Four Books on the Modern Essay

In the last cou­ple of months I have been read­ing a lot about essays. Of the four books reviews here, the one I’d most rec­om­mend for the gen­er­al read­er is the D’Agata. It’s a col­lec­tion of essays with short intro­duc­to­ry notes suit­ed those curi­ous about the shape of the mod­ern essay and how it got there. For a rec­om­men­da­tion for the writer I am torn. None of the oth­er books is spec­tac­u­lar and none of them com­plete­ly reflects my cur­rent think­ing on the essay. But, I’d say the Lopate con­tains the most use­ful exam­ples and that Moore’s Dear Mr Essay Writer shows the inner work­ings of the essay writer’s mind best.

The Next American Essay (A New History of the Essay) — John D’Agata. 2003.

D’Agata is inter­est­ed in stretch­ing the def­i­n­i­tion of essay as far as pos­si­ble then  look­ing to see what is hap­pen­ing at the mar­gins. Some of these essays are very exper­i­men­tal and not all of the exper­i­ments suc­ceed. The foot­notes essay is a chore to get through. Others, like “India” — a series of “fac­tu­al” state­ments on India tak­en from ancient sources, are stun­ning suc­cess­es. This is a worth­while book to read if you’re inter­est­ed in the shapes that essays can take and in stitch­ing up your own ideas about the form. Just be pre­pared to find a few that miss you. It’s very indi­vid­ual — sev­er­al peo­ple have praised “Black”. I thought it was over­wrought and grim.

* Ur texts for the mod­ern essay *

Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy: Advice and Confessions on Writing, Love, and Cannibals. Dinty Moore. 2015.

Questions from oth­er essay­ists are vague­ly answered with quick replies and illu­mi­nat­ing essays. There is a medi­a­tion on the exot­ic and the eat­ing of a zebra burg­er that doesn’t go near­ly as far as I would have liked it to, but… The one about how not to be a jack­ass about exes is sol­id life advice. Then there is some weird thing about brains and cau­li­flower that shouldn’t have been pub­lished. Other essays riff on top­ics or tan­gents to the ques­tions asked by oth­er essayists.

* amus­ing, short, uneven. *

Crafting the Personal Essay. Dinty Moore. 2010.

This book is meant to be used as a text-book. There are dis­cus­sions of essays that are not includ­ed in the book. Clearly these are meant to have been read on class hand­outs. Many of the essays cho­sen for the book are old-fashioned. (And, con­ve­nient­ly, in the pub­lic domain.) The oth­er essay exam­ples are Moore’s own. And while not bad. Well, he’s not my cup of tea.

* if I need­ed a cheap text-book with exam­ples in the pub­lic domain *

To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction. Phillip Lopate. 1994.

Another teach­ing text. I like the Lopate book bet­ter than the Moore. It thinks more deeply about the essay and the mem­oir in mod­ern terms. It also makes bet­ter use of old­er essays. Though I think Lopate spends too much time on the mem­oir and diss­es the lyric essay as not real­ly being the thing — not being truth­ful enough. He likes a sol­id fideli­ty to real life. Even as he admits that mem­oir is nec­es­sar­i­ly slant­ed or one-sided, he still pumps strong­ly on the side of writ­ing the truth/fact.

* a lit­tle less fond of the lyric and exper­i­men­tal forms than I am but care­ful­ly thought out *