The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Essay, and My Crisis of Faith

by Andrew Tibbetts

The best book I’ve read this year is 2007’s The Best American Essays edited by David Foster Wallace and series editor Robert Atwan.

Both editors get to introduce the collection and both celebrate the impossibility of nailing down an exact definition of the literary form, ‘the essay’. They celebrate rather slyly by pretending to struggle with the concept. For show, they launch a wild goose chase through the history of the form and it’s sibling forms -- the article, the opinion-piece, the memoir, the personal history, the note, the occasional piece, the creative non-fiction piece, etc. -- taking pit stops at Montaigne, Orwell, Didion, et al, (but strangely, no mention of Emerson). They pretend to be rather apologetic about the crop of disparate entities they’ve gathered. But don’t be fooled. They love the ambiguity, the uncertainty, the fuzzy boundaries, and the chaos. And so do I!

I haven’t gotten excited about fiction lately. And I’m a fiction writer, so this is a serious crisis of faith. I’ve stalled on the few short stories I’ve been writing for several years. I have a computer folder full of versions of each-- fragments, outlines. I’ve tried to come at the things from several different angles. As an experiment, I’ve tried to tell these tales in the style of other authors I’ve enjoyed. I’ve tried to tell these tales as if they were true. But therein lies the crux of the matter. I’ve lost my faith in their truth. They seem dull. Thin. Useless. Besides the point. It hurts me to write this.

Fiction writers claim that by making things up they can access a truth deeper than the merely factual. That sounds good, doesn’t it? But these ‘essay’ writers have found a way to access deep truth through the specifics of the real world.

Mark Danner’s “Iraq: The War of the Imagination” began life as a book review for The New York Review of Books. Danner sifts through the mountainous minutiae of leaked memos, newspaper reports, accounts of conversations between major players and reflections by hundreds of opinion-sharers -- the stuff of modern engagement with current events, a headache of information-- and he pulls out a thread that unravels the entire mess. He paints a view of flawed human nature that is as grandly tragic as a play by Euripides.

In Wallace’s introduction he makes a case for a criterion he used to help him select the pieces for this anthology: service. These pieces are useful. They provide a service. In the discourse around art, this concept has been anathema for some time. Art for art’s sake -- remember? What these pieces do is trump the distinction -- there needs to be no lessening of utility due to increase of artistry. In fact, I defy you to find a short story in this year’s The Best American Short Stories that boasts language as beautiful as Jo Ann Beard’s in her ‘essay,’ “Werner.” Her playful turns of phrase, her scintillating compression, her masterly control of tension and mood are as abstractly elegant as a Mozart string quartet. And she pulls off this feat of gorgeous writing by telling us what really happened to a real guy this one time. So, on a simple level her piece is a useful story of ingenuity and survival.

The specifics of the world are the gateway to the universal. Non-fiction writing is tied to the real world by a fascinating cord that gives it life-blood and keeps it breathing the same air as the reader. It turns out our imaginations are not constrained by the real, but sustained.

What in the world am I going to do with myself?


Blogger Anne said...

Did you know that this very topic is currently the subject of hot debate in the Canadian literary world, following a G&M article in defence of non-fiction?

Wed Nov 21, 01:05:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger T. Lee said...

Yes, it was sort of brought up in my class yesterday, also. Daniel mentioned that there is no 'market' for straightahead essays (it is a course on making money freelancing from freelance magazine writers). He also pointed out how the direction of magazine writing is being influenced by online writing, with an increase in sidebars, and less emphasis on story. The reason, he said, is the cross-platform situation for publishers, who want to use print and online interchangably, more easily. Also, people are beginning to read differently because of the way the web works. As a result of all this, it seems to me at least, the resurgence of essays makes perfect sense.

Wed Nov 21, 01:13:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Anne said...

Tamara, it really sounds like the best class EVER.

Wed Nov 21, 01:16:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Andrew, I guess what you're going to do with yourself is write essays. They speak to you right now and you do them so well -- case in point, your current piece in The New Quarterly. Go where the creative force takes you.

Wed Nov 21, 01:31:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger MelBell said...

The "essay" used to hold very little appeal for me, conjuring up last minute deals with the Devil in order to meet deadlines in English class.

These days, that's all I want to read.

Thu Nov 22, 09:59:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Steve Gajadhar said...

Fiction isn't "doing" it for me lately either. So I've jumped back into popular science and philosophy.

Fri Nov 23, 05:00:00 pm GMT-5  

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