Aasof on Essays
August 19, 2017Posted by on
This week on Facebook: Following last week’s offering on books I have turned to essays this week and finding myself with too many articles my week on Facebook has forced me to make another choice. The week is given over mainly to articles from contemporary female essayists with one male contributor, whose article on Monday — Why the essay still matters — begins this week on Facebook. Essayist Christy Wampole begins the female contributions on Tuesday with — The Essayification of Everything — in what the New York Times classifies as a blog. Wampole writes: It seems that, even in the proliferation of new forms of writing and communication before us, the essay has become a talisman of our times. What is behind our attraction to it? Is it the essay’s therapeutic properties? Because it brings miniature joys to its writer and its reader? Because it is small enough to fit in our pocket, portable like our own experiences?
Ah, the timeless power and joy of a great essay: Joan Didion on self-respect; David Foster Wallace on the nature of fun; Susan Sontag on courage and resistance; George Orwell on why writers write. But where, exactly, does that intangible magic of the essay reside? Maria Popova — What Makes a Great Essay
Maria Popova also quotes Robert Atwan (author of ‘The Best American Essays’) writing: Essays can be lots of things, maybe too many things, but at the core of the genre is an unmistakable receptivity to the ever-shifting processes of our minds and moods. If there is any essential characteristic we can attribute to the essay, it may be this: that the truest examples of the form enact that ever-shifting process, and in that enactment we can find the basis for the essay’s qualification to be regarded seriously as imaginative literature and the essayist’s claim to be taken seriously as a creative writer.
In another article Popova quotes E.B. White on the art of the Essay in writing that: Only a person who is congenitally self-centred has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays. There is some truth in White’s observation especially for people of my age who, when asked to name a famous essayist, would name a congenitally self-centred male. Oscar Wilde immediately springs to mind or George Orwell’s statement about sheer egoism in his essay Why I write. I first came across White in 2015 when I included the quote below in my post OH NO! Not another blog on blogging!
“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.” Strunk & White (pdf)
I hold the view that online offerings may often be considered an essay form, including those made without any allusions by their author to being an essayist, content with simply calling their online efforts a post, a blog, a piece or an article. Nevertheless, all offerings may emanate from congenitally self-centred and insensitive authors who are convinced of their offering’s quality. So how is a good offering — in whatever form — recognised? That’s a difficult question to answer. My best answer would be a reference to a post of my own, which addresses the readers innate ability of being able to recognise a quality of thought and statement but yet their having great difficulty in determining how.
“It doesn’t make a bit of difference how you do it! Just so it’s good.” The reluctant student might ask in class, “But how do we know what’s good?” but almost before the question was out of his mouth he would realize the answer had already been supplied. Some other student would usually tell him, “You just see it.” Zen and the 17th chapter
Online contributors often include links (URLs) in their offerings, but the indiscriminate use of URLs may actually prevent readers from seeing the author’s quality in the thought and statement. It seems unreasonable when an included URL requires a reader to make a necessary diversion. Surely there is an assumption by the author that the included URL concurs with, or is an adjunct to, what has been written? The inclusion of a URL should not in itself be a distraction from, nor be a necessary requirement for the understanding of that which the author intended to convey in the offering.
When the readership is shared by those who do not have the same first language a URL may be particularly useful in indicating the intended context. However, if any reader could misinterpret the intended the usage of words, idioms, colloquialisms, perhaps a rewrite is necessary to obviate the use of a qualifying URL. All included URLs should have a purpose, to paraphrase Strunk & White (in part) and adding a touch of Zen and the 17th chapter:
“Vigorous writing is concise in its intent. A sentence should contain no unnecessary URLs or a paragraph too many URLs. If the writer includes URLs they should only detail a main source or be linked to an author’s intended aide mémoire, which itself should be an adjunct. Every included URL should reflect the style of the author and an assumption that every reader is free to research the quality of every thought and statement made.”
It appears that the New York Times doesn’t allow contributing authors to put URLs in their online articles. Perhaps a realisation that included URLs are superfluous when the reader is able to generate their own online searches, either from the author’s article or external to it. If Robert Atwan is right and Essays can be lots of things, maybe too many things . . . , then an article in the New York Times — with the title Is this a golden Age for Women Essayists — simply reflects one of many things. When the article’s author Cheryl Strayed mentions in the same sentence; Joan Didion, Anne Lamott, Alice Walker, Nora Ephron, Annie Dillard, Meghan Daum, Sloane Crosley, Zadie Smith and Sarah Vowell, the online reader may independently choose to research any of those names.
Strayed opens her article with the queries: Would we ever think to ask if this is a golden age for men essayists? Is it even credible to use the phrase “men essayists”? Why does it sound incorrect in a way that “women essayists” doesn’t? And why does a writer like me — female, feminist, familiar with the discreet and overt forms of sexism in the literary world and beyond — bristle when presented with such a query, one undoubtedly intended to celebrate rather than diminish the achievements of a category of people I admire and to which I belong? She may well be right in her observations but are they a critique that is intended to set the tenor for a piece about female essayists made by Strayed — despite her conceding the intention (and veracity) of the title?
In December 2014 Sarah Weinman wrote that women writers have turned an unfashionable genre into a publishing trend (see Friday’s article), supporting Strayed writing in October 2014 that it’s hard to deny there’s something afoot, essayists who happen to be women are having a banner-year. Strayed continued with it being online that she first read Gay and Jamison, and it’s online that she’s done most of her essay reading in recent years. Strayed states that the personal essay is king in an insular yet influential milieu where the measure of success has nothing to do with book deals or best-seller lists, but is quite simply many people posting a link preceded by a sentiment along the lines of You have to read this. She is certainly right about online material¹, but I wonder what — given her initial queries — readers are meant to infer by Strayed concluding with the words a slightly more democratic route.
If we’re in a golden age of anything, I’d say it’s that: a slightly more democratic route for essayists of both sexes to get themselves on the literary map. Cheryl Strayed — Is this a golden Age for Women Essayists,
Justin Kaplan (quoted in Essays vs. Articles) wrote: Given the confusion of genre mingling and overlaps, what finally distinguishes an essay from an article may just be the author’s gumption, the extent to which personal voice, vision, and style are the prime movers and shapers, even though the authorial ‘I’ may be only a remote energy, nowhere visible but everywhere present. (‘We commonly do not remember,’ Thoreau wrote in the opening paragraphs of Walden, ‘that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking.’)
It would be nice to think that an essay is easily distinguished from any other offering be it on or off line, but clearly this is not always the case. The Brain Pickings site may be the best resource that I found online, providing answers to everything you wanted to know about essays but were afraid to ask.
Monday 14/8/2017 Why the essay still matters: I related to him an entire conversation we had all those years ago about JB Priestley. “You said: ‘The point of an essay is to amuse, educate and express something personal.’ You called it ‘the form with the greatest pedigree in English literature, the jewel in the crown’.” My old teacher was pleased to be reminded of what he’d said and as he left the book signing I watched him disappear over another customer’s shoulder, thinking I might never see him again. Yet I believe his lesson about the English essay will never leave me.
Tuesday 15/8/2017 The Essayification of Everything: It seems that, even in the proliferation of new forms of writing and communication before us, the essay has become a talisman of our times. What is behind our attraction to it? Is it the essay’s therapeutic properties? Because it brings miniature joys to its writer and its reader? Because it is small enough to fit in our pocket, portable like our own experiences?
Wednesday 16/8/2017 Speak Because You Can—The 14 Best Female Essayists to Read Now: In general, the French writer Michel de Montaigne is credited with “inventing” what he called the “essai,” the “attempt” to sort something out in words. I prefer to think, however, that while essays may be “attempts” to think about things, they also convey the idea that one is not only “weighing” one’s words but also balancing ideas to come to some intellectual conclusion. Or not. Sometimes, an essay can be a short piece intended as a bit of a lark that reflects a writer’s thoughts.
Thursday 17/8/2017 From Didion to Dunham, Female Essayists Seize the Day: Writing a good essay involves a process akin to alchemy; the base metal of intimate, individual experience is transmuted into a shining nugget of universal truth, the meaning of which resonates with a larger audience.
Friday 18/8/2017 Why women write essays—and sell lots of books: Social media is a big factor in the success of this year’s crop of female essayists, notes Laura Miller, Salon’s literary critic. “Where would we have read this stuff before?” Miller asks. “In publications mediated by editors who, in the past, might have decided the subject matter was too ‘small’ or personal. But now, someone can get a huge readership for an essay-like blog post, maybe build a Twitter following and develop a public persona. Essayists can go directly to the audience, which, if it likes the work, will spread the word.” But there’s also an argument to be made about market forces. When famous figures such as Dunham, Tina Fey and Mindy Kaling embrace the essay format, publishers suddenly see economic value in less famous, equally strong female voices.
¹150 Great Articles and Essays – The Net’s Best Nonfiction: Must-read articles and essays by famous writers – the best examples of short articles and essays to read online – all-time great longform articles
And for those who may have wanted to read David Foster Wallace’s essay On the (nearly lethal) comforts of a luxury cruise, or more correctly SHIPPING OUT, from a faulty link in my post Aasof on Books, it is included in the above under Travel but you may want to go straight to it: