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Tennessee Williams Fest: Assaying the state of the essay

Sunday’s panel on creative non-fiction at the Tennessee Williams Festival spent much time answering Adam Kirch’s infamous (well, to some of us) essay in the New Republic, “The New Essayists, or the Decline of a Form? The essay as reality television.”

Novelist and Tulane professor Thomas Beller, the author of a series of personal essays titled How To Be A Man, suggested that the readers and writers of the current explosion of personal essays have mixed motivations. Essayists look to be “a legitimate [interior] voice speaking to the outside world” but that too many writers suffer from what Dorothy Parker called “the frankies,” the desire to share beyond their own best interest and that of the reader.” Readers, he said, were often “looking for somebody to make a fool of themselves.”

Panelist John Jeremiah Sullivan was one of Kirsh’s first targets: “A talented writer such as John Jeremiah Sullivan might, 50 years ago, have tried to explore his complicated feelings about the South, and about race and class in America, by writing fiction, following in the footsteps of Walker Percy and Eudora Welty. Instead he produced a book of essays, called Pulphead, on the same themes; and the book was received with the kind of serious attention and critical acclaim that were once reserved for novels.”

The Southern Editor of the Paris Review and contributor to GQ, Harper’s Magazine and Oxford American took exception to the idea that essayists, especially those who write for magazines, are somehow beneath literary notice. He called it “cultural eugenics” and a reject of 300 years of English literary history to attack magazine writers or suggest the essay was dead. “Lamb, Hazlitt, de Quincy were all writing for magazines,” but are presented now cleaned up and anthologized.

Beller said that too many essays today are predictable. “Too many essays even in the best magazines, from the first two paragraphs you know where they’re going.”

He praised Sullivan’s work for its twists and turns. comparing them to early Paul McCartny songs. “They are like three or four songs all strung together.”

Panelist Elena Passarello, author of Let Me Clear My Throat and a contributor to Creative Nonfiction, Oxford American and Slate, turned to writing and essays in particular after a career in acting. says she tries to creative performative moments on the page. “The essays that fire on all cylinders show the workings of a human mind, [the author’s] or another’s.” Beller, who suggested something similar earlier (see above) said the form also allows writers to take “their eccentricities out into the world,” which lead to a discussion of his own contribution to the New York Times Food section on the peanut butter and pickle sandwich.

This article is reposted from the author’s blog, Odd Words, a content partner of NolaVie.


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