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A literary (r)evolution courtesy of “The New Essayists”

May 10, 2013

This is “What’s Making Me Happy This Week,” a weekly feature inspired by the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. It’s pretty self-explanatory.

What’s Making Me Happy This Week is an article I read in the New Republic titled, “The New Essayists, or the Decline of a Form? The Essay as Reality Television”, by Adam Kirsch. I am not a regular reader of the New Republic (as evidenced by the fact that this article is from mid-February), but I’m happy I stumbled upon it while perusing through some book reviews on the A.V. Club.

Kirsch’s article is a review of three books of essays and one novel[1], comparing and contrasting them to the work of “the master of the new essay and its most popular practitioner,” David Sedaris. He offers his opinion on why Sedaris’ essays are popularly acclaimed and how the essayists of the generation that followed him have failed to find the same balance as Sedaris between humor and truth, and therefore have not been as well-received. He then compares contemporary autobiographical essayists to reality television stars in what I find to be a reach, but I suppose it’s the kind of statement Kirsch (like many writers) feels he needs to make in order to have an article worth publishing. “Essayists such as Rothbart and Crosley and Sedaris, one might say, represent the prose equivalent of reality TV.” I don’t believe “one might say” that at all; I’ve certainly never seen that comparison made before. If Kirsch wants to make that claim he should just come right out and say it. But I digress. This isn’t meant to be a take-down of Kirsch or the cowardly writing trope of using “one might say” to hedge against taking a controversial stand.

Alas, I said that this article is what’s making me happy this week, didn’t I? The reason is found not in awkward comparisons to reality TV, but in the very first section of the piece, where Kirsch sets out some background for his choosing to write about the contemporary essayist. He opens with a 1984 quote from English poet Philip Larkin: “The essay, as a literary form, is pretty well extinct.” Kirsch notes though that:

It is strange, then, to look around a quarter-century after Larkin and discover that we are living in a golden age of essays, or of ruminative writings that call themselves essays. Books of essays regularly turn up on the best-seller lists; many of their authors are stars on the radio, especially on the cult program ‘This American Life.’ In the HBO show “Girls,” the character portrayed by Lena Dunham declared her ambition to become a writer and ‘the voice of my generation,’ but she did not hope to write the Great American Novel: she wanted to produce a book of essays. […]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. Larkin was not all wrong.

What’s making me happy then is the sudden realization that there is a new form of literature that didn’t exist when I was growing up but now not only does it exist, it has developed into a new golden age of literature. Growing up I recall reading novels, short stories, non-fiction (biographies or historical tales), and the occasional play. Some forms have gone the way of the typewriter – the last genuinely great non-fiction story I can remember reading is Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi, the last plays being those by Neil Simon. However, rather than lament the loss of these narrative forms, I can appreciate that literature, like everything else in popular culture, is an ever-evolving medium. For reasons that neither I nor Adam Kirsch can ascertain, the autobiographical essay has found its place in the 21st century as a form that is welcomed by mass audiences. It probably has something to do with our egotistical society, the rise of first-person writing in general and a preference for shorter works.[2] But that analysis is for another time.

For now, I celebrate this relatively new form of literature. In the past year I discovered Sedaris and have now read three of his collections, becoming a big fan right from the start. I’ve also read and enjoyed other books that fall into this category, such as Take the Cannoli: Stories From the New World by Sarah Vowell (my review here), Sleepwalk With Me and Other Painfully True Stories by Mike Birbiglia, and Cardboard Gods: An All-American Tale Told Through Baseball Cards  by Josh Wilker, just to name a few. Other books don’t fit quite as neatly into this category, but share many of its attributes and thus are also part of the evolution. Chuck Klosterman’s non-fiction work in particular comes to mind.

We don’t often think of literature as an evolving medium, the way we do with music or television. At least I hadn’t. Kirsch’s article reminded me that it is, that for everything we lose we gain something new and wonderful, and that if and when the autobiographical essay goes the way of Facebook (a fad of the early 21st century), something else just as good will take its place. I realize now that I haven’t even touched upon the final author discussed by Kirsch, Canadian writer Sheila Heti, who is not an essayist. Kirsch brings Heti into the discussion because the “essayists write fiction that claims to be autobiography. It is illuminating, then, to read them alongside a powerful recent book that uses autobiography but claims to be fiction.” He concludes, “In opposing the idolatry of the self, How Should a Person Be? offers a deeply intelligent antidote to the new essayists, and to much of the autobiographical writing of Heti’s generation—a generation that is now on the cusp on forty, an age when it is no longer charming for one’s heart to be an idiot.” The medium is evolving before our very eyes.

And that’s What’s Making Me Happy This Week.

[1] The essays by Sloane Crosley, John Jeremiah Sullivan, and Davy Rothbart, the novel by Sheila Heti.

[2] Yes I am aware of the irony of me making this statement on my personal blog. It wasn’t meant as a criticism of contemporary society, just as observation.

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  1. A Dear John Letter to David Sedaris | 2bitmonkey

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