THE ESSAY IN DARK TIMES
If an essay is something essayed—something hazarded, not definitive, not authoritative; something ventured on the basis of the author’s personal experience and subjectivity—we might seem to be living in an essayistic golden age. Which party you went to on Friday night, how you were treated by a flight attendant, what your take on the political outrage of the day is: the presumption of social media is that even the tiniest subjective micronarrative is worthy not only of private notation, as in a diary, but of sharing with other people. The U.S. president now operates on this presumption. Traditionally hard-news reporting, in places like The New York Times, has softened up to allow the I, with its voice and opinions and impressions, to take the front-page spotlight, and book reviewers feel less and less constrained to discuss books with any kind of objectivity. It didn’t use to matter if Raskolnikov and Lily Bart were likable, but the question of “likability,” with its implicit privileging of the reviewer’s personal feelings, is now a key element of critical judgment. And literary fiction itself is looking more and more like essay. Some of the most influential novels of recent years, by Rachel Cusk and Karl Ove Knausgaard, take the method of self-conscious first-person testimony to a new level. Their more extreme admirers will tell you that imagination and invention are outmoded contrivances; that to inhabit the subjectivity of a character unlike the author is an act of appropriation, even colonialism; that the only authentic and politically defensible mode of narrative is autobiography.
Meanwhile the personal essay itself—the formal apparatus of honest self-examination and sustained engagement with ideas, as developed by Montaigne and advanced by Emerson and Woolf and Baldwin—is in eclipse. Most large-circulation American magazines have all but ceased to publish pure essays. The form persists mainly in smaller publications that collectively have fewer readers than Margaret Atwood has Twitter followers. Should we be mourning the essay’s extinction? Or should we be celebrating its conquest of the larger culture?
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A personal and subjective micronarrative: The few lessons I’ve learned about writing essays all came from my editor at The New Yorker, Henry Finder. I first went to Henry, in 1994, as a would-be journalist in pressing need of money. Largely through dumb luck, I produced a publishable article about the U.S. Postal Service, and then, through native incompetence, I wrote an unpublishable piece about the Sierra Club. This was the point at which Henry suggested that I might have some aptitude as an essayist. I heard him to be saying, “since you’re obviously a crap journalist,” and denied that I had any such aptitude. I’d been raised with a Midwestern horror of yakking too much about myself, and I had an additional prejudice, derived from certain wrongheaded ideas about novel-writing, against the stating of things that could more rewardingly be depicted. But I still needed money, so I kept calling Henry for book-review assignments. On one of these calls, he asked me if I had any interest in the tobacco industry—the subject of a major new history by Richard Kluger. I quickly said: “Cigarettes are the last thing in the world I want to think about.” To this, Henry even more quickly replied: “Therefore you must write about them.”
This was my first lesson from Henry, and it remains the most important one. After smoking throughout my twenties, I’d succeeded in quitting for two years in my early thirties. But when I was assigned the post-office piece, and became terrified of picking up the phone and introducing myself as a New Yorker journalist, I’d taken up the habit again. In the years since then, I’d managed to think of myself as a nonsmoker, or at least as a person so firmly resolved to quit again that I might as well already have been a nonsmoker, even as I continued to smoke. My state of mind was like a quantum wave function in which I could be totally a smoker but also totally not a smoker, so long as I never took measure of myself. And it was instantly clear to me that writing about cigarettes would force me to take my measure. This is what essays do.
There was also the problem of my mother, whose father had died of lung cancer, and who was militantly anti-tobacco. I’d concealed my habit from her for more than fifteen years. One reason I needed to preserve my indeterminacy as a smoker/nonsmoker was that I didn’t enjoy lying to her. As soon as I could succeed in quitting again, permanently, the wave function would collapse and I would be, one hundred percent, the nonsmoker I’d always represented myself to be—but only if I didn’t first come out, in print, as a smoker.
Henry had been a twentysomething wunderkind when Tina Brown hired him at The New Yorker. He had a distinctive tight-chested manner of speaking, a kind of hyperarticulate mumble, like prose acutely well edited but barely legible. I was awed by his intelligence and his erudition and had quickly come to live in fear of disappointing him. His passionate emphasis in “Therefore you must write about them”—he was the only speaker I knew who could get away with the stressed initial “Therefore” and the imperative “must”—allowed me to hope that I’d registered in his consciousness in some small way.
And so I went to work on the essay, every day combusting half a dozen low-tar cigarettes in front of a box fan in my living-room window, and handed in the only thing I ever wrote for Henry that didn’t need his editing. I don’t remember how my mother got her hands on the essay or how she conveyed to me her deep sense of betrayal, whether by letter or in a phone call, but I do remember that she then didn’t communicate with me for six weeks—by a wide margin, the longest she ever went silent on me. It was exactly as I’d feared. But when she got over it and began sending me letters again, I felt seen by her, seen for what I was, in a way I’d never felt before. It wasn’t just that my “real” self had been concealed from her; it was as if there hadn’t really been a self to see.
Kierkegaard, in Either/Or, makes fun of the “busy man” for whom busyness is a way of avoiding an honest self-reckoning. You might wake up in the night and realize that you’re lonely in your marriage, or that you need to think about what your level of consumption is doing to the planet, but the next day you have a million little things to do, and the day after that you have another million things. As long as there’s no end of little things, you never have to stop and confront the bigger questions. Writing or reading an essay isn’t the only way to stop and ask yourself who you really are and what your life might mean, but it is one good way. And if you consider how laughably unbusy Kierkegaard’s Copenhagen was, compared with our own age, those subjective tweets and hasty blog posts don’t seem so essayistic. They seem more like a means of avoiding what a real essay might force on us. We spend our days reading, on screens, stuff we’d never bother reading in a printed book, and bitch about how busy we are.
I quit cigarettes for the second time in 1997. And then, in 2002, for the final time. And then, in 2003, for the last and final time—unless you count the smokeless nicotine that’s coursing through my bloodstream as I write this. Attempting to write an honest essay doesn’t alter the multiplicity of my selves; I’m still simultaneously a reptile-brained addict, a worrier about my health, an eternal teenager, a self-medicating depressive. What changes, if I take the time to stop and measure, is that my multi-selved identity acquires substance.
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One of the mysteries of literature is that personal substance, as perceived by both the writer and the reader, is situated outside the body of either of them, on some kind of page. How can I feel realer to myself in a thing I’m writing than I do inside my body? How can I feel closer to another person when I’m reading her words than I do when I’m sitting next to her? The answer, in part, is that both writing and reading demand full attentiveness. But it surely also has to do with the kind of ordering that is possible only on the page.
Here I might mention two other lessons I learned from Henry Finder. One was Every essay, even a think piece, tells a story. The other was There are only two ways to organize material: “Like goes with like” and “This followed that.” These precepts may seem self-evident, but any grader of high-school or college essays can tell you that they aren’t. To me it was especially not evident that a think piece should follow the rules of drama. And yet: Doesn’t a good argument begin by positing some difficult problem? And doesn’t it then propose an escape from the problem through some bold proposition, and set up obstacles in the form of objections and counterarguments, and finally, through a series of reversals, take us to an unforeseen but satisfying conclusion?
If you accept Henry’s premise that a successful prose piece consists of material arranged in the form of a story, and if you share my own conviction that our identities consist of the stories we tell about ourselves, it makes sense that we should get a strong hit of personal substance from the labor of writing and the pleasure of reading. When I’m alone in the woods or having dinner with a friend, I’m overwhelmed by the quantity of random sensory data coming at me. The act of writing subtracts almost everything, leaving only the alphabet and punctuation marks, and progresses toward nonrandomness. Sometimes, in ordering the elements of a familiar story, you discover that it doesn’t mean what you thought it did. Sometimes, especially with an argument (“This follows from that”), a completely new narrative is called for. The discipline of fashioning a compelling story can crystallize thoughts and feelings you only dimly knew you had in you.
If you’re looking at a mass of material that doesn’t seem to lend itself to storytelling, Henry would say your only other option is to sort it into categories, grouping similar elements together: Like goes with like. This is, at a minimum, a tidy way to write. But patterns also have a way of turning into stories. To make sense of Donald Trump’s victory in an election he was widely expected to lose, it’s tempting to construct a this-followed-that story: Hillary Clinton was careless with her emails, the Justice Department chose not to prosecute her, then Anthony Weiner’s emails came to light, then James Comey reported to Congress that Clinton might still be in trouble, and then Trump won the election. But it may actually be more fruitful to group like with like: Trump’s victory was like the Brexit vote and like the resurgent anti-immigrant nationalism in Europe. Clinton’s imperiously sloppy handling of her emails was like her poorly messaged campaign and like her decision not to campaign harder in Michigan and Pennsylvania.
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I was in Ghana on Election Day, birdwatching with my brother and two friends. James Comey’s report to Congress had unsettled the campaign before I left for Africa, but Nate Silver’s authoritative polling website, FiveThirtyEight, was still giving Trump just a thirty percent chance of winning. Having cast an early ballot for Clinton, I’d arrived in Accra feeling only moderately anxious about the election and congratulating myself on my decision to spend the final week of the campaign not checking FiveThirtyEight ten times a day.
I was indulging a different sort of compulsion in Ghana. To my shame, I am what people in the world of birding call a lister. It’s not that I don’t love birds for their own sake. I go birding to experience their beauty and diversity, learn more about their behavior and the ecosystems they belong to, and take long, attentive walks in new places. But I also keep way too many lists. I count not only the bird species I’ve seen worldwide but the ones I’ve seen in every country and every U.S. state I’ve birded in, also at various smaller sites, including my back yard, and in every calendar year since 2003. I can rationalize my compulsive counting as an extra little game I play within the context of my passion. But I really am compulsive. This makes me morally inferior to birders who bird exclusively for the joy of it.
Copyright © 2018 by Jonathan Franzen