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Posts Tagged ‘essays’

The Uncanny I: An Interview with Kristin Dombek

October 11, 2016 | by

Photo: Amy Touchett.

Readers of The Paris Review will remember Kristin Dombek’s essay “Letter from Williamsburg,” one of our perennial favorites. In August, Dombek published her first book, The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism, a diagnosis of our attention-starved culture and its fixation on self-absorption. The book covers everything from Bram Stoker to My Super Sweet 16; the New York Times calls it “sharply argued, knottily intelligent, darkly funny cultural criticism.” Dombek spoke to Robert Polito, the poet, biographer, and critic, about “the mysteries of ethos, when and why we trust and distrust who we do, in life and in writing.” The Editors


When I talk to fellow nonfiction writers, I’m always interested in how they locate themselves along the prose or argument continuum. When you sit down to write an essay, are you primarily thinking prose—sentences, words, tone—or are you thinking argument, what you might wish to say about a subject? And are you the sort of nonfiction writer who plans, or even outlines, or is the writing more improvisatory and about discovery for you ?



Usually an essay begins with an argument, for me. Not a linear argument, in the sense of a line of reasoning, but an argument as in two people or groups shouting at each other, but in my head. The dumber the disagreement, the more I want to kind of explode it and discover what it covers up, find better language for what life is really like. In this case, the disagreement was narcissism is the opposite of human—i.e., a total lack of warmth, empathy, “human” feeling—versus narcissism is everybody. Usually, what’s next is scene, where the language of the essay gets discovered, and the idea. Often an editor helps to lay bare the structure that will let the idea happen, rather than being told to the reader.

But in this book, at least in its final version, I wasn’t working in scenes but rather channeling kinds of Internet and academic language that aren’t really my own, and kind of sculpting that language like material. So there is so much telling, summary, which is painful for me to read. There wasn’t a reasonable progression of ideas, but on one axis, a progression of kinds of language, and then on the other, a slow panning out from the trapped, limited perspective of fearful, solitary, listicle-fueled diagnosis to a broader view, and poetry. Read More »

My First Dirty Joke

September 23, 2016 | by


Photo: Michael Philip Manheim.

Revisiting is what I do. I am a pathological revisitor, I think—my ex-wife ventured to suggest a time or two when, late returning from some errand, I’d admit to having taken an excursion into one of my old neighborhoods. I’m always driving back through my old neighborhoods, the places I have lived within the city from the time I was four until my early teens. The five great ages of my youth, as I conceive them—each as sweeping and portentous, as distinctly toned and lit as Thomas Cole’s five stages of Empire in that famous series of paintings. When I drive through—pretty slowly with the radio off and the windows open—I’ll get into this tour guide state of mind. I’ll fall into this line of patter, actually talking to myself as if into a little microphone. I don’t intend to speak out loud. But here I go. Read More »

Staff Picks: Border Towns, Brylcreem, Backstairs Intrigue

September 23, 2016 | by

Matamoros, Tamaulipas, 1978. © Alex Webb / Magnum Photos, via Aperture.

I’ve long felt that the best recommendations for photographic work come from other photographers. From Aaron Stern and Jordan Sullivan I learned about the work of Alex Webb, who, as luck would have it, has a show of photographs at Aperture right now. On view are Webb’s photographs from Mexico taken between 1975, when Webb was twenty-three, and 2007. He shot the images on the streets, in border towns, but it doesn’t feel right to call this street photography: there’s a theatricality to some of the photographs, but subdued, without the performative pomp of much American street work. One depicts a scene of mourning in which three anguished women are momentarily frozen in classical poses as they lament over a man’s body. Another shows a deserted boulevard of buildings under construction shot from an elevated perspective; the rocky terrain and buildings are mainly white, but in the foreground is a cardboard box from which an array of colorful women’s shoes bloom like a desert flower. There’s a sense of precariousness in many of these photographs, but it’s frequently offset by Webb’s brilliant use of color—acid green, sky blue, dusty rose—which light up each moment like a small celebration. —Nicole Rudick

I recently dove into C. K. Williams’s final collection of poetry, Falling Ill (which will publish posthumously early next year), and I’m in awe of it. As the title implies, it’s an unflinching chronicle of what it’s like to die, from terminal diagnosis—for Williams, the “alliterated appellation” multiple myeloma—to the difficulty of waking, to the things one says to oneself as the illness takes over, things like, Am I still hereCatch your breathAre you ready. Williams writes carefully, matter-of-factly, of death’s crippling seizure: the pops and farts and groans his body makes in defiance of him, the fear that has “outwitted me again / changed its costume sharpened its knives.” The book is slender, with fifty-two poems: one per page, each five stanzas of three lines apiece. Williams voids every poem of commas and periods as if to weave his unself-conscious urgency and unease into the very fibers of the collection. The last poem, “Farewell,” leaves us with these indelible, inconsolable words: “there must be // a way to cry goodbye aloud to leave you / these inadequate thanks without resorting / to rending farewell oh dear heart farewell” —Caitlin Youngquist Read More »

Escape the Election with Our New Fall Issue

September 6, 2016 | by

Have you heard about this election? It feels fun now, but give it time. There will come a moment when you long to escape the never-ending concussion that is electoral politics, and our new Fall issue is here for you. It’s full of the best new fiction, poetry, interviews, and art—and it contains precisely zero instances of the word election. That’s our guarantee.

In the Art of Poetry No. 100, Ishmael Reed discusses growing up in Buffalo, the search for “new mythologies” that led him to write Mumbo Jumbo, and his concerns for young writers of color: Read More »

I’ve Been Sick for Over a Year

August 22, 2016 | by

Revere the Fig, Pity the Fig Wasp, and Other News

August 12, 2016 | by

From a package of California Fig Syrup Company’s “Syrup of Figs” laxative.

  • Friends, the great march of progress continues apace. The word bawbag—“a Scots word meaning scrotum, in Scots vernacular a term of endearment but in English could be taken as an insult”—has been added to the Macmillan Open Dictionary. Now the official record will never forget the rich, protean history of this fine word: ‘Bawbag made the headlines five years ago when hurricane force winds hit Scotland in a storm dubbed Hurricane Bawbag by Twitter users—a name which quickly went viral. It was also one of the many insults leveled at the US Republican party’s presidential candidate when he arrived in Scotland earlier this summer—the Daily Record reporting that anti-Trump protestors held up signs reading ‘Trump is a bawbag.’ The Ukip leader Nigel Farage was met with cries of ‘Nigel, you’re a bawbag, Nigel you’re a bawbag, na, na, na, hey!’ in Edinburgh three years ago.”
  • I eat figs as I eat most things—hell-bent on my own delectation, and totally ignorant of the food’s history or provenance. Ben Crair has taught me the ancient ways of the fig, though, in all their beauty and tragedy: “Because a fig is actually a ball of flowers, it requires pollination, but because the flowers are sealed, not just any bug can crawl inside. That task belongs to a minuscule insect known as the fig wasp, whose life cycle is intertwined with the fig’s. Mother wasps lay their eggs in an unripe fig. After their offspring hatch and mature, the males mate and then chew a tunnel to the surface, dying when their task is complete. The females follow and take flight, riding the winds until they smell another fig tree … When the insects discover the right specimen, they go inside and deposit the pollen from their birthplace. Then the females lay new eggs, and the cycle begins again. For the wasp mother, however, devotion to the fig plant soon turns tragic. A fig’s entranceway is booby-trapped to destroy her wings, so that she can never visit another plant. When you eat a dried fig, you’re probably chewing fig-wasp mummies, too.”
  • In the media, to call a piece of writing “academic” is to condemn it in the worst terms. David Wolf and Jo Livingstone discuss the eroding reputation of professorial prose: “People talk about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ writing as if it’s obvious what they are … In a journalistic context, extremely formal and exhaustive academic writing can come across as so pretentious and ridiculous when, in fact, there’s a lovely humbleness to it. The academic is saying, ‘Look! I’ve acknowledged all these people that have thought really hard about this’ … But, I think, one way in which academics writing for journalistic audiences can go wrong is not appreciating that the world which you are writing for is completely different … It’s not the job of the readers of the Guardian, say, to read you. They’re either going to read you because they’re interested, or they think it’s really important, or they’ll do it for pleasure or entertainment, but they’re not doing it out of any sense of duty.”
  • The National Library of France has digitized the 1588 manuscript of Montaigne’s seminal Essays. It is, yes, in French. But if you can jump over that hurdle, you’ll see that Montaigne’s handwritten annotations (allongeails) are intact here. (Previously, the manuscript lived for many centuries in a convent in Bordeaux.)