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In Defense of Benign Neglect
by Linda Hall

On my first day in a new city, I shared a cab with a friendly flashy man who advised me on where I might find a decent steak. He had come for a horse race. Because he was affable, I expected him to ask about my line of work. Because he seemed easily bored, I was relieved when he stuck to steak. That afternoon in a bookstore I saw him again. Did he see me? I thought it unlikely that he would recognize someone to whom he had been helpful hours earlier, even if she stood between him and something he wanted. Which was in fact the case. He and I kept blocking each other’s view of two shelves that constituted the entirety of one section. I rather hoped he wouldn’t remember me, lest he think I wanted him to buy me that steak. He looked lost; he looked as though he had scant experience in being lost. The man approached a clerk.

“Where are essays?” he asked.

If New Neighbors and old friends had conspired to make me feel happy and at home and hopeful about the world, they could not have done better than to plant that particular man at my side to ask that particular question. The only thing odder, after all, than a bird who writes essays—“No one sets out to be an essayist,” I was told when I was setting out to be one—is a bird who buys them. Hard to buy what nobody sells. Borders wasn’t selling essays: it was in front of two shelves marked literary criticism that I stood with the man from the cab, and to literary criticism that he returned when the clerk pointed to me. (A moment later, empty-handed and forlorn, he left.) Publishers, on the whole, don’t sell essays, offering instead “provocations,” “reflections,” “expeditions and encounters.” The little magazines, which have no known allergy to essays, nonetheless frequently announce them as “articles”; in an old issue of Antaeus I see that they are “documents.” Few criminals keep a lower profile, or have as many aliases. Essayists also tend to lie low, but with good reason: to venture into the world, Cristina Nehring reports in Harper’s, is to court vocational guidance:

Today, every writer both rash and dogged enough to toil in the groves of non-fiction has had a version of this conversation: ‘You’re a writer!’ says the smiling face. ‘What do you write?’ Slight hesitation. ‘Novels?’ comes the anticipated reply. ‘Stories?’ ‘Screenplays?’ (If you’re in L.A.) ‘Poems?’(If you’re female.) Only after this golden list has been ticked off can you muster your reply: ‘Essays?’ you offer. A cloud passes over the face before you. Chopped liver has been confused with foie gras. Luckily the ingredients can occasionally be reassembled. ‘Hey,’ says your kindly interlocutor, ‘I’ll bet you could write a novel if you tried.’

Nehring gets it nearly right. The essay is not chopped liver but mystery meat. That everyone allegedly wrote essays in school doesn’t help at all. How—why—would anyone write an essay unprompted by an assignment? That many people major in English and some teach it doesn’t help at all. “Oh, theory!” someone said to a friend who was carrying Elizabeth Hardwick’s American Fictions. It is possible to know almost everything about post-structuralism and almost nothing about essays. I have learned to tell interested undergraduates that I write creative nonfiction, though I haven’t learned not to wince as I say it; I intend to subscribe to Creative Nonfiction when it comes boxed with Creative Fiction and Creative Poetry. (“Literary nonfiction” is much better but out of the question unless one is willing to be taken for a critic.) “Creative nonfiction” causes its own brand of amusing confusion. A student asked me to supervise an independent study in historical fiction. “Isn’t that creative nonfiction?” she asked. “What is creative nonfiction?” a writing teacher inquired the same semester. It is possible to be nonplussed by the idea of nonfiction as literature even if you read and like essays. “So what is a ‘nonfiction reading’?” a friend asked when we were sixty seconds away from hearing one. “Is the Gettysburg Address a nonfiction reading?” I couldn’t see where to begin. My friend knew the writer, knew her work and that she would be reading it, and had not climbed into the car with me at gunpoint. “A nonfiction reading is like a poetry reading,” I told him. “But poetry,” he countered, “is meant to be read aloud.” This exchange should not have appalled me. Enroll in an introduction to literature course nowadays and you may do a unit on “film” in lieu of nonfiction. When the results of the latest study of American reading habits were made public, we learned that its N.E.A. architects did not classify serious nonfiction as literature, only poetry, fiction, and drama. Montaigne impresses them as little as Maxim.

So things are even worse for essayists than Nehring suggests, and I couldn’t be more grateful. Now, I did not always feel this way. For years I cherished my grievances. A novelist friend informed me that the essay of hers I thought splendid was in fact “fluff for money.” An editor snorted at my suggestion that a writer’s “scut work,” an essay in a magazine, was as fine as his fiction. When an important essayist was relegated for the second time to “Books in Brief,” I wrote to the editor of the Times Book Review. He wrote back: “As a general rule of thumb we tend to give brief reviews to most collections of previously published material. There are two reasons for this policy—space, obviously, and the fact that collections are often difficult to review. What you wind up with, as often as not, is an annotated table of contents.” In other words, essays do not generally end up in books unless they have first appeared in magazines, and if they have first appeared in magazines, they do not generally end up in the Book Review. (I wonder if this policy applies to collections of short stories previously published in The New Yorker.) I enjoyed quoting a fellow volunteer at Literacy Partners, a vocal worshipper of books who offered this estimate of the essay collection I was carrying: “Yuck.” Yucky was the genre, she made clear, not the writer. I trotted out Faulkner. “A novelist is a failed short story writer,” he once informed the Paris Review. “A short story writer is a failed poet.” Because he didn’t mention essayists, I took to explaining that we are failed manicurists. I collected the gripes of other essay lovers:

The form has been in virtual eclipse for most of my writing life, squeezed to a shadow by the adjoining landmasses of the Article and the Review, not to mention its own dwarf love child, the column. One would feel unbearably precious calling oneself an essayist these days, but anyway they won’t let you.
—Wilfred Sheed

The essay, even though of age, is still, alas, assigned to the children’s table . . . I hate to see it put down, defamed, spat upon, even mildly slighted.
—Joseph Epstein

No poet has a problem saying, I am a poet. No fiction writer hesitates to say, I am writing a story. ‘Poem’ and ‘story’ are still relatively stable, easily identified literary forms or genres. The essay is not, in that sense, a genre. . . . A certain defensiveness
now surrounds the notion of the essay.
—Susan Sontag

Often I pick up a magazine and find nothing but journalism: celebrity interviews, muckraking exposés, travel guides, perfectly realized on their own terms, mind you, but not what I’d call a real essay among them.
—Phillip Lopate

I had booked this lady and these gentlemen to supply back-up vocals for me in an essay about the essay. But as I sat at the keyboard composing my song, it came to my attention that my every note was false. I do not, as a reader and writer of essays, have the blues. It also came to my attention that in each of the essays from which I just quoted, the writer lets slip that he or she is not, or not entirely, disgruntled. Hear them out. Sheed: “The essay seems to be undergoing the mildest of revivals.” Epstein: “Don’t spread it around, but it’s a sweet time to be an essayist.” Sontag: “Essay writing is one of the strong American literary forms . . . . And a variety of essay writing flourishes in our contemporary contentious, polyphonic culture.” Lopate: “Writers increasingly love the form . . . . Essays have become ubiquitous . . . when you think about it, essays are everywhere.”

Full article available in Salmagundi No. 150-151.
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