Stalking the Essay

Here’s a reason I’m a fan of Twitter: without it I wouldn’t have found out about a one-day conference at Columbia called “Stalking the Essay.” (Many thanks to Michele Filgate for mentioning it.) It was too tempting to pass up, so although I couldn’t get away for an entire day, I made it to the two afternoon sessions. They were fabulous. The entire day was organized by Phillip Lopate, one of my heroes as editor of the anthology The Art of the Personal Essay, so it was a delight to get to see him. And then I got to see three other writers I’m fond of: Vivian Gornick, whose The Situation and the Story I’ve read; Colm Toibin, author of The Master, which I loved, and of Brooklyn which I hope to read soon; and David Shields, whose book Reality Hunger I’ve enjoyed criticizing and arguing with but from which I’ve gotten a ton of wonderful book recommendations. I also was introduced to some writers I haven’t read yet but hope to at some point: Patricia Hampl, Margo Jefferson, Daniel Mendelsohn, and Geoffrey O’Brien.

The first session was on “Criticism and the Essay,” and it dealt with boundaries among genres, for example, the book review versus the review essay, i.e., moving beyond the book itself to the broader context in which a book sits, or criticism, which implies an expert pronouncing judgment on a subject, versus the essay, which leaves room for not knowing, for lacking expertise. They talked about the challenge of writing what one wants to write while at the same time meeting the needs of a particular publication and a particular audience. They also talked about moving from writing polemically, i.e. letting a particular political point of view dominate one’s writing, toward writing essayistically, i.e. letting the subject rather than the point of view lead the piece.

The second session was on “The Personal and Impersonal Essay,” and the speakers in this part each gave a talk that was partly autobiographical, partly about how they negotiate the personal in their essay writing. Colm Toibin talked about how uncomfortable he is writing personally, but that he finds a way to write about himself indirectly, through the subjects that he chooses, which often end up (often unexpectedly) relating in some fashion to his personal experiences. Patricia Hampl spoke about what it is like to write autobiographically when, as she put it, nothing has ever happened to her. That turned out not to be true, of course. David Shields did a lot of what he does best: recommending great books and arguing for their greatness.

Perhaps the best part of the day came at the end when I got Shields and Lopate to sign books for me. There wasn’t a formal book signing, but all the speakers were milling around at the front of the lecture hall and looked approachable, so I got over my reluctance to talk to intimidating and famous (to me) strangers, and got their signatures. I did it without, I think, saying anything stupid.

So yay to Columbia for organizing an awesome event, and yay to Twitter for making it easier to publicize awesome events. I don’t know if I’ll be able to make it to this one, but the next event (discovered on Twitter) that I’ve got my eye on is at Housing Works bookstore: “A Discussion of Women and Criticism” with Laura Miller and others.

I’ll go to this event if I can manage to tear myself away from this charming little guy:

Cormac 9 weeks


Filed under Books, Essays, Life

14 responses to “Stalking the Essay

  1. Thank you! Next best to going there myself is you writing a report from the event 🙂
    Patricia Hampl’s position sounds interesting. I don’t know anything about her – do you? I’ve just received Shields’ “How Literature …”, I understand he talks about Maggie Nelson in it – so I had to get hold of it, it will be my first meeting with Shields.

    And the sweet little man, he has already started making jokes – has he?


    • I haven’t read Hampl, except for maybe an essay a long time ago. But I hope to read something by her now. She was a very good speaker. I just finished the Shields book you mention, and I liked it, but I’m not sure everyone will, so I’m curious about your reaction. He does discuss Bluets, although fairly briefly. He praised Bluets to the skies in his talk last weekend.


  2. What a fantastic writing conference! I have Colm Toibin’s The Master in one of my TBR boxes. Now I must get to it sooner. I love the distinction between the book review and the review essay. You’re so fortunate to have caught this event. Yes, I’m a fan of Twitter too. Also… what a lovely photo of your baby!


    • Thank you, Arti! I really liked The Master and hope you enjoy it too. I think the distinction between different types of reviews is useful as well. One speaker talked about constantly trying to push toward the review essay in the publications she wrote for.


  3. That sounds like a great afternoon. I’m especially interested in the criticism session, which sounds like it would have a lot of good food for thought for a blogger. The terms you mention and the boundaries between them are so fuzzy that it’s not always easy to know what people mean when they say they like reviews vs essays, etc. One nice thing about blogging, though, is that we can write essays, reviews, criticism, or a blend of all three.


    • I suppose it’s not too surprising that the speakers didn’t take up blogging, but it’s too bad they didn’t. Daniel Mendelsohn was pretty dismissive of internet writing, although he’s on twitter himself. One person brought up academic writing and whether it could possibly become looser and more like essay-writing, and their answer was basically no. I thought that was a mistake because look at all the great academic bloggers out there who write wonderfully for general audiences!


  4. I am completely green with envy. I would love to be able to be part of both these discussions but trips across the Atlantic just for an afternoon might not meet with Jolyon Bear’s approval (he who holds the purse strings!). Gornick and Shields are new to me and I’m off to see if I can find copies of their books right now. I love Toibin and will be fascinated to see what you think of ‘Brooklyn’. It completely divided our book group. The Bears send their love and lots of hugs for their baby who gets cuter every day.


    • Many thanks for your comment and the message from the Bears! I think you will like Gornick quite a lot (can’t say for sure, but I’d guess so). I’d love to hear what you think about Shields — he strikes me as a much more controversial writer, and he has interesting things to say about narrative. I’m guessing that you might enjoy arguing with him!


  5. I’m with Alex. I would have loved to go to this! At least I get to read your write up, and it sounds like the events were really interesting. This is such an expanding field at the moment, isn’t it?


    • I think you’re right that it’s an expanding field, and that’s one reason I was so pleased to meet Lopate, because he’s partially responsible for the importance of the essay these days after the publication of his anthology. I wish both you and Alex could have been there, because I’m sure you both would have had some fascinating things to say about it!


  6. Oh my goodness! You are so lucky! I’m in the very long holds queue for Shields’s new book. I’ve not read Hampl before but she is on my radar. And I’ve been longing for a copy of Geoffrey O’Brien’s The Browser’s Ecstasy for ages. I am curious what authors books Shields was talking up. Will you post your list? Pretty please 🙂

    Cormac is getting so big! What a cutie he is.


  7. Pingback: Stalking the Essay | Of Books and Bicycles

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