Reviews — From the May 2016 issue

Note To Self

The lyric essay’s convenient fictions

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Discussed in this essay:

The Making of the American Essay, edited by John D’Agata. Graywolf Press. 656 pages. $25.

The Lost Origins of the Essay, edited by John D’Agata. Graywolf Press. 656 pages. $23.

The Next American Essay, edited by John D’Agata. Graywolf Press. 475 pages. $20.

The Lifespan of a Fact, by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal. W. W. Norton. 128 pages. $17.95.

Reality Hunger, by David Shields. Vintage. 240 pages. $15.95.

John D’Agata’s The Making of the American Essay marks the completion of a large-scale canonizing project. D’Agata, the author of several books of non-fiction, most recently The Lifespan of a Fact, has also been collecting other people’s essays for the past thirteen years. Now they fill three volumes. The series began in 2003 with The Next American Essay, a haunting assembly of work drawn from the preceding three decades. Some of its authors are well-known essayists such as John McPhee, Joan Didion, and Susan Sontag. But as the anthology draws closer to the present day, D’Agata gently steers us away from the types of essays we are already likely to be reading in magazines — reported features, op-eds, structured personal narratives with scenes and dialogue — and draws our attention toward what he has called the lyric essay. In 1997, as a young editor at Seneca Review, D’Agata (with his colleague Deborah Tall) offered the following definition:

The lyric essay partakes of the poem in its density and shapeliness, its distillation of ideas and musicality of language. It partakes of the essay in its weight, in its overt desire to engage with facts, melding its allegiance to the actual with its passion for imaginative form.

Many of the contributions to The Next American Essay were in fact written by poets: Albert Goldbarth, Susan Mitchell, Joe Wenderoth. Some of the work might easily be considered prose poetry; some even contains line breaks. Lydia Davis’s “Foucault and Pencil,” which appears in the volume, is normally considered a short story.

“Chicago, 1988,” by Kenneth Josephson, from The Light of Coincidence: The Photographs of Kenneth Josephson, published last month by University of Texas Press © The artist

“Chicago, 1988,” by Kenneth Josephson, from The Light of Coincidence: The Photographs of Kenneth Josephson, published last month by University of Texas Press © The artist

D’Agata’s second anthology, The Lost Origins of the Essay (2009), gathers essays from ancient Babylonia to the present, while The Making of the American Essay contains exclusively American writing, beginning in 1630 (with Anne Bradstreet) and leaving off in 1974, the year before the first anthology begins. These two historical volumes include most of the names you would expect: Plutarch, Seneca, Sei Shonagon, Montaigne, Thomas De Quincey, Virginia Woolf, Emerson, Thoreau, Du Bois, Twain, E. B. White, James Baldwin. But there’s a curious omission. D’Agata leaves out many of the classic English essayists of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. There’s no Addison or Steele, no Johnson or Burke, no Lamb or Hazlitt. The absence is conspicuous, since this was a period in which the form reached one of its peaks. In the middle of a project that spans centuries and continents, D’Agata seems to have left a hole in the shape of a Georgian Englishman.

Is this a discreet form of homage, or a sign of antipathy? It’s hard to tell. D’Agata declines to explain his methods or to supply the standard biographical information about his authors. Instead, he introduces each essay with a mini-essay of his own, which sometimes, but not always, reveals something about the author or work in question. For instance, here, in its entirety, is his preamble to “Oil,” by the Mexican poet Fabio Morábito:

Or: Maybe we’re wrong; maybe the essay really is just a philosophical investigation that, masked as it sometimes is by the infusion of other forms — by story or memoir or lyric or fable — we’re just ignoring its most basic form.

D’Agata’s questions about exactly what constitutes an essay become even more pointed in the second volume. “Why is a text like William Blake’s ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’ a poem?” he asks in The Lost Origins.

Is it because it’s good? Is it because approximately 14 percent of it is in lines, and therefore, by the rule of poetic association, all of it is in lines? Is it because it’s more flamboyantly engaged with the imagination than most eighteenth-century English prose, and therefore it cannot be prose? Let me ask another way: Why do I want to think that Blake’s “Marriage” is an essay? Is it because it’s good?

Taken together, D’Agata’s headnotes constitute a meditation on the nature of the essay. For him, the essay is “less a genre in its own right than an attitude that’s assumed amid another genre.” If you had to describe that attitude based on D’Agata’s anthologies, you might say that it’s one of deep preoccupation. The narrator has puzzled over a problem or an incident or a feeling for a long time. She may not have answers, but she has certainly come up with every relevant question. And she has emerged from her preoccupation essentially sane; the form of the essay suggests that obsession leads not to madness but to productive thought. Where D’Agata sees an essayistic mode of address being used in a poem or novel — T. S. Eliot’s “The Dry Salvages,” say, or Chapter 42 of Moby Dick, “The Whiteness of the Whale” — he calls it an essay, a term that for him designates some of the best literature from both sides of the fiction/non-fiction divide. One gets the sense that if D’Agata were able to mold the reading public according to his own sensibility, “essayistic” would be not merely a term of neutral description but high praise, an epithet sprinkled liberally on book jackets the way that “lyrical” is today.

D’Agata’s elastic conception of the essay puts one in mind of David Shields’s Reality Hunger (2010), a provocative work of criticism that is much taught in writing programs and much cited by reviewers of fiction. Shields is the author of several memoirs and works of non-fiction that defy categorization, most recently War Is Beautiful: The New York Times Pictorial Guide to the Glamour of Armed Conflict, a scathing analysis of the newspaper’s recent war photography. In Reality Hunger, Shields assembles 618 short, numbered passages, some of them his own, some taken from other sources, to make an extended argument for a new kind of literature:

An artistic movement, albeit an organic and as-yet-unstated one, is forming. What are its key components? A deliberate unartiness: “raw” material, seemingly unprocessed, unfiltered, uncensored, and unprofessional.

The important word here is “seemingly.” The writing that Shields champions is in fact carefully shaped, but it achieves an effect of unmannered authenticity. If it’s fiction, the narrator bears a biographical resemblance to the author and the story makes use of conspicuously true facts. If it’s memoir, it points to the author’s inevitably subjective and fallible account of what “really” happened. The important thing, for Shields, is that the distinction between fiction and non-fiction should wobble.

Why do I so strenuously resist generic boundaries? Because when I’m constrained within a form, my mind shuts down, goes on a sit-down strike, saying, This is boring, so I refuse to try very hard. I find it very nearly impossible to read a contemporary novel that presents itself unself-consciously as a novel, since it’s not clear to me how such a book could convey what it feels like to be alive right now.

D’Agata and Shields share many touchstones. Some of Shields’s favorite authors — Joan Didion, Anne Carson, Lydia Davis, Fernando Pessoa, Renata Adler — are also anthologized by D’Agata. The Next American Essay includes work by Shields; Shields quotes D’Agata in Reality Hunger. For D’Agata, the essay is king, but “essay” is a sufficiently supple category to encompass fiction and poetry. For Shields, the most interesting literature occupies a liminal space between fiction and non-fiction, and the essay — the “lyric essay,” at any rate — is “the literary form that gives the writer the best opportunity for rigorous investigation, because its theater is the world (the mind contemplating the world) and offers no consoling dream-world, no exit door.”

This shared body of beloved works does not represent a self-conscious movement, as Shields acknowledges. Shields calls Reality Hunger a manifesto, but his argument is not new: his quotations are taken from throughout the postwar era, and, as D’Agata’s anthologies prove, the essayistic fiction and imaginative essays that Shields loves have antecedents going back to antiquity. Shields’s criticism of fiction also has a substantial lineage; his statements about the tedium or lifelessness of much contemporary fiction recall the essays of Alain Robbe-Grillet and John Barth. (Shields writes in an endnote that Robbe-Grillet’s For a New Novel was “the book that in many ways got me thinking about all of this stuff.”) Perhaps because the theoretical groundwork for his objections has long since been laid, Shields doesn’t so much mount an argument against fictional conventions as repeat, in different ways, how sick of them he is.

His idea of a way forward — a fiction that is even “closer” to the author’s experiences of life — is not one that was envisioned by Robbe-Grillet or other midcentury critics of the novel. But it is a real tendency among contemporary writers, and has become more pronounced in the six years since Reality Hunger appeared. Around the time that Shields published the book, a Norwegian novelist, largely unknown to Anglophone readers, wrote this:

Over recent years I had increasingly lost faith in literature. I read and thought this is something someone has made up. Perhaps it was because we were totally inundated with fiction and stories. . . . All these millions of paperbacks, hardbacks, DVDs and TV series, they were all about made-up people in a made-up, though realistic, world. And news in the press, TV news and radio news had exactly the same format, documentaries had the same format, they were also stories, and it made no difference whether what they told had actually happened or not. . . .

Fictional writing has no value, documentary narrative has no value. The only genres I saw value in, which still conferred meaning, were diaries and essays, the types of literature that did not deal with narrative, that were not about anything, but just consisted of a voice, the voice of your own personality, a life, a face, a gaze you could meet. What is a work of art if not the gaze of another person?

Some of the most inventive and widely admired writing of recent years seems to affirm Shields’s sensibility. On the fiction side, we’ve seen not only Karl Ove Knausgaard — the author of the above passage — but also Geoff Dyer, Teju Cole, Jenny Offill, Rachel Cusk, and Ben Lerner create strongly essayistic first-person narrators who sometimes efface the distinction between fiction and non-fiction. On the non-fiction side, Elif Batuman, Maggie Nelson, Hilton Als, Claudia Rankine, and Sarah Manguso have given us variations on high-art essays and memoirs.

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lives in Los Angeles. Her essay “The Prisoner of Sex” appeared in the September 2015 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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