A new essay anthology, The Contemporary American Essay, collects works by forty-seven American writers that exemplify the diverse styles and subject matters explored within the form throughout the past twenty-five years. In the excerpted introduction below, the editor and writer Phillip Lopate considers the boom of literary nonfiction amid times of uncertainty.
Henriette Browne, A Girl Writing; The Pet Goldfinch, ca. 1874, oil on canvas, 22 x 36 1/4’’. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
The first quarter of the twenty-first century has been an uneasy time of rupture and anxiety, filled with historic challenges and opportunities. In that close to twenty-five-year span, the United States witnessed the ominous opening shot of September 11, followed by the seemingly unending Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the effort to control HIV/AIDS, the 2008 recession, the election of the first African American president, the legalization of same-sex marriage, the contentious reign of Donald Trump, the stepped-up restriction of immigrants, the #MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter, and the coronavirus pandemic, just to name a few major events. Intriguingly, the essay has blossomed during this time, in what many would deem an exceptionally good period for literary nonfiction—if not a golden one, then at least a silver: I think we can agree that there has been a remarkable outpouring of new and older voices responding to this perplexing moment in a form uniquely amenable to the processing of uncertainty.
When the century began, essays were considered box office poison; editors would sometimes disguise collections of the stuff by packaging them as theme-driven memoirs. All that has changed: a generation of younger readers has embraced the essay form and made their favorite authors into best sellers. We could speculate on the reasons for this growing popularity—the hunger for humane, authentic voices trying to get at least a partial grip on the truth in the face of so much political mendacity and information overload; the convenient, bite-size nature of essays that require no excessive time commitment; the rise of identity politics and its promotion of eloquent spokespersons. Rather than trying to figure out why it’s happening, what’s important is to chart the high points of this resurgence, and to account for the range of styles, subgenres, experimental approaches, and moral positions that characterize the contemporary American essay.
Of course, roping off a period like the year 2000 to the present and calling it “contemporary” is somewhat arbitrary, but one has to start somewhere. At least this artificial chronological box allows for the inclusion of older authors who made their mark in the twentieth century and had the temerity to keep producing significant work in the twenty-first (such as John McPhee, Joyce Carol Oates, Barry Lopez, Thomas Lynch). Just as set designers of period films make a mistake in choosing only articles of clothing or furnishings that were produced in that era, forgetting that we always live with the layered material objects of previous decades, so it would be wrong to restrict the literary flavor of an era to writers under forty. Indeed, what makes this period so interesting is the mélange of clashing generations and points of view. There are still tightly reasoned sequential essays being written in the classical mode, side by side with ones that resist that tidiness.
The essay has always been an adaptable, plastic, shape-shifting form: it may take the form of meditation, reportage, blog, humor piece, eulogy, autobiographical slice, diatribe, list, collage, mosaic, lecture, or letter. Contemporary practitioners seem bent on further testing its limits. For instance, Lia Purpura, Eula Biss, and Mary Cappello are drawn to the lyric essay, which stresses the essay’s associational rather than narrative or argumentative properties. Cappello has shrewdly spoken about essay writing—“that non-genre that allows for untoward movement, apposition, and assemblage, that is one part conundrum, one part accident, and that fosters a taste for discontinuity.” In line with Modernist aesthetics, a mosaic essay with “a taste for discontinuity” may be constructed from fragments, numbered or not, with white space breaks between pieces that connect intuitively or emotionally if not logically. It is up to the reader to figure it out. The list essay, which is highly generative of disparate materials, by its very nature evades an argumentative through line, and can seem initially as random as a poetic inventory by Whitman, though it may deepen subtly and organically. (For example, Nicholson Baker’s charming “One Summer,” which crisscrosses periods of his life, nevertheless builds to a revealing self-portrait.)
While the influence of poetic technique on the lyric essay has been largely acknowledged, less recognized is the short story’s impact on the contemporary essay. Many memoir essays exist in a kind of fictive space, progressing through scene and dialogue and a sensory-laden mood that stays tied to the moment by moment. The piece itself may be entirely factual, but the sentences give off a Minimalist frisson that shows the influence of short story writers such as Lydia Davis, Amy Hempel, and Lorrie Moore.
Nonfiction has been agitated in recent years by certain ethical questions, such as, “How legitimate is it to insert fictional details in nonfiction?” or “Is it proper to appropriate the voice of some- one of a different ethnicity, sex, or social class?” That both can be done successfully can be seen in Hilton Als’s “I Am the Happiness of This World,” which channels the silent film star Louise Brooks’s ruminations, as though Brooks herself were dictating an essay to Als from the grave.
The role of technology—the internet and social media—in altering our rhetorical lives may even affect the typography of an essay (as evidenced in Ander Monson’s unshackled “Failure: A Meditation”). “Are we merging with our computers and turning into ‘spiritual machines’?” wondered the essayist Meghan O’Gieblyn. The blog, once viewed as a debasement or poor relation of the essay, has proven itself a useful invitation to free-flowing, self-surprising displays of consciousness (see Ross Gay, Eileen Myles). Some feminist essayists have expressed a desire to arrive at a “post-patriarchal essay,” implying that the very structure of linear argumentation is authoritarian and reinforces status quo sexist power relations. (Maggie Nelson’s influential Bluets and The Argonauts offer clues for shaking up the old model.) Yet all these ways to challenge and subvert the classic essay are in the tradition of the essay itself, whose very name bespeaks an attempt, an experimentation, a stab in the dark. All this is to suggest that the essay remains the most open-ended of forms. (It has even spilled out into other media, as witness the essay film and the graphic essay, subjects for another day.)
Perhaps nothing has so shaped the contemporary practice of essay writing as the rise of the personal essay. It scarcely matters whether the subject be illness (Floyd Skloot), loitering (Charles D’Ambrosio), or prisons (Joyce Carol Oates): some insertion of authorial character is likely to invade the text. Much the way journalism has increasingly surrendered its claims of objective neutrality and allowed reporters room for subjective voice, so the essay has come to rely more and more on an “I.” With that has come an infusion of raw honesty, vulnerability, and awkward admission such as would scarcely have been seen in earlier essays. Younger essayists are often willing to acknowledge confusion, psychological distress, thralldom to contradictory drives and uncontrollable desires. There is often a trade-off: more heat, urgency, diaristic excitement, less perspective. Younger essayists might struggle to resolve questions about their authentic nature and perplexing disparities, while older essayists might feel more at ease with the self’s mutable, impure, self-betraying nature. Those who are entering middle age will often situate their “I” characters on a moving platform that begins in childhood or adolescence and transitions into adulthood and sometimes even parenthood. The personal essayist can accommodate these chronological shifts between life’s passages more easily than the short story writer (unless you’re Alice Munro). As the essayists age, they are less likely to be writing from the midst of distressed confusion and more from a place of wry self-mockery and detachment. The younger the essayist—not all, of course—the more likely an identification with a generational perspective. Popular culture, rock music, or TV programs may be convenient markers for that shared membership. The sense of being part of a generation tends to fade as one grows older: one sees one’s unshakable limits and singularities, for better or worse.
It has long been the province of the personal essayist to turn one’s narrator into a character by asserting defining autobiographical facts, eccentric or contrarian notions, odd tastes, behavioral tics, and so on. Having done so, the essayist might then wish to parry that Crusoe-like separateness by analyzing to what extent he or she belongs to a larger group or tribe. Ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, physical or mental disability, national origin, generational awareness, social class, and political alignment are some of the categories increasingly tempting contemporary essayists to situate themselves in the midst of a group or at an ambivalent angle from it. This is especially true when the minority to which you belong is asserting its rights or finds itself under attack—when the question becomes unavoidably topical.
The hyphenated American often experiences self-division: “One ever feels his twoness,” in W. E. B. Du Bois’s famous formulation. Thoughtful African American essayists such as Teju Cole, Darryl Pinckney, and Clifford Thompson, who have found broad acceptance in white academic circles, have felt called upon to reflect about the police actions visited on Black people. Depression among minority groups is a subject taken up by Margo Jefferson and Yiyun Li. The tightrope situation of biracial individuals (Alexander Chee) or of immigrants who continue to inhabit two spheres (Aleksandar Hemon) guarantees a tension suitable for an essay’s exploration. The outrage that the #MeToo movement produced regarding the sexual harassment, condescension, and mistreatment of women in the workplace is given sharp expression in Rebecca Solnit’s “Cassandra Among the Creeps.”
One dilemma for the contemporary essayist is how to tackle a social problem while avoiding self-righteousness or strident virtue signaling. To oversimplify: many younger essayists, armed with a checklist of deplorables (racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, homophobia, ethnocentrism, speciesism), set out to denounce these prejudices by recounting how they have witnessed or been victimized by them. They show a commendable sensitivity to the discomfort of minorities and a perhaps overactive desire to restrict any speech that might offend, in line with the trigger warnings, safe zones, and checking of privilege that many campuses now invite. There has been some pushback from older essayists, such as Lynn Freed and Camille Paglia, against the ideological policing of literature: these authors issue from a more skeptical, ironic tradition, and insist on the writer’s and instructor’s freedom to question, provoke, complicate, argue, and dispute orthodox ideas. Somewhere in the middle may be found, for example, Wesley Yang’s “We Out Here,” which seeks to balance the stoical acceptance that life will always bring pain and indignity with an admiration for youth’s idealistic opposition to such slights.
In times of calamity, it is only natural for writers to respond to the crisis as concerned citizens. “These days,” observes the poet Gregory Pardlo, wistfully, “we feel pulled out of our private selves and called to perform our public accountability.” On the other hand, Harold Bloom warns that, whatever the impulse writers might feel toward commitment to social change, “The pleasures of reading indeed are selfish rather than social. I am wary of any arguments whatever that connect the pleasures of reading to the public good.” So each essayist must find a way to navigate between commenting on the times, opportunistically or otherwise, and mining the secrets of the interior self for the reader’s pleasure and enlightenment.
Of course, there are many impressive essays that have nothing to do with topical controversies or identity politics, but that grapple with eternal questions of life and death, suffering and illness, love and joy, family life. Religion and transcendence are examined in Anne Carson’s brilliant analysis, “Decreation.” The mortician-essayist Thomas Lynch displays an expert’s take on death in “Bodies in Motion and at Rest.” Love and loss are movingly explored by Bernard Cooper in “Greedy Sleep” and David Lazar’s “Ann; Death and the Maiden,” while relationship’s perils are enumerated in Laura Kipnis’s sardonic “Domestic Gulags.” The complicated ties that bind parents and children are demonstrated in Rivka Galchen’s “The Case of the Angry Daughter” and Meghan Daum’s “Matricide.” Then there are simply the pleasures of wasting time leafing through interior decorating magazines, as in Terry Castle’s “Home Alone.”
Humor will always have an honored place in the contemporary essay: David Sedaris (represented by “This Old House”) has mastered the form, as have Sloane Crosley and Samantha Irby. Finally, there is writing about one’s own literary practice: Patricia Hampl assessing the guilt of writing about others, or veteran John McPhee taking us through his messy stages of composition in “Draft No. 4.” In a world that often makes little sense, sometimes the only way to face down uncertainty is to write. What better vehicle to process shifting hunches and anxieties than the essay, the ideal form for tracking one’s thoughts? If some larger pattern or resolution can be teased from the effort, so much the better. If they don’t add up in the end, maybe that is its own valid truth, matching as it does the spirit of our deeply unsure and divided age.
Phillip Lopate is the author of To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction and four essay collections, Bachelorhood, Against Joie de Vivre, Portrait of My Body, and Portrait Inside My Head. He is the editor of the anthologies The Glorious American Essay, The Golden Age of the American Essay, The Art of the Personal Essay, Writing New York, and American Movie Critics. He was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, a New York Public Library Center for Scholars and Writers Fellowship, two National Endowment for the Arts grants, and two New York Foundation for the Arts grants. He is a professor of writing at Columbia University’s nonfiction M.F.A. program and lives in Brooklyn, New York.
From The Contemporary American Essay, edited and with an introduction by Phillip Lopate. Copyright © 2021 by Phillip Lopate. Published by arrangement with Anchor Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.
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