave the original path new energy and a lot more excitement. I think most of us who experienced that kind of exchange as young people were changed by it, and many bloggers point back to those years as formative for what they're doing now.
Essayer: the French verb means to try. When did the essay change from being a try, an attempt to grapple with a topic or idea, with the purpose -- one assumes -- of encouraging thought and further discussion, to an open-and-shut treatise? Don't get me wrong, I've been inspired to greater reflection, reading, and action by many traditional essays I've read, just as I've been inspired by sermons and speeches, their kin. Some of the essays I've written, especially literary ones, have certainly been constructed in a classic academic way -- the way I was taught to write them, frankly -- with a clear set-up, discussion of several main points, and arrival at a conclusion through logical argument and carefully-wrought sentences, hopefully with some entertaining tid-bits along the way. But I have noticed that the more finished a blog essay is - in the sense of being polished, conclusive, and certain - the fewer comments it will receive. Readers may appreciate what it says, or the style in which it's written, but chances are there's no opening left for them to say anything of their own.
Following a few of the links in the comment thread the other day at "Paper Cuts", I went to Harper's and read a recommended article on the current state of the essay, "A Strangely Elegant, Convex-Shaped Writing Machine" by Wyatt Mason, and then an interview by Mason with the article's featured essayist, Arthur Krystal. (Krystal is the author of The Half-Life of an American Essayist, from David Godine; its first chapter is here, and I recommend it as a clear statement of what it's like today to be a freelance intellectual writing essays for money.) In the interview, he says:
As for me, I occasionally received letters from writers when I was reviewing, but not many, and none that ever altered my opinion in the slightest. Nor do I receive many letters about my own work. Why more people don’t deluge me with their opinions about my take on Paul Valéry’s Notebooks or Friedrich Kittler’s Gramophone, Film, Typewriter is a mystery that passeth understanding. Only two pieces of mine ever elicited a lot of mail. One was a piece on laziness I did for the New Yorker, which energized a dozen or so lazybones to get in touch with me, and the other was “Closing the Books,” which spurred even more people to castigate, denigrate, and threaten me. I felt fulfilled.
I'm sorry that Krystal doesn't receive more feedback; he's an excellent writer. But he is perhaps right to find writing essays for money, and the whole publishing business, discouraging. After thirty-some essays, he says he has written about just about everything that matters to him; he finds almost nothing anymore that he wants to read; and he says all the arts have "run their course."
Is the perfect literary essay really what the 21st century reader, no matter how serious, wants? Who is that reader? Is it a person from the same educational background and demographic as the writer, someone who's read the same books, drives a similar car and drinks the same Scotch? If so, then we'd better start the lament, because the essay is soon to be as dead as Krystal says all the arts are. And even if we move to a new medium, the blog, we will only attract a narrow group of readers if we write the old way, the kind we learned in order to get A's, please our thesis advisor, or win publication in academic literary journals or mainstream prestige magazines.
Letting go of those goals in favor of conversation, in favor of an exchange of ideas, is a deliberate choice (and one that's no use to most writers hoping to make money from their writing.) My own motivations for writing essays on my blog (and commenting on others) are simple: to spur other people, and myself, to think more deeply and to leave open room for anyone, especially people coming from a different places and different backgrounds, to enter the conversation. Krystal agrees that act of writing essays makes him think:
Sometimes I think that I never think except when I write essays. They exercise the mind. Writing about beauty, God, sin, or the aphorism is like going to a mental gym; you firm up muscles you don’t use in your daily life. One more thing: I write essays because I like writing sentences, especially those that would probably never come into existence but for the process of writing. Those who write will know what I mean by this.
Absolutely true. But for me, it no longer stops there. I want my opinion to be challenged, enlarged, and changed. This calls me to a specific approach as a writer: the use of clear language that tries not to divide or exclude people on the basis of education, culture, or experience; a greater desire to share than to impress; a sincere openness to differing opinions; the creation of a sense of hospitality and invitation; and finally, perhaps, a sense of optimism that what we're talking about together really does matter. The blog is a much better forum for that than a print publication, but I haven't seen anyone talking specifically and seriously about the blog and the future of the essay form. Can a modern blogged essay - a postmodern essay - be an open door, and is that what we -- both writers and readers - want?
Piero della Francesca, The Flagellation of Christ (detail)
The essay by Teju Cole on the late Michael Baxandall’s art criticism, published here on August 20th, is a case in point. Teju’s essay was, actually, a fairly traditional academic presentation designed to make its points and stand alone, and it would have been perfectly at home in an academic journal or other print/print-like presentation. In fact, it was noticed by Baxandall’s school, Berkeley, and quoted as the last word at the conclusion of the Berkeley News Service’s tribute to the late emeritus professor : his own colleagues saw that Teju had captured the essence of what Baxandall was all about:
Nigerian novelist Teju Cole wrote a guest tribute to Baxandall for "the cassandra pages" blog, saluting what he called "trademark Baxandall: the patient, inductive tone, the crystalline language, the erudite undertow, all in the service of clarifying our words for images."
In that world of traditional arts and letters -- pats on the back all around – Teju’s essay could have ended right there. But instead, here we are in blog-land, where that post elicited not only praise, but comments that raised new questions and begged further discussion on the topic I’m pursuing here.
I myself went to Interlibrary Loan at the Bibliotheque Nationale and borrowed two of Baxandall’s books, Painting and Experience in the Fifteenth Century, and Words for Pictures, curious if Teju’s assessment of Baxandall’s clarity and accessibility would hold true for me. It did, undoubtedly aided by the fact that I've studied art history myself and read a lot of art criticism. As the genre goes, this is as accessible and un-obscure as it gets. To make the reading even more interesting, the subject of Painting and Experience is how the 15th century art patrons and viewers themselves viewed and talked about the art of their own time. I was fascinated by Baxandall’s discussion of what was deemed important and worthy in 15th century pictures, the words that were used to describe them, and what this tells us about the culture of the day.
But Baxandall goes further:
Renaissance people were, as has been said, on their mettle before a picture, because of an expectation that cultivated people should be able to make discriminations about the interest of pictures. These very often took the form of a preoccupation with the painter’s skill... (and) the Renaissance beholder was a man under some pressure to have words that fitted the interest of the object...
In our own culture there is a class of over-cultivated person who, though he is not a painter himself, has learned quite an extensive range of specialized categories of pictorial interest, a set of words and concepts specific to the quality of paintings...in the fifteenth century there were some such people, but they had relatively few special concepts, if only because there was then such a small literature of art. (emphasis mine)
In other words, art criticism had not yet appropriated to itself the “expert” task of judging, comparing, and explaining art for the rest of us.
As Baxandall shows, Renaissance people (and artists as well) had skills that were developed in their daily lives – like the ability to “gauge” volumes, or to observe the natural world with keen attention (since one’s life often depended on it) – which directly impacted both what sorts of representations were prized in pictures, and people’s ability to look at them and talk about them. And although he admits that the ordinary peasant was outside this group of art-appreciators, Baxandall convinces me that feeling comfortable talking about fine art as something related to one’s own skills and daily life was a fact for many people in the Renaissance. The language used to talk about pictures was common.
Five centuries later, we’ve seen the distancing and rarification of “Art,” on the one hand, into a realm accessible only to the supposed cognoscenti -- those capable of affording its offerings and understanding its criticism -- and, on the other, into underground forms born out of alienation and disaffection, which often subsequently become popular and vibrant, but whose adherents seem increasingly disassociated from their own historical/cultural roots. And in the middle, a great morass of bland mass-media entertainment, accessible to everyone but of questionable satisfaction, and unlikely to encourage personal creativity except as rebellion and reaction.
If we are going to hang our “critical essays” about art on such a backdrop, then for whom are we writing? A shrinking group of hangers-on who have the education and leisure to read and ponder the fate of western art, or, at best, embrace a postmodern world view? What is the future interplay between art, and the writing about it? Does the writing serve that which it's supposed to honor and love, or actually contribute to its inaccessibility and eventual demise?
While there’s something stubbornly comforting about writing for and reading the work of people who share similar educations and socio-economic backgrounds, it feels to me like this is not only a dead end today, but one more way in which the world is becoming polarized into “insiders” and “outsiders”, “us” and “them.” If we cannot use the medium of writing to open doors and encourage dialogue across difference, we have lost the greatest gift of language. So – in that light – what is the role of the critical essay in the future?