Cristina Nehring, the American Essay, and Fiction

What’s Wrong With the American Essay” is a thoughtful essay by Cristina Nehring on the state and nature of “The Best American Essays” and their like, though in the paragraph below she leaves unclear the state and nature of the short story: 

In our own day the essay is an apologetic imitation of the short story. Like the short story, it tells a tale. Unlike the short story, it usually does not tell a very interesting tale—after all, this is nonfiction, so the bar for excitement is set lower. But speaking historically, the essay is not just a duller and tamer form of short fiction. It is in a different business altogether—and it should be. The work of the greatest essayists, past and present, is replete not with anecdotes, not with narratives, so much as with hypotheses; it is replete with bold theories, muscular maxims, portable inspiration. This is the very tradition that Montaigne himself drew upon. For much of his life Montaigne was known as “the French Seneca”—and not by accident: He modeled his essays after the thoughtful, feisty, pragmatic letters of that Roman writer and statesman. And Seneca, like Montaigne, like Francis Bacon, like Samuel Johnson, like Ralph Waldo Emerson, like Henry David Thoreau, was in the business of learning—and in the process of showing others—how to live and die. “Philosophy is good advice,” writes Seneca, before proceeding to mock the scholars of his own age who (precisely like those of ours) spend their time playing word games and toying with their navels. “I should like those subtle thinkers … to teach me this, what my duties are to a friend and to a man, rather than the number of senses in which the expression ‘friend’ is used. It makes one ashamed,” he declares, “that men of our advanced years should turn a thing as serious as this into a game.”

Short fiction currently is in little or no better shape than the contemporary essays she describes, and is quite possibly in worse shape, maybe far worse, as seems to me.

 That aside, great short fiction can be full of not only “anecdotes” and “narratives” but as with essays, let alone fictive essays, it may well be full of “hypotheses” and be “replete with bold theories, muscular maxims, portable inspiration” in substantial or great measure, possibly most commonly implicit, though often very clearly implicit, and not infrequently overt. Think of Sophocles’ “Antigone,” Euripides’ “Lysistrata, Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” Donald Barthelme’s “The School.”

Thus, such features do not necessarily make stories “an altogether different business” from essays, or vice versa, even though distinctions of type can be made to various degrees. A story in form of essay or essay in form of story such as Jonathan Swift’s brilliant “A Modest Proposal” provides some of the clearest evidence that stories and essays need not be in “an altogether different business,” either in elements of composition or consequence.

Of course, as Nehring propounds, neither should be an “apologetic imitation” of the other, and each might do best to emphasize strengths of type. However, it might well be that the strongest, or at least some of the strongest, works of short fiction and essays are far more similar in kind than different.

Just think of the poor essay, “in a bad way” that Nehring describes, imprisoned and neglected in basements, clamped in its immobilizing cell and row, before being dragged out by used good dealers out for a buck, to be sold cheap under obligation (institutional requirement), only to be neglected again and/or abused and finally trashed. It could have been somebody, the essay – and rather pitifully was, poor thing. Nehring has done her best to put the impoverished thing out of its misery – or rather, bring it fully alive – and so might writers drastically reduce the poverty with fiction, short and long, as well.

A vastly improved focus on the public realm in addition to that of the private is needed for essay and fiction both.

[By the way, there is no “our” as in “our…critics,” as the Truthdig editors have it. Who would be “their”? Who presumes to speak for whom?]

The key problem with the typical dominant media essay is the key problem with all dominant media lit and art: ideology, and its accompanying forms of constraint and censorship, both conscious and unconscious. A status quo culture is not going to readily produce and highlight much progressive let alone revolutionary lit and other art, since it would be dysfuntional, to the status quo.

A vastly improved (far more progressive, let alone revolutionary) focus on the public realm in addition to that of the private is needed. The situation in works of fiction is far worse than it is in works of nonfiction (though whether or not this is borne out in “The Best of” series franchise is more or less beside the point). Progressives have developed better works (and sites, publications, and publishing houses) of nonfiction prose thus far than they have of fiction, by far.

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