July 15, 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?”

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