A rendering from Studio Dror. Photo via Slate.
- Vinson Cunningham, reading John D’Agata’s new anthology, asks: What makes an essay American? “The essay, in its American incarnation, is a direct outgrowth of the sermon: argumentative, insistent, not infrequently irritating. Americans, in my observation—and despite our fetish for the beauties of individuality and personal freedom—are always, however smilingly, trying to convince somebody, somewhere, of something, and our essayistic tradition bears this out … D’Agata speaks of his desire to ‘divorce the essay from being read exclusively as a form that’s tied to its subject matter, or that is propelled by its subject matter.’ But what, really, can this mean? Writing is communication, and form is only meaningful—only artful—insofar as it aids and inflects the travel of a thought from one mind to the next. What is literature without the propulsion of a subject: fallen king, Grecian urn, eaten plums, or national travesty? What D’Agata describes, and what The Making of the American Essay presents—form unbothered by the roilings of the world, the essay untethered from its fiery American roots—is a beautiful house, unfurnished forever.”
- Remember that scene in The Squid and the Whale where the pretentious Jesse Eisenberg character says that a novel is “very Kafkaesque,” and his classmate says, “That’s because it was written by Franz Kafka”? In real life we have the opposite problem: the word Kafkaesque risks total meaninglessness. “The dictionary defines the adjective, incidentally, as ‘of, relating to, or suggestive of Franz Kafka or his writings; especially: having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality’ … But Merriam-Webster also admits that the word, which saw its first recorded use in English in 1946, ‘is so overused that it’s begun to lose its meaning,’ a word that a columnist for Toronto’s Globe and Mail argued is ‘tossed around with cavalier imprecision, applied to everything from an annoying encounter with a petty bureaucrat to the genocidal horrors of the Third Reich.’ ”
- Every year brings with it another armload of Brontë-related biographies and ephemera: plays, films, novelizations, tea towels. Why? “I see no reason not to consider the Brontë cult a religion. What are People of the Book, after all, if not irrepressible embroiderers of fetishized texts?” Judith Shulevitz asks. “The Jews have a word for the feverish imaginings that run like bright threads through their Torah commentaries: midrash, the spinning of gloriously weird backstories or fairy tales prompted by gaps or contradictions in the narratives … Some Brontë fans—reader, I’m one of them—would happily work through stacks of Brontë midrash in search of answers to the mysterium tremendum, the awesome mystery, of the Brontës’ improbable sainthood. How did a poor and socially awkward ex-governess named Charlotte and her even more awkward sister Emily, who kept house for their father in a parsonage on a Yorkshire moor far from the literary circles of London, come to write novels and poems that outshone nearly every other nineteenth-century British novel and poem by dint of being more alive?”