THE BLOG @ TIR
December 29, 2011
Even though America and Canada share the world’s longest single border, it’s too easy to remain in the dark about Canadian literature. Similarly, it’s easy to turn up our noses at the lowly essay, to ignore it for its supposed formality, criticize the stodginess implied by its name. Even though good first-person narrative nonfiction is neither formal nor stodgy, it does lack the outlaw allure of poetry, and it has long been the overlooked stepsister to the glamorous, darling literary fiction. Thankfully in Canada, like here in the States, the form is alive and well.
In 2009, Toronto’s Tightrope Books debuted the Best Canadian Essays series, which is now on its second volume. Canadian literary magazines such as Event and Brick publish numerous nonfiction narratives annually. Canadian fiction writer Lynn Coady just co-launched a new magazine, named Eighteen Bridges, in order to provide page space for the vital yet endangered genre of long-form narrative journalism. And in 2010, The New Quarterly, one of the nation’s most reliable and respected journals, launched its Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest. The winning essay of this year’s contest hit bookstore shelves this fall in The New Quarterly Issue #120. Does this recent activity signal an increase in essay writing? A change in perception or mounting appreciation among readers? To find out, I talked to The New Quarterly editor Kim Jernigan.
AG: Despite the commercial success of, say, David Sedaris, the conventional wisdom in America is that essay collections don’t sell, so New York trade publishers publish few of them. What is the place of the literary or personal essay in Canadian book publishing?
KJ: I don’t have access to the figures that would demonstrate how well or not essay collections sell in Canada or elsewhere, but I can speak to what is being read in my household and what I’m hearing from writers and readers in the course of my correspondence around the magazine.
Certainly, my family and I read a lot of nonfiction. This work could probably be arranged on a continuum from more distanced, academic, subject-centered work to more personal, engaged, writer-centered work (e.g., the memoir). What we might call the personal essay falls somewhere in the middle of that continuum if you think of its function as “rendering the sphere of scholarship human” (a suggestion Hume made back in the 18th century in his essay on essay writing and which still holds if you broaden the definition of scholarship to include observation and experiment). In other words, the personal essay is not about the self in isolation—it’s about the self engaging with the world; not only the world of personal relationships, but also the world of ideas, objects, the natural or political spheres, whatever. The key thing is that the personal aspect isn’t the essay’s end point; it’s the essays fuel. It fuels the reader’s interest as well as the writer’s own. As Robert Wallace puts it in his poem “Giacommetti’s Dog,” “We’ll stand in line all day /to see one man/love anything enough.”
One thing I do notice is that essay collections, whether single author or multiple, tend to be most marketable when they are loosely aggregated around a theme—books, food, science, river walking, travel, teaching, lifestyle experiments (e.g., “The 100-Mile Diet”), pathologies, etc.—at least until a readership embraces the style, tone, or perspective of an author or editor, and his or her name alone is sufficient to drive sales.
In Canada, I see an increasing number of literary writers who are embracing hybrid forms in which fiction and poetry are interspersed with or interpolated into essays (e.g., books like Isabel Huggan’s Belonging: Home Away from Home) or who are publishing essay collections alongside their work in other forms and often with more success. There are beginning to be professional associations of essay writers and contests for things like creative nonfiction (a term I’ve always disliked because it seems to suggest that other kinds of nonfiction, e.g. biography, lack creative juice; literary nonfiction is better, the suggestion that the writer is using much the same tool chest as the fiction writer).
In The New Quarterly, we began by publishing essays on writing—contextual pieces for the work we were publishing, treatises on the writer’s craft—but have since expanded our sense of what makes an essay apt for a literary journal though our “occasional” features: on criticism (writers’ personal encounters with critics who opened up their sense of how literature works), the writer-at-large (travel writing in the loosest sense of that word), magazine-as-muse (coming-of-age stories with a readerly overlay), falling in love with poetry, “the collector’s real” (on writers’ or artists’ obsessions, a term borrowed from John Metcalf to suggest that the world is more real and varied to the collector, presumably because the collector pays closer attention), and so on.
AG: Journalists perform a very clearly defined service: delivering information. Literary novelists perform a service, too: fostering emotional experiences and delivering depth and entertainment. Society even places certain cultural and artistic expectations on poets. What role does the essayist play in modern culture?
KJ: What you say of journalists and novelists could also be said of essayists. What distinguishes the essayist is perhaps the particular marriage of those two expectations. We want to come away from a personal essay enlarged both intellectually and emotionally.
Our interest as a society in the personal essay is evident in the longevity of omnibus magazines like Reader’s Digest or the Utne Reader, which tend to favor it over purely journalistic pieces, and in the emergence of the blog—I’ve seen lots of books of late that are compendiums of blog essays tied together thematically (e.g., my life in food) or through some sort of narrative arc (e.g., how I met my husband through our mutual love of the blues, how I became a typology nerd).
AG: Do you think the appearance of the Best Canadian Essays series signals a mounting interest in first-person nonfiction narratives? If so, is this interest related in any way to the popularity of memoir, or even reality television?
KJ: I suspect it was a response to the fact that the wonderful Best American Essays (my annual present to myself) includes so few essays first published north of the 49th parallel. Whether this is because of a certain myopia on the part of its American editors or because there are so few publications here that can compete with the great generalist magazines in the States (The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic Monthly, and of newer vintage, The Believer and its ilk)—though The Walrus is trying hard. But it’s a typical colonial move—we can’t expect the big guys to appreciate the virtues of our writers unless we trumpet them ourselves.
AG: Besides the financial gift Edna Staebler bestowed upon the magazine in 2005, what was the genesis of TNQ’s essay contest? Did the staff sense an increase in Canadian essay writing, or believe that the country needed a showcase for narrative nonfiction writers?
KJ: I suspect the latter (a keen interest in the genre on the part of our editors and a desire to expand the magazine’s mandate to accommodate that interest), combined with a fear of overtaxing our resources. A contest makes more work for our largely volunteer editors, but it also provides some compensatory value, as there’s an entry fee tied to a year’s subscription. The contest allows us to review the field (there’s only one cash prize, but all submissions are considered for publication) while also increasing our earned revenue and putting the magazine in front of potential subscribers. That’s the theory at least!
AG: The names that Canadians and Americans use for narrative nonfiction reveals a bit about how each country conceives of the essay’s various forms. Americans often call narrative and personal essays “literary nonfiction” and “creative nonfiction.” In Canada, you commonly see personal essays labeled “personal journalism”; that’s the term the Canadian National Magazine Awards calls the essay category. Even though it’s a broad and slippery subject, how do you define an essay?
KJ: I’ve also heard it called the familiar essay. These are all titles of convenience. Personally, I resist too much insistence on generic distinctions, especially in these postmodern times when hybrids are the order of the day. I suppose some part of me, however, identifies a “personal” essay in terms of something intangible—its genesis in the writer’s own fund of interests and obsessions. It’s not something undertaken on assignment (unless the writer “owns” the assignment not for reason of financial necessity but because it resonates with, or can be shackled to, something that draws his or her own curiosity). And I guess I’d add that the writer’s attention is often dually focused: on the subject, but also on his or her own response to the subject. It’s not just a matter of dropping any pretense of objectivity; it’s more a matter of enlarging that objectivity to include a steely-eyed look at what motivates oneself, at one’s own moral, emotional, temperamental, and cultural disposition (not to take too sober a view of things—the personal essay can also follow on what amuses).
I came across an interesting take on this subject in the latest (Dec. 19 & 26, 2011) New Yorker: James Wood on essayist John Jeremiah Sullivan. In the context of a review of Sullivan’s Pulphead, a collection of essays, Wood raises the question of whether and how the contemporary essay departs from the novel, whose techniques it increasingly employs and whose relevance (some say) it supplants. Wood observes that “the American magazine essay, both the long feature and the critical essay, is flourishing” because “magazines, big and small, are taking over some of the cultural and literary ground vacated by newspapers in their seemingly unstoppable evaporation”—but also because “the contemporary essay has for some time now been gaining energy as an escape from, or rival to, the perceived [italics mine] conservatism of much mainstream fiction.”
Woods, who knows a thing or two about fiction, teases out what he sees as the “anti-novelization” engaged in by contemporary essayists: “In place of plot, there is drift or the fracture of numbered paragraphs; in place of a frozen verisimilitude, there may be a sly and knowing movement between reality and fictionality; in place of the impersonal author of standard-issue third-person realism, the authorial self pops in and out of the picture, with a liberty hard to pull off in fiction. That these anti-novelistic tricks are, in fact, novelistic tricks, often borrowed from the history of the novel, does not muffle the pleasure of watching this literary freedom in action.” He goes on to point out that any attempt to evade convention eventually falls into convention itself.
Such is the way with literary form, or so it seems to me. Not a steady evolution but a process of recombination and appropriation (there’s little postmodern trickery that Chaucer didn’t pioneer).
And let’s not forget that an essay, etymologically, is an attempt. In other words, an effort towards some end, the end itself often elusive. It implies the possibility, even the likelihood, of failure. To essay, according to my ancient desktop Webster’s, suggests “difficulty but also…tentative trying or experimenting.” It’s inhibiting, I think, to that sense of experiment to try to circumscribe the form too closely.
AG: Canada now has its essay anthology series, and the U.S. has its long-running Best American Essays series. The essay form is, by its nature, an open and munificent one, but do our countries’ respective anthologies reveal any telling formal distinctions?
KJ: I’ve written about this on the New Quarterly’s blog (theliterarytype.ca/2010/04/what-makes-an-essay-personal), arguing that the first Best Canadian Essays is more journalistic than its American counterpart. But I wouldn’t attribute that to any differences in national character (one of your most engaging contemporary essayists, Malcolm Gladwell, is Canadian and I’m American-born!), but more to the tastes of the individual editors who, as you know, differ from year to year. Literary influence permeates borders, at least where there’s a free flow of books and magazines—and even that is less critical in the age of the Internet. Today’s innovators become tomorrow’s clichés if they are much imitated. Or perhaps that’s too cynical. I do think there are differences in the literary culture of our two countries, but they are subtle and shifting. When I first arrived here (in the early ’70s), I was struck by how many of Canada’s best writers were women, whereas American literature was still dominated by men, but I’d hazard that’s not as true anymore.
Aaron Gilbreath has written essays for Tin House, the Paris Review, Gettysburg Review, The Smart Set, Fourth Genre, PopMatters, Gastronomica and The Normal School. His essay “Dreams of the Atomic Era,” from the Cincinnati Review, is a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2011. You can find an excerpt from his Link Wray-themed novel, Run Chicken Run, at storySouth, and find the rest of him here: http://aarongilbreath.wordpress.com/about/
December 28, 2011
Fred Sasaki, associate editor of Poetry magazine and founder of the Printers' Ball—and whose essay "Punch No. 96" appeared in our Spring 2011 issue—is featured in the new "People" issue of the Chicago Reader.
Check it out!
December 22, 2011
Sometimes I imagine the Iowa Review, publisher of literary fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, as inhabiting the opposite side of the publishing spectrum from, say, a newspaper: not so much Great Men or Great Events—what Virginia Woolf summarized as the kind of history that proclaims, "In the year 1842 Lord John Russell brought in the Second Reform Bill"—as a more lowercase version of history: personal, idiosyncratic, filtered through the consciousness of a single writer who, in the moment of writing, seems not so much engaged with world events as contemplating them from a distance.
That's why it is somewhat startling to see our "headlines" intersecting with those in the newspapers. Amid the many reports of police brutality at Occupy protests in the last few months, one stood out to us in particular: the violence against three poets whose words have appeared in our pages: Robert Hass, Brenda Hillman, and Geoffrey G. O'Brien. Robert Hass writes in the New York Times about what transpired at the Occupy Berkeley protest on November 9. He describes the professor-poets remonstrating with police in an attempt to protect student protesters from their blows. Brenda Hillman was "shoved" in the chest. Robert Hass, former poet laureate of the United States, was "whacked" with a billy club. Geoffrey G. O'Brien was also hit with a truncheon and sustained a broken rib.
It was a stark reminder to me of, among other unpleasant realities, the need to not assume such distance between our poets' words and the events of the world. Often beautiful, often erudite, their words still seek to engage with the world and alter its brutal outcomes, whether published in the pages of a magazine or spoken in public.
"My wife [Brenda Hillman] was speaking to the young deputies about the importance of nonviolence and explaining why they should be at home reading to their children," Hass writes. A lovely poem, there.
In tribute to these poets and their colleagues and students, we present Geoffrey G. O'Brien's poem "Street Cry" from our Fall 2010 issue. Reading it again, I contemplated his words in a new light: "a dream in which the rich are friendly / up to a point"; "the day game / that rains down on short notice"; "values day puts a boot through"; and especially "the institution's / gates, where we gather to be held / back, what happens afterward is / night, relatedness of much too little."
photo credit: floppyphotos.wordpress.com
December 20, 2011
91st Meridian is the electronic publication of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa and features all manner of fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and artwork.
The journal appears twice a year and aims to contribute to general reading beyond the (national, linguistic, cultural) borders of the Anglophone sphere.
December 19, 2011
For a new series of posts, we’re asking our editors to choose a recent story, essay, or poem they’d selected for publication and tell us how it won them over.
Here, our 2010-2011 fiction editor, Bryan Castille, recalls his discovery of Bradley Bazzle’s “Magellan,” which appears in the Winter 2011 issue.
It was the end of a very long day of reading fiction manuscripts. The sun had long set, and my head ached from hours of straining my eyes. My contact lenses had fused themselves to my corneas. I was about to log out of my computer when I saw another unopened envelope. (Envelopes tended to inexplicably repopulate my desk when I was ready to go home.) Rather than toss it back into the slush pile for another day, I opened it, thinking, “I’ll just read the first page. If it’s good, I’ll take it home. If it’s not so good, I’ll leave it for tomorrow.”
The story, titled “Magellan,” which I expected to be some kind of metaphor, the meaning of which I might not discover until the very end of a long and maddening experiment, if at all, began, “By the end we were starving.” By the third sentence, I realized that I was reading a story about the real Magellan, a man whom, aside from his name and maritime trajectory, I knew nothing about. I kept reading, and soon I realized that it did not matter much to me whether some, none, or all of the story was historically inaccurate. The phony translator, the persecuted Jew, the perverse, anti-Semitic Magellan, and even the sexualized turkeys fascinated me like a fairy tale at five. Something new under the sun.
Within the hour I had finished. I called Russell Valentino, our editor, and told him I had something good. He picked up the manuscript and shortly brought it back (I was still in the office, for some reason). He was short of breath. “Let’s take it,” he said. And we wondered whether there may have ever been a Jew aboard the Trinidad, and what a fascinating idea it was, regardless.
What Bazzle has written is a collision of history and fiction, but I would not dare call it historical fiction. It is more enchanting than that. I have just now reread it, and again I am struck by the feeling of having read an entire novel, and I am laughing at its audacity. A delightful, alchemical mixture of realism and complete bullshit, “Magellan” is the most thrilling story I read the entire year.