The Demise of the Contemporary Essay

I’m in the middle of grading a pile of ‘essays’ for an undergraduate theology class in theology. (The etymology of the word ‘essay’ suggests, among other things, a piece of unpolished writing. On this definition, some of what I’ve been reading definitely fits the bill!). It is somewhat timely, therefore, that I came across this piece by Cristina Nehring in which she reviews the demise of the contemporary essay. ‘The essay is in a bad way’, she avers. ‘It’s not because essayists have gotten stupider. It’s not because they’ve gotten sloppier. And it is certainly not because they’ve become less anthologized’.

So, whose fault is it? ‘Are we, as readers, responsible for the decline of the American essay?’, she asks. ‘Have we become lazier, less interested, less educated? Attention spans, to be sure, have shortened. Gone are the days when people pored over periodicals at languorous length during transatlantic crossings. But this is not the reason why essay collections gather dust and why essayists so often count themselves “second-class citizens”. If the genre is neglected in our day it is first and foremost because its authors have lost their nerve. It is because essayists—and their editors, their anthologists and the taste-makers on whom they depend—have lost the courage to address large subjects in a large way’.

The problem, she suggests, is not merely our essayists; it’s our culture. ‘We have grown terribly—if somewhat hypocritically—weary of larger truths. The smarter and more intellectual we count ourselves, the more adamantly we insist that there is no such thing as truth, no such thing as general human experience, that everything is plural and relative and therefore undiscussable. Of course, everything is plural, everything is arguable, and there are limits to what we can know about other persons, other cultures, other genders. But there is also a limit to such humility; there is a point at which it becomes narcissism of a most myopic sort, a simple excuse to talk only about one’s own case, only about one’s own small area of specialization. Montaigne thought it the essayist’s duty to cross boundaries, to write not as a specialist (even in himself) but as a generalist, to speak out of turn, to assume, to presume, to provoke. “Where I have least knowledge,” said the blithe Montaigne, “there do I use my judgment most readily.” And how salutary the result; how enjoyable to read—and to spar with—Montaigne’s by turns outrageous and incisive conclusions about humankind. That everything is arguable goes right to the heart of the matter’.

Back to grading …

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