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The lyric essay’s convenient fictions

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.

If D’Agata and Shields both want to free literature from the tyranny of novelistic make-believe, they also want to free it from the tyranny of fact. The two authors turn out to have the same bugbear: the controversies that erupt whenever a memoir is proved to contain fabricated material. Their beef is not with disgraced authors such as James Frey, whose exaggerations and inventions in A Million Little Pieces, his best-selling memoir of drug addiction, caused a scandal ten years ago. What angers them is the credulous, outraged reading public. Shields laments “the very nearly pornographic obsession” with Frey’s and similar cases: “The huge loud roar, as it returns again and again, has to do with the culture being embarrassed at how much it wants the frame of reality and, within that frame, great drama.”

D’Agata is even more contemptuous of duped memoir readers, as he demonstrates in The Lifespan of a Fact (2012), a book he wrote with Jim Fingal, a former fact-checker for The Believer. The book is composed of a series of emails between D’Agata and Fingal, who was assigned to fact-check a reported essay about a suicide in Las Vegas that D’Agata submitted to the magazine. (D’Agata first submitted the essay to this magazine, which ultimately declined to publish it after a dispute over the accuracy of its claims. Harpers later ran an excerpt from Lifespan of a Fact.) Lifespan poses a question: how much factual truth does a magazine essayist owe his reader? D’Agata’s answer amounts to: very little. Fingal contests dozens of D’Agata’s statements on the grounds that they are imprecise, misleading, or incorrect. D’Agata justifies most of the inaccuracies in the name of art, insisting on his right to falsify numbers for the sake of a sentence’s rhythm; to compress events that happened over the course of a month into a single day for the sake of literary intensity; and to attribute to an official police report facts that came from his private conversations with policemen, for the sake of streamlining the story. D’Agata’s tone is lavishly obnoxious. “It’s called art, dickhead,” he replies to one of Fingal’s questions. (This rhetorical excess is not to be taken at face value; the emails in the book are an approximate reconstruction of the original fact-checking process, and the authors have said in an interview that their argument “didn’t really take place the way it’s described.”) Critics seized on the book’s dubious assumptions: Why can’t a good writer arrange his sentences felicitously and use the correct numbers? Why must essayistic art be antithetical to verifiable accuracy?

Although Lifespan was published six years after the Frey incident, the scandal plays a significant role in D’Agata’s argument. A minor query of Fingal’s becomes the occasion for one of D’Agata’s most vigorous attacks on the overly literal reading of memoirs or essays:

Art is supposed to change us, to challenge us, and yes, even to trick us. What Frey’s audience was responding to so vehemently was the sensation of having had a genuine experience with art. And they freaked out. And they tarred and feathered a guy for having given them an experience they felt unprepared for. But whose fault was that?

The defense of Frey may seem odd. A novelist is free to come as close as he wants to the literal truth and still call his work fiction. But the essay and the memoir — whose very premise is that the author is making a good-faith effort to relate events as he witnessed and remembers them — are more clearly delimited. Of course, memory may be unreliable, interpretations are perforce subjective, and any good essay is going to be carefully shaped, which means emphasizing some aspects of experience while minimizing or leaving out others. But surely none of this is the same as deliberately making things up, right?

Shields and D’Agata are reluctant to establish a standard for accuracy, or even to define the essay and memoir as forms that specifically make use of the found materials of an author’s life. Both writers emphasize non-fiction’s artifice, rather than its fidelity to experience. Though they witheringly dismiss the quality of Frey’s prose, they take pains to show that as a liar he has something in common with all great essayists. Shields quotes Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story:

Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son, written when Gosse was fifty-seven, recounts conversations that purportedly took place when he was eight; people who had known the Gosses protested that Edmund made up these conversations, which of course he had. Orwell’s “Such, Such Were the Joys” was denounced for its inaccuracies by people who had been his classmates.

A large part of Shields and D’Agata’s purpose — in the anthologies, in Lifespan, and in Reality Hunger — is instructional. If the essay is to become our preeminent literary form, readers need a sophisticated understanding of its artistic principles and rigors. And indeed, though personal narratives are much read and appreciated these days, there does seem a lingering suspicion, among readers and reviewers, that writing about one’s own life is lazier and more solipsistic than conjuring a fictional world. The author of a weak novel is, at worst, unskilled in the art of the novel. The author of a weak memoir gets called names: narcissistic, navel-gazing, self-pitying.

D’Agata and Shields demonstrate firsthand the pitfalls of the kind of non-fiction writing they cherish. D’Agata’s first anthology, The Next American Essay, includes at least one essay for each year between 1975 and 2003, arranged chronologically. Why 1975? It’s the year that D’Agata was born. In an introductory note, D’Agata relates a story that his mother told him: while she was pregnant she “purchased something called ‘a baby phone’ ” that was intended for communication with her fetus. Using its handset, she read aloud to him from Cicero, Montaigne, and Emerson. “I understand why Mom’s story about why I love essays feels on its surface very true to me, even though its particular facts do not.”

Shields devotes a chapter of Reality Hunger to his own literary education: his parents were journalists; his childhood stammer made him receptive to Derrida’s theory of deconstruction; he was fired from his college newspaper for making stuff up. “On my breakneck tour of European capitals the summer after graduation, I carried in my backpack two books: One Hundred Years of Solitude and Swann’s Way. . . . García Márquez failed to hold my attention and Proust became a years-long addiction.”

Telling personal stories is by definition a demonstration of self-absorption. The challenge the essayist faces is to convince readers that all this inward attention is justified and worthwhile — that he can see through his own vanities and speak credibly about himself in a way that will be illuminating to others. Gornick’s The Situation and the Story shows that when a memoirist sounds self-aggrandizing or whiny, it’s usually not because he’s a jerk but because he has failed to meet the technical requirements of the form. In a good essay or memoir, the author typically makes use of self-deprecation, self-doubt, or some sort of self-division that allows him to cast a skeptical eye on his own impulses, tastes, and certainties.

But D’Agata and Shields are both arguing that their modus operandi is the best around (and, by the way, much harder to pull off than it might look). Unlike many essayists, they do not stage their arguments as conflicts within themselves. It’s not I fell in love with Henry James but when I started to write I discovered I was an essayist. It’s I never liked García Márquez, I’ve always loved Proust, and here you see me today, without any apparent second thoughts, denigrating writers who style themselves after García Márquez and promoting writers who style themselves (as best they can) after Proust.

There is an obvious lack of tension in advocating a kind of writing that you have loved unreservedly from the womb. Instead of arguing against themselves, D’Agata and Shields argue against ill-defined external antagonists: the armies who would defend fictional realism without reservation, the hordes who don’t give non-fiction its due as an art, the masses who read memoir expecting it to be true. Straw men, in other words, who allow Shields and D’Agata to assume the role of embattled underdogs, even though we live in an era when essays and memoirs flourish and fiction is regularly flogged.

In D’Agata’s cruder formulations, his notion that art is supposed to trick us can seem like a bit of 1917 preserved in amber: the avant-garde artist eternally sticking it to the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie. If the essayist is to be recognized as a bona fide artist, Lifespan’s logic seems to go, he must always be free to foil his audience’s expectations — which ultimately means attacking the very foundations of the form. The fact-checker’s talk of “trust” or “responsibility” or “obligation” has no place in this view of art:

I’m not a politician, Jim. Nor am I reporter. And I’m also not the reader’s boyfriend or daddy or therapist or priest or yoga instructor, nor anyone from whom they should be seeking a trustworthy relationship.

But aren’t solace, guidance, and fellowship what we read essays for in the first place? The tradition of Montaigne presents a quandary. The essay gives the reader an unparalleled sense of intimacy with its author. To read D’Agata’s anthologies straight through is above all to be struck by the richness and intensity of each narrator’s inner world, even when those narrators are ostensibly reporting on something outside themselves. D’Agata celebrates this aspect of the essay, yet also sounds as if he mistrusts it — or, more precisely, mistrusts the feeling of companionship with the essayist that readers so often claim. In Lifespan, at least, D’Agata seems to doubt that the essayist can truly be an artist if he can’t burn the reader. It’s an attitude toward the audience that hasn’t had much of a place in the development of the essay, though it is very much bound up with our idea of modern art. But in delivering his shocks — in ceremonially unveiling and defending his every departure from fact — is D’Agata clearing the way for some kind of social and cultural criticism, some new vision of our contemporary condition? Or is he merely insisting on a punishing relationship to the reader — the right to lie to him and then be thanked for the “experience”? D’Agata is correct to note that the essayist is not a public servant or one of the therapeutic professionals who tend to the well-being of today’s bourgeoisie. He does, however, end up making the essayist sound like a certain kind of boyfriend.

To throw in our lot with the essay — to place it at the center of our literary culture — is to accept the idea of a more or less continuous self that can make its observations, emotions, interpretations, and opinions intelligible to others. From Montaigne to Didion, essayists have shown that even questions about the very coherence of the self or the legibility of experience can be addressed from within the essay. Does this mean we’re walking away from the more recent modernist and postmodernist challenges to certainties about the self? Can everything important be filtered through a talking “I”? What do we do with our skepticism of the bourgeois subject and his abiding interest in his personal experiences, his foibles, his feelings? A spurious rebellious energy animates Lifespan and Reality Hunger, books that are determined to trouble our pieties — without, I think, having convincingly identified what literary pieties and prejudices actually look like today. Even as they reach back to an older literary past and look forward to the future, you can still see Shields and D’Agata arguing with the nineteenth century according to the terms of the early twentieth.

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

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