Photo credit: Alexis Knapp
For a long time, and not so very long ago, I believed there existed a loose hierarchy of literary forms. Cast as an optometrist’s eye chart, it probably would’ve looked something like this:
N o v e l
P o e m
For me the novel clearly represented the supreme achievement of an individual imagination. It was a sustained act of verbal creation, “alive through every order of its Being,” as William Gass
has it, and as an ambitious young writer, I thought I had to test my mettle against the culture’s most consequential form. Part of my enchantment was surely due to a peculiar combination of the novel’s strangeness and familiarity. While writing one still seemed a birthright endowed only to rare geniuses, I’d read any number of them. Not only read, but studied, for the novel was, without question, worthy of serious study.
And what of the essay? Regard the chart — you need the eyes of a hale schoolboy to see it there. Perhaps this is simply a case of familiarity breeding contempt, or if not contempt, then at least indifference. Because my experience with essays was the exact inverse of that with novels: I’d written far more of them than I’d read, mostly about the novels I’d been assigned for a class. (For example: “DuckTales Boo-hoo: Growing Pains in The Catcher in the Rye
,” which my high school teacher had praised as, “Spirited, at times delightful. But lacks the rigor befitting an academic paper. Fewer puns, please. Many fewer. Also, I don’t think ‘penetralia’ means what you think it means… B/B+.”) Even if we’re not taught the lesson outright, we learn it pretty much ab ovo
that essays are a secondary, and therefore lesser, literary form. They’re the pilot fish of literature. What’s that, Mrs. Saunders? You’d like a citation? OK. Here’s the Hungarian Marxist Jedi, Georg Lukács
: “The essay is always concerned with something already formed, or at best, with something that has been; it is part of its essence that it does not draw something new out of an empty vacuum, but only gives a new order to such things as once lived.”
Somewhere along the way I picked up that “essay” could be applied to more than the travesties of “scholarship” I had produced for my classes. But still one trait prevailed — essays were, primarily, where you put your thoughts. And as everyone knows, thoughts are cheap, just a penny. What’s more, they’re easy. Here, off the top of my head, are some thoughts:
I think bad writing is an insult to experience. I don’t think the distinction between high and low (culture or language or whatever else) exists any longer. I think Rodney Mullen
is very possibly the second coming of Vaslav Nijinsky
. I think adverbs have suffered unduly, perhaps “inly,” by Dickensian neglect, most of all. Men, unlike women, shouldn’t wear spandex pants without an obfuscatory over-layer, I don’t think. I think words, rightly plied, can tattoo the mind. I think Charles Portis
’s books qualify as a national treasure. I think the negroni is a perfect drink. I don’t think a man should wear flip-flops after the age of 25. I’m fooling only myself, I think, by continuing to buy “slim” clothes. I think the Internet itself is bad writing hypostasized. I think skateboarding is to jazz what snowboarding is to smooth jazz. I think Ernest Hemingway
is hugely overrated and Willa Cather
hugely underrated. I think espresso coconut water tastes like Yoo-hoo, especially at room temperature. Roger Federer is unquestionably the greatest tennis player of all time, irrespective of final Grand Slam tallies, I think. I think couvade syndrome is a real thing. I don’t think Heidegger
’s baleful politics nullify his entire body of work. I think literature in general and fiction in particular should do more than solve rudimentary emotional algebra. The Clarks® Desert Boot is, I think, the best casual shoe on the market. I think Subordinate Claws and Dependent Claus and Retractable Clause are potentially pretty cool band names, maybe. I think everyone should work a service job at least once. I don’t think we’ve even begun to comprehend what our technology’s doing to us. I think the earth is an oblate spheroid.
I knew in some mysterious way that the only form elastic and malleable enough to hold what I had that needed holding was the essay.
Whenever I noticed that a Serious Writer had written a piece of short nonfiction, say a book or movie review or a snippet of cultural criticism or a travelogue or a celebrity profile or some messy sneeze of a thing like the one I’m engaged upon here, I understood it as an act of artistic truancy. They were playing hooky from their true calling — Real Art. Essays were their side pieces. Literary shiksas — they’re fine for an occasional dalliance, but not fit to bring home to mama. In due time, though, the Serious Writer will have written enough of these pieces, often for Hoity-Toity New York Magazines, that a Publisher will start seeing green and want in on the action. And so unto the world a book is given, an “essay collection,” a diffuse miscellany of the Serious Writer’s thinky-dinkeroos.
Is anyone still here?
In any event, we’re all fortunate to be living through something of an essayistic renaissance, a time when some of our most exciting writers have broken the mold and continue to show us the near limitless potential of the form. And yet you can still find vestigial evidence of the bleak and limited conception I once held. A lone example? Books of essays meant for general readers that include an extensive bibliography. What’s the point? To impress? Intimidate? Prove something? All of the above? There hangs about them the icy cloud of scholarship and flipping through them has started to make me feel like I’m touring an abattoir. Regardless, most of the problems stem from this pernicious notion that essays are where you put your thoughts. Because I don’t know about you, but they’re at their least interesting for me when they do nothing more than marshal out a writer’s learning or “insights,” as though part of a parade. Such essays treat the form with the same lack of imagination that we all tacitly accuse it of being founded on. If this messy sneeze of a thing has a point at all, a thesis, it’s this: Essays should be an invitation to thought, to thinking, not simply the expression of it. And when I found, to my surprise and, well, chagrin, that I was writing a book of them, this was one of the greatest challenges I encountered — creating enough opportunities for the reader to peel off on his or her own, to allow them to feel like whatever “thinking” was going on was theirs too.
There’s an old Quaker saying that I’ve found useful in thinking about writing, so much so that it’s become a kind of mantra for me: “Every force evolves a form.” I got it from the writer Guy Davenport
, who used it as a title, and it’s always made me think of bees, which know instinctively and collectively something it took mathematicians two millennia to prove, that hexagons are the most efficient way to build their hives. I don’t want to try to get too specific about it here (“I don’t have the people words to make it understand you the way it understands me,” quoth Ricky from Trailer Park Boys
), but I knew in some mysterious way that the only form elastic and malleable enough to hold what I had that needed holding was the essay. And so I’ve since come to learn that my hierarchy was misguided, the product of an immature mind, and now believe that an essay can house as much honey as a hive, that it can hum and buzz with just as much life. Because in fact the same miracle is demanded of any literary endeavor: that the manmade thing feel, just as we know it literally isn’t and can’t ever be, alive.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the managing editor of Tin House
. He lives with his family in Portland, Oregon. Up Up, Down Down
is his first book.