March 26, 2019

The Death of the Personal Essay

“In the introduction to a recent collection of his essays called “The End of the End of the Earth,” Jonathan Franzen bemoans the possible end of the personal essay, which he finds currently in eclipse. More and more eschewed by general-interest magazines, “the form,” Mr. Franzen writes, “persists mainly in smaller publications that collectively have fewer readers than Margaret Atwood has Twitter followers.” The internet, especially in its social-media aspect, Mr. Franzen believes, swallowed up most of the old autobiographical material of the essay and has been spitting it out in the form of tweets, Facebook entries, Instagram posts, Reddit comments and other vessels favored by those not noted for their lengthy attention spans. But might something else, something deeper, also be undermining the essay?

The essay needs talented practitioners, readers capable of the mental repose required to take pleasure in it, and connoisseurs with an understanding of the rich tradition out of which it derives. What it doesn’t need is an “-ism” attached to it. An “-ism” presupposes a theoretical explanation, á la postmodernism, deconstructionism, structuralism and other dreary ismatics of recent decades. Randall Jarrell once defined the novel as “a long prose fiction with something wrong with it.” So might one declare the essay a short prose nonfiction with something occasionally delightful about it? Need more be said in a general way about this literary form whose aim is never definitude and whose speciality is specificity?

In “Essayism,” the Irish writer Brian Dillon says a great deal more. He says it, moreover, essayistically, which is to say in rambling, rather disorganized, far-from-complete fashion. Mr. Dillon provides chapters of varying length on “Origins,” “Lists,” “Style,” “Extravagance,” “Taste,” “Sentences,” “Fragment,” “Aphorism,” “Detail,” “Talking to Yourself,” “Coherence,” “Attention,” “Curiosity,” “Starting Again.” Alas, there are also chapters on “Anxiety,” “Melancholy,” “Vulnerability” and no fewer than five on “Consolation.” What, you might ask—I know I did—have these latter subjects to do with the essay?”

Read more

JJ Editor's Daily Picks

"THE CAPTURE of the last territory controlled by the Islamic State on Saturday was far from a final victory over the movement, as U.S. commanders and diplomats were careful to emphasize."

"How a Gay Teen, an Internet Nazi, and a Late-Night Rendezvous Turned to Tragedy. When self-loathing meets the new age of online extremism."

"Benjamin Netanyahu ignored the intelligence operations of Beijing and Moscow for too long. Now, the Israeli government is finally paying attention, but it could be too late."

"Former Nick Jr. kids are now reckoning with this all-grown-up intrepid explorer, whose obstacles are a lot bigger than Swiper the Fox. And that is a hard pill to swallow."

"At the end of last week, the three-month Treasury bills' yield rose above the yield for 10-year Treasuries for the first time since 2007, prompting warnings that the U.S. is headed for recession later this year or in early 2020."

"A team of researchers from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology attempted to answer some questions about voting with the help of artificial intelligence (AI)."

"The experts I spoke with all said that the internet had changed the way conspiracies spread, but conspiracies, both dangerous and petty, have always been with us."

"Pop culture today is obsessed with the battle between good and evil. Traditional folktales never were. What changed?"

"Trustful parents allow their children as much freedom as reasonably possible to make their own decisions. They trust their children’s instincts, judgments, and ability to learn from mistakes."

"Arugulagate. In 2007, Barack Obama was in Iowa, speaking as a presidential hopeful to a group of farmers who were worried about the stagnation of their crop prices while America’s grocery bills continued to rise."

"To say that information exists in and of itself is akin to speaking of spin without the top, of ripples without water, of a dance without the dancer, or of the Cheshire Cat’s grin without the cat."

"Ted Cruz replaces the Democrats’ muddled manifesto with a clear and unequivocal exploration of the hatred of Jews and its particular evils."