Are Essays Viable in the Twenty-First Century?

The termitself has fallen into disfavor. Just mention the word and watch people's eyes glaze over, hear them stammer out apologetic platitudes and poorly veiled excuses.
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I sure hope so. Having just published an entire book of the things (Quotidiana, University of Nebraska Press), I'm caught between cool nonchalance and the dear hope that the book will find its way into readers' hands and minds. But the book (by my own choice) announces its genre right there on the cover: "Essays." This is a gambit (or is it a gamble?). Some readers will see that word, associate all kinds of negative things with it, and move on to the books with their authors' names in huge ALL CAPS on the cover. But others, readers like me, will get that "essays" are humble meditations on the world's wonders; they'll associate the term with Virginia Woolf and George Orwell, or, further back, with Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, Michel de Montaigne, and they'll long for the opportunity to live in someone else's mind for a while, to co-explore the mysteries of everyday things and to marvel at the simple joy of making meaning through association.

It's not just my own essays that I love. I love essays in general, present and past, which has driven me to spend all sorts of time I don't have on collecting them (the ones in the public domain, pre-1923) into a free online anthology ( complete with contemporary interviews and annual "best of" selections. It's led me to seek out forgotten essayists, many of them women, who left this green earth long ago, but whose minds remain vibrant, between the covers of their books. And it sometimes makes me lament that the term essay itself has fallen into disfavor. Just mention the word and watch people's eyes glaze over, hear them stammer out apologetic platitudes and poorly veiled excuses. People don't want to read essays. Or they think they don't.

The biggest (and saddest) cause of this, I believe, is that the word essay has been hijacked, blasphemed, forced into service for the enemy. If by "essay" we mean a punishment assigned in school, a brief bit of prose designed as a rhetorical proof of somebody else's ideas, then me, too: I hate those things. Likewise if we mean criticism or article or knowitall op-ed, though I'll read them when they're pertinent or well-written. But if we mean what Samuel Johnson meant--a "loose sally of the mind; an irregular, undigested piece"--if we agree with Montaigne, the father of the form, that "it is a thorny follow a movement so wandering as that of our mind, to penetrate the opaque depths of its innermost folds," yet we make the intent anyway; if we reject the perfidious notion that our literature must mimic our daytime scandalous talk shows and tabloid dramas; if we embrace the belief that "the most common actions--a walk, a talk, solitude in one's own orchard--can be enhanced and lit up by the association of the mind" (Virginia Woolf), then count me in! And maybe others will find this form of writing viable, agreeable, enjoyable even!

Still, as Robert Atwan laments in the foreword to last year's Best American Essays anthology, "It is extremely difficult to find a mainstream publisher who will commit to a book-length collection of essays on diverse subjects." This is why I'm glad to see that this year's National Book Critics Circle Award in "Criticism" went to Eula Biss's Notes from No Man's Land: American Essays, a collection both personal and sprawling (connectedly thematic, yes, but not utterly so). It's why I'm glad that some big-name writers, like John McPhee, Cynthia Ozick, Anne Fadiman, Joan Didion, and Ian Frazier, still choose to write essays and not hide the fact. It's also why I'm glad to catch the buzz (and participate in the subsequent discussions) surrounding David Shields's latest, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, in which the author dismisses the novel and salacious memoir, suggesting that the essay is the form for him (and, by extension, for us). He writes:

The world exists. Why recreate it? I want to think about it, try to understand it. What I am is a wisdom junkie, knowing all along that wisdom is, in many ways, junk. I want a literature built entirely out of contemplation and revelation.

As do I. So, in addition to the wonderful essays I read in dusty anthologies and crisp new journals, I write my own, on topics diverse and far-ranging, from garlic to hepatitis to laughter to gravity to singing to approximation to the euphoria one feels when faced with the vastness of the universe. And I'm glad to have found one of the publishers still in love with literature, unconcerned with Oprah spots and Hollywood deals, willing to publish a collection by an unknown writer who aspires only to modest success as a minor essayist (all essayists are minor essayists, my friend Brian Doyle reminds), to join the ranks of such faded luminaries as Agnes Repplier, Louise Imogen Guiney, Alice Meynell , Vernon be just one more inhabitant "in love with this green earth," grasping for connection and meaning.

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