Are we living through a resurgence of the essay?
Depends whom you talk to. Writers increasingly love the form; booksellers have their doubts; magazine editors find essays quite useful in a pinch; book review assigners often consider collections of the stuff a pain. But essays have become ubiquitous, as part of the general boom in nonfiction prose.
When you think about it, essays are everywhere: they turn up in the costumes of personal memoir, humorous sketch, diatribe, speech, prose poem, vignette, philosophical treatise; in performance pieces, comic books and on the radio; in specialty journals covering everything from gardening to foreign affairs; in the many new essay anthologies organized around a topic, as well as the collected essays of individual authors. One reason, besides naked ambition, that I accepted Anchor Books' invitation to have me edit in the coming years their new essay annual (a companion volume to their long-established fiction book, O. Henry Prize Stories) was that I wanted to reflect more of that cornucopic variety in my selections.
I've envisioned an essay annual that would differ from the others in drawing not only from periodicals but from books and unpublished manuscripts; not only from the present but a few I rediscoveries from the past as well; not only from the United States but from the international literary scene. Not the "best" (whatever that means) of one calendar year, necessarily--but a lively, cosmopolitan mix; not a salon of blue-chip names but a conversation among absorbing, obstreperous voices.
To arrive at a few dozen memorable essays I have had to read myself bleary-eyed. Of course I skimmed. Often I would pick up a magazine and find nothing but journalism: celebrity interviews, muckraking exposes, travel guides, perfectly realized on their own terms, mind you, but not what I'd call a real essay among them.
How can you tell a first-rate essay? I am tempted to repeat what St. Augustine said about Time: "When no one asks what it is, I know what it is; if someone asks me, I don't know."
All I can say is that I was looking for a certain density of thought. A living voice. A text that would surprise me and take me through a mental adventure.
Admittedly, I've been drawn to the analytical, the wry, the self-aware. To me there is no room for naifs or solemn primitives in the essay; it's a performance of extreme sophistication, the argument rising or falling on the basis of verbal nuance, persona pirouette, exposure of unconscious contradiction in oneself and others. There are many think pieces that make a reasonable point but then continue to hammer away; they don't turn against themselves enough. Still other essays wander into a glade of pastoral appreciation where there's no tension, the stakes seem insufficient. I was on the lookout for the pleasure a mind takes in finding its way through a dangerous thicket.
Anyone who reads the prose of a calendar year cannot help but be aware of trends. The presidential campaign inspired a million written words on political strategy, gay marriage, welfare reform. Most have already faded, and deserved to fade; but, considering how many great English essays of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were occasioned by party artisanship, I was on the alert for something about politics with the capacity to generalize the issues wittily or broadly enough to go beyond the merely topical. Christopher Hitchens's "Against Lesser Evilism" does that; though I happen to disagree with his conclusions, I admire his cool, intransigent rhetoric.
Another trend involved a defense of reading, and a concomitant fear of computers (see Lynne Sharon Schwartz's and Andrei Codrescu's able pieces). The body and sexuality continued to exercise critically minded essayists (such as Jean Baudrillard and Daniel Harris), while race, multiculturalism and issues involving the Other remained a richly worrying preoccupation (see Richard Rodriguez, James McPherson, Pascal Bruckner, Hilton Als).
In what is now dubbed the Age of Memoir, we have been inundated with half-lives, stopping before forty, that feature one or two sensational chapters and then give way to a sense of letdown. All the more valuable seems the memoir-essay: here all the juice of a Bildungsroman is compressed into a vivid, self-reflective tale (see Emily Fox Gordon, Cynthia Ozick, Vivian Gornick and Thomas Larson), minus the padding.
For me, there is nothing quite like the beauty of a worldly, meditative and amply mature sensibility going about its bee-like business of constructing meaning. The Irish master, Hubert Butler, in "Little K," perpetrates what might be called an "everything-essay," weaving together the personal, historical and tragically universal; the veteran Edward Hoagland surprises us with his digressions and shifts in geography; the Continental experience of an Aldo Buzzi offers prose caviar to the reader; while our late, lamented Diana Trilling walks thoughtfully and magisterially around her portrayed subject, reviving old controversies' until she has rendered him in three shrewd dimensions.
Finally, the majority of these pieces champion an uneasy Complexity and contradiction, just as they refuse glib accommodations. To keep desire alive, concludes Jean Baudrillard, "One should not be reconciled with one's body, nor with oneself, one should not be reconciled with the other, one should not be reconciled with nature, one should not reconcile male and female, nor good and evil." Many of the essayists included here echo this opposition to easy answers, and help increase our capacity to face the unreconciled.
Photo of Phillip Lopate © copyright Jill Krementz
Excerpted from The Anchor Essay Annual 1997. Copyright © 1997 Phillip Lopate. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.