The Essay

One of the things I liked about Emily Fox Gordon’s Book of Days is simply that I feel that I’m a lot like her. I recognized myself in a lot of what she had to say. I liked Gordon’s passages on feeling ambivalent about her femininity and feeling like an outsider in social situations, and I appreciated her discomfort with the role of faculty wife and her pleasure at critiquing the faculty wives she found herself surrounded by. Her sense of humor is one I share. I also felt a moment of recognition when I read this:

The signal [that she should become a writer] was embedded in Phillip Lopate’s newly published anthology, The Art of the Personal Essay. The contents of this book were a revelation to me. I read Orwell’s “Such, Such Were the Joys,” Natalia Ginszburg’s “He and I,” Hazlitt’s “On the Pleasure of Hating,” Lopate’s own “Against Joie de Vivre” with delight, as well as with a growing conviction that I had found my genre.

I had known there was something wrong with the stories and novels I had been producing in spurts for decades … I was never very good at, or interested in, creating fictional worlds whose parts were set in motion by the force of psychological motivation. I never understood plot. Characterization, though it interested me, put me into a state of panicky agnosticism. I’d never had much confidence in my intuitions about how — as Eudora Welty put it — “some folks would do.” It seemed to me that folks might do any number of ways.

I’m not a personal essayist and don’t have any stories or novels of my own, but I share her uncertainty about fiction writing and bafflement in the face of plot. I can’t really comprehend writing a novel of my own, unless it were in the  plotless, essayistic Nicholson Baker style. I also share her experience of being inspired by Lopate’s anthology. I have that book to thank for my adoration of the essay genre, and if I were ever to want to write something besides the blog and the occasional book review, I would write personal essays. (I think I’m too lazy for that, though — another trait I share with Gordon, except she got over it long enough to write quite a lot!)

Gordon wrote two memoirs, but in this book’s title essay, she claims she was never comfortable with them. She did her best to tell the truth about her life, but she believes that the contemporary memoir requires you to fit your life into a preset mold where the writer suffers, often at the hands of parents, and seeks and eventually finds redemption or transcendence or some kind of healing. She shaped her story to fit this model but was aware of the distortions this created. The essay form does a better job of capturing the truth of a life:

I learned that the memoir and the personal essay are crucially different forms. The memoir tempts the memoirist to grandiose self-representation. The essay, with its essential modesty, discourages the impulse. The memoir tends to deindividuate its protagonist, enlisting him to serve as a slightly larger-than-life representative of the sufferings of a group or community, while the essay calls attention to the quirks and fallibilities we take as marks of our essential separateness. The erratic zigzag of essayistic thinking — the process that E.M. Cioran calls “thinking against oneself” — makes the essay proof against the triumphalism of memoir by slowing the gathering of narrative momentum. The essayist transects the past, slicing through it first from one angle, then from another, until — though it can never be captured — some fugitive truth has been defensively cornered.

She comes to regret having written her memoir at all, except for the feeling of accomplishment it gave her, and, presumably, because it made publishing a collection of essays easier (and also provided material for one of them). I imagine there’s an argument to be made that the memoir is capable of more than Gordon acknowledges here, but I’m sympathetic to her point. It’s the sense of incompleteness, exploration, and provisionality that I like most about the essay form.


Filed under Books, Essays

14 responses to “The Essay

  1. Very interesting, and not unlike my own experience. I never aspired to be a writer because the idea of making up a story seems entirely outside my abilities. In fact, I never thought I could write at all until I discovered essay writing and literary journalism in a class I took more or less on a whim. I still don’t think I’d want to make a living out of writing, but it was a nice discovery, and it did (through a rather circuitous route) eventually lead me to becoming an editor, a profession I love.


  2. Oooh I am SO looking forward to this book (it’s been ordered!!).


  3. Added to my booklist, great review.


  4. I bet you’d be pretty good at writing essays Dorothy. If you ever decide to give it a try I’d be a happy guinea pig if you want an audience reaction.


  5. I think I’m inherently lazy as well, I have to work hard sometimes to motivate myself–that struck me in your other post on her book. I think I’d like what she has to say a lot. I think you write very well Dorothy and wouldn’t be at all surprised if it was essays that you chose to try if you ever wanted to try your hand at it. I need to get back to that Lopate book, too–I was enjoying what I was reading.


  6. I loved that Lopate collection, too!

    And I love passage from Gordon you pull about the difference between memoir and essays. I have read very little memoir so feel it’s a bit unfair of me to say this, but what she says really reflects my perception of memoir and why I shy away from it. Even in novels, too pat a journey or a conclusion, too neat of a tying-up of loose ends at the end, has begun to bother me, and when applied to a real human life it just doesn’t feel honest to me. I agree with you in that I find more truth in a messier, more provisional approach, whether it be personal essays or a novel that refuses the easy resolution.


  7. Michelle

    This does sound like a wonderful book. I’d never considered the difference between personal essay and long memoir form…and although I’m sure you are right that memoir must have something else going for it, her argument “against” it is compelling.


  8. Gordon’s book sounds lovely. I started my writing ‘career’ (I have to stop putting that in quotes!) with a bit of journalism, but then abondoned the idea. I had to write about a family whose house burned to the ground right before Christmas and the whole notion of journalism was soured on me then. Essays I haven’t tried much of (except blogging, which is a form of essay writing sometimes) I discovered fiction recently and love it. It can make a writer feel almost god-like to put people together and make them do things (or watch them do them, better). Thanks for this post Dorothy!


  9. Teresa — interesting story. How great that you took that class on a whim. I came to love essays because of a senior seminar where we focused on them. I’m very grateful for that class!

    Litlove — I’m glad! I’m looking forward to hearing about your response to it.

    Christine — great!

    Stefanie — thank you! I really appreciate your offer, and may just take you up on it one day. I just don’t have anything pressing to say, I suppose, or what I want to say I can say on the blog. But that may change one day. Gordon writes about how the urge to write didn’t hit her seriously until she was in her fifties.

    Danielle — thanks for the vote of confidence! There’s nothing wrong in being lazy, right? We don’t all need to be trying to get published after all. I think people who are content just reading provide a very valuable service 🙂 It’s great that you enjoyed the Lopate book, and it will be there when you get the urge to return.

    Emily — I haven’t read much memoir either, but my favorite one is Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood where she tells stories and then turns around and critiques what she just wrote. Really that book is more like a collection of personal essays, actually. I guess my point is, I really liked the questioning, reflective nature of that book. I agree with you about novels that do something similar.

    Michelle — I found her argument against memoir compelling too; I guess I just want to leave room open for people to experiment a bit with the memoir form. I’m sure it’s possible! But maybe memoirs that do push the boundaries a bit end up looking more like personal essays, such as the Mary McCarthy book I referenced above does.

    Melissa — I’ve thought about the writer as God metaphor, and it absolutely makes sense, but that’s a position I feel uncomfortable taking up! But that’s just me — I’m glad others do it 🙂 You are right that blogging can be like writing essays. Just generally shorter, I guess. But it’s part of why I like the form.


  10. Interesting to hear what Gordon says about the shortcomings of memoirs – that grandiose self-representation etc. And she makes a strong argument for the personal essay. I’m inspired now to read more of those this coming year.


  11. I agree with Gordon on so many things — I struggle with whether or not to write, and have lately decided that maybe I will just write for myself. I need to learn to enjoy it again, instead of thinking like an editor about what will sell.

    Her comments on memoirs are so true. Oftentimes I’ll pick up a biography or memoir in a book shop, and as much as I might be interested in that person’s life, the jacket copy will completely turn me off, because it’s the same old formula. Gordon sums it up exactly: “to serve as a slightly larger-than-life representative of the sufferings of a group or community.”

    I think that’s why the Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life intrigued me, because here was one person who happily admitted she hadn’t suffered from abusive parents, or any of the other cliches on the biography menu!


  12. Another one goes in the TBR tome…Very interesting what she says about writing fiction. I’m the opposite. I make up stories about absolutely everything. Have no problem. It’s having the discipline of sitting and writing them that’s my problem.


  13. Pete — I’m hoping to read TONS of personal essays this year, because I love them so much! It’s such a fascinating genre.

    Debby — learning to enjoy writing again sounds like a wonderful plan. If you don’t enjoy it, then what’s the point, right? I like reading biographies for the information, and sometimes memoirs because the person is really interesting, but more often, I read memoirs and other personal genres for the quality of the writing. So if it’s cliched in any way, I’m really not interested.

    Emily B. — fascinating the different ways our minds work! It’s good that it’s that way, because I want fiction and personal essays both. I hope you enjoy the book!


  14. Your “Quarrel and Quandary” lead me back to this post, which I haven’t read before. It’s really good!

    I’m very fond of Lopate’s book, it has learned me a lot about the essay as a genre, and introduced me to many great writers. And now it seems I have to add both Fox Gordon and Ozick to my TBR list.

    Thank you!


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