Death of the Essay?
Posted, Dec. 17, 2003
Updated, Dec. 17, 2003
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Death of the Essay?
Solid reporting and skillful storytelling are the hallmarks of contemporary journalism. Does this formula leave something by the wayside?
By Margo Hammond (more by author)
Book Editor, St. Petersburg Times E-mail this item
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In the latest Boulevard, a literary magazine published by Saint Louis University, there is a symposium asking various writers, editors, and publishers, "What is most heartening and/or disheartening about contemporary publishing?" I am one of the participants, cheering on the energetic small publishers like MacAdam/Cage and the University Press of Florida, which have taken on the bigger, consolidating New York conglomerates. Most of the others dwell on the disheartening factors in contemporary publishing, of which there are many. One of them insisted that one of the most disheartening things in contemporary publishing has been the demise of the essay collection.
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*Click here (sent Thursdays)"For a half a year, I think around 1994, people actually looked for essay collections, found them exotic and new. And then they found that the very word 'essay' killed the sales (as did the misnomer 'creative nonfiction') since the essay sounds too thoughtful and therefore strenuous to the cheerful American public," writes Josip Novakovich. Novakovich says that publishers are interested in work that can be sold as a memoir (if there's enough voyeuristic potential) or a true story, but that they don't think a loose collection of essays will sell. What publishers (and supposedly readers) want is a unified, gripping, and continuous story of "survival and redemption or victory of the human spirit or some such sunny clicht?." A series of random observations stands little chance of getting published.
At first I thought that Novakovich, who teaches at the Penn State University main campus, was just a victim of sour grapes. He admitted he had trouble publishing his own essay collection, "Plum Brandy: A Croatian Journey" with the larger publishers that told him essay collections don't sell. He ended up publishing what he calls "a series of journey stories, my visits to Croatia and Bosnia over the last decade" with the smaller White Pine Press.
But then I checked Houghton Mifflin's latest edition of "The Best American Essays." In an introduction, Robert Atwan, the series' editor, pointed out that this year is the bicentennial of Ralph Waldo Emerson, but that America's greatest essayist is "not read much any longer outside college literature departments, and even there his presence has diminished." He also confirmed the notion that publishers have shied away from "using the dreaded word 'essay' in any way, shape, or form."
So now I'm wondering, Are we ó both in journalism and in the publishing world ó too fixated on the idea of a narrative thrust? Are we afraid of the rambling nature of the essay? Taking its name from the French word essai, meaning "attempt," an essay doesn't set out to tell a complete, narrative story, but rather simply tosses out an idea like a trial balloon. Are we too polarized these days to welcome such an art form that doesn't bother with neat, tied-up-with-a-bow conclusions?