This month’s guest is Ned Stuckey-French, one of our most- well-recognized scholar/practitioners of the personal essay.
A few years ago, I read Ned’s piece on/about the personal essay in the fine literary journal, Assay*. At the time, I was so impressed by its scope, breadth, and humor that I asked Ned for his permission to reprint it on this blog.
By combining research with an informal, essayistic, approach, “Our Queer Little Hybrid Thing” becomes one of the most readable and useful pieces on/about the personal essay that I’ve seen in quite some time. To my mind, it’s a must read for any writer or writer/teacher that’s interested in this informal, expansive, and inclusive form.
#71 Our Queer Little Hybrid Thing - by Ned Stuckey-French
What is any essay? Well, it ain't a 5-paragraph theme-- tell'em what you're gonna tell 'em, tell it to 'em, then tell 'em what you told 'em. The essay is bigger, a messier and more fun than that.
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It's so big, in fact, that it is not so much a genre as a galaxy of subgenres. Over the years the word essay has collected its own passel of adjectives: personal, formal, informal, humorous, descriptive, expository, reflective, nature, critical, lyric, narrative, review, periodical, romantic, and genteel. And it keeps collecting them. Now there are radio, film, and video essays. Maybe a map or field of Venn diagrams where all these adjectives meet and greet would be the best way to describe the essay.
Further confusing the situation, however, are the aliases behind which the essay has hid or been hidden: feature, piece, column (or once up on a time, colyumn), editorial, op-ed, profile, and casual. The title of an excellent 1984 piece (or was it an essay?) by Phillip Lopate on the first page of the New York Times Book Review summed the situation up quite nicely: "The Essay Lives--in Disguise".
The essay has also gotten lost under the big tent of terms like literary journalism, new journalism, literary nonfiction, and more recently, creative nonfiction. All of these catchalls are problematic. They lump the essay in with things that it is not and in so doing make an already sprawling genre seem bigger than it really is. Here the adjectives serve not so much to stake out small claims as to pump up that poor, scribbled thing that journalism is said to be, or clarify and legitimize the vast wasteland that has been locked outside the fiction corral by the non-definer that is non-. Scott Russell Sanders is quite good on this. Nonfiction, he points out, is “an exceedingly vague term, taking in everything from telephone books to Walden, and it’s negative, implying that fiction is the norm against which everything else must be measured. It’s as though, instead of calling an apple a fruit, we call it a non-meat."
Adding the adjective creative may well intentioned but is finally of little help. Creative as opposed to what? Destructive? And just how "creative" can we be? James Frey creative, or just John D' Agata creative?
All this fuzziness but especially the essay's proximity to fish-wrap journalism leave it stigmatized as the “the fourth genre.” The critic Suzanne Ferguson has argued, “like societies of people, the society of literary genres has its class system, in which, over time, classes reorganize themselves, accept new members, and cast old members into the dustbin. It has its aristocracy, its middle classes, and its proletarians."
E. B. White longed to be a poet and is known for his children’s books, but was, above all, an essayist. He meant his essays to last and they have, but they were written first on weekly deadlines for The New Yorker, then monthly deadlines for Harper’s, and finally again for The New Yorker when the mood struck him, but he always saw himself as a working journalist. In the foreword to his selected essays, he wrote, “I am not fooled about the place of the essay in twentieth-century American letters—it stands a short distance down the line. The essayist, unlike the novelist, the poet, and the playwright, must be content in his self-imposed role of second-class citizen. A writer who has his sights trained on the Nobel Prize or other earthly triumphs had best write a novel, a poem, or a play, and leave the essayist to ramble about, content with living a free life and enjoying the satisfactions of a somewhat undisciplined existence."
Perhaps another reason for what David Lazar has called the "queering" or "definitional defiance" of the essay has to do with the fact that it had two fathers and so was, in a sense, split at the root. Its first practitioners, Michel de Montaigne and Sir Francis Bacon, who wrote at the turn into the 17th century, conceived of the essay in very different ways. For Montaigne, l’essai was a means of self-exploration, an exercise in self-portraiture, and a way for him to explore, tentatively and skeptically, his own thoughts and feelings; for Bacon, it was a form of “counsel,” a means of instruction, a guide to conduct, a way to test, recognize and appreciate the “truth.” Montaigne’s essays are digressive and shockingly personal. They grew as he revised—elaborating, circling back, and constantly asking himself, “Que sais-je?” or “What do I know?” Bacon’s essays, on the other hand, appear complete and once and for all, polished as a billiard ball. They’re short, aphoristic, tidy and impersonal, though always brimming with opinion and even pronouncement.
Now we have two more adjectives for the essay -- Montaignean and Baconian – which is fine, but if we’re going to bring this queer little hybrid thing further into focus, perhaps we should talk about it in terms of two kinds of writing rather than in terms of two writers, whose work you may or may not know. Let’s lay out a spectrum on which the essay sits (or hovers?) in the middle. This spectrum has nonfiction at one end and fiction at the other, or more specifically, given that the essay is short rather than long, it has the article at one end and the short story at the other. And yes, I understand I’m doing some negative defining of my own here. By saying an essay is neither story nor article, I’m still saying it’s nonfiction and non-journalism, but I’m hoping to be a bit less vague, a bit more comparison-contrast, a bit more precise.
The article is researched, fact-based. It provides information and usually tries to make a point. It is True with a capital T. It tries to be accurate. Its details and quotations are verified and fact-checked. It is a product of interviews, field notes, and memory. As for its form, if it’s a news story, it is likely organized by means of the inverted triangle, with its answers to the five Ws (who, what, when, where, and why) and the one H (how) frontloaded. Its intentions are announced in its headline and spelled out in its lede.
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Or if, it's another kind of article--it argues a thesis, and uses footnotes. It is organized by means of a preconceived outline, marching from I. to A. to 1. to a…and so on. William H. Gass, one of our great essayists, has made his living as an academic, and so knows whereof he speaks when he contrasts the essay with “that awful object, 'the article,' of which, he says,
"it pretends that everything is clear, that its argument is unassailable,that there are no soggy patches, no illicit inferences, no illegitimate connections; it furnishes seals of approval and underwriters' guarantees; its manners are starched, stuffy, it would wear a dress suit to a barbecue, silk pajamas to the shower; it knows, with respect to every subject and point of view it is ever likely to entertain, what words to use, what form to follow, what authorities to respect; it is the careful product of a professional, and therefore it is written as only writing can be written, even if, at various times, versions have been given a dry dull voice at a conference, because, spoken aloud, it still sounds like writing written down, writing born for its immediate burial in a Journal."
At the other end of the spectrum is the short story. Unlike the article, the short story is fictional, made-up, a product of imagination more than of research. Hell, they can even include unicorns or hobbits, and be set in the future or a land far, far away. As for their structure, stories don’t always march from “Once upon a time” to “happily ever after.” They may turn metafictional, fold in flashbacks, and surprise in wonderful ways, but generally they follow a single traditional form, one that has been diagramed as inverted check mark. A conflict is triggered, grows increasingly tense and complicated until it finally arrives at a climax, which is followed by a short unraveling, or dénouement. Or, to put it another way: foreplay - orgasm - cigarette.
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"One has a sense with the short story as a form," says Edward Hoagland, “that while everything may be been done, nothing has been overdone; it has permanence.” It is tidy, original, elemental. It predated even cave painting, argues Hoagland, and is “the art to build from.” It explores the love and grief that hold the tribe together, the war and betrayals that tear it apart. A story is also universal because it is made up and so could be about any of us. This is what Aristotle was talking about when he drew a distinction between poetry and history in the Poetics: “The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular." Read More
Michael Steinberg's Blog--Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction