Monthly Archives: February 2013

Enough with the Wretched Middle Class Already

From Ten Miles Square

Requesting anonymity, officials in the White House told reporters last week that President Barack Obama would talk about the middle class in his State of the Union address. They added that Senator Marco Rubio, delivering the Republican Party’s response, would talk about the middle class, too. They also said that they expected the president to wear a tie during the speech, and that this morning, the sun would rise. These predictions have been all been borne out by events.

Of course, you didn’t need sources in the White House to know that Obama would talk about the middle class last night, because like most of our elected officials, he talks about the middle class incessantly. “A growing economy that creates good, middle-class jobs — that must be the North Star that guides our efforts,” he said in his speech last night. After the fiscal cliff negotiation, he gave a speech surrounded by about 200 humble, ordinary middle-class folks. He mentioned the middle class 22 times during his first press conference after the election. “I’ve got one mandate,” the president said that day. “I’ve got a mandate to help middle-class families and families that are working hard to try to get into the middle class.”

This is a politically convenient and intellectually lazy way of defining an agenda. If the term “middle class” means anything, it certainly includes people with divergent interests, and a mandate to protect the middle class could be plausibly interpreted to mean whatever you want it to mean.

… Continue reading at the Washington Monthly

The Great American Essay

Note: An improved version of this review ran at The Rumpus (not to be confused with Rumpus, the venerable magazine published irregularly in New Haven) on March 28, 2013.

The Best American Essays 2012
David Brooks, ed.
Houghton Mifflin
310 pp., $14.95

Gore Vidal died in July of last year, and Jacques Barzun’s departure followed a few months later. If there is a heaven, and if worldviews and cultural paradigms are eternal there, then perhaps those two are again enjoying a wide readership.

In this world, though, nothing lasts — certainly not the consensuses that once allowed for the existence of people called “essayists” and “public intellectuals” — and the obituaries of those two writers evoked a past that seems very distant to us now. David Brooks describes that time in his introduction to The Best American Essays 2012, the anthology he edited for Houghton Mifflin’s annual series. It was “the golden age of American nonfiction — the thirty years between 1935 and 1965,” when “the mass middlebrow audience still felt it was important to pay attention to what these people said” — meaning essayists and public intellectuals. Brooks goes on to write, “The essay hit a bad patch for a little while. Yet today I think it’s coming back.” On the contrary, despite containing many very good essays — this year’s Best American Essays is the rare anthology you can’t put down — Brooks’s collection offers little hope for the essay as a genre.

An essay projects a quality of mind and the sense of a personality. If the reader can actually feel the company of the writer, an essay can turn into a temporary escape from loneliness or even an honest heart-to-heart. In Brooks’s words, “The job of any essayist is to seem like a friend.” For the writing to create that illusion of closeness, the work needs to convey a firm sense of just who the writer is.

This was much easier done in Brooks’s golden age. Essayists were essentially conversationalists, even though they argued with more force and passion than would be appropriate at what Brooks calls “a good dinner party.” Their only authority was charm, and their only purpose was to pass the time. That this approach to the essay did not survive Foucault, Derrida, and feminism should not surprise anyone. As real differences in the vast range of human experience were discovered and explored, the authority of certain essayists began to seem necessarily incomplete, and their charm less appealing, even insidious. People began to doubt the concept of the author as an atomic entity not itself subject to analysis, which has lessened the potential for intimacy between the writer and the reader. It’s difficult to feel close to a person if you try to interpret everything she says as actually meaning something completely unrelated to what she wanted to say, and it’s even harder if you start questioning her ontological status. That’s the kind of relationship many writers and readers have now.

Setting aside the excesses of theory, the changes of the last several decades have been largely positive. Now, our public discourse is more than a good dinner party. The invited guests have been found unworthy, and the host’s servants have gone into the street and brought in strangers in their places. Men like Norman Mailer, William Buckley, and Gore Vidal were on television because they made good television. They were insufferable and arrogant, and the networks understood their appeal. We are probably all better off without a literary culture of machismo celebrity. Best American Essays, which includes essays by many writers who might not have been welcome in that milieu, demonstrates how different things have become. In Francine Prose’s short piece remembering the sexual revolution, for example, she can dismiss Mailer in half a sentence on her second page. Jose Antonio Vargas’s blockbuster “Outlaw” is also in the collection. (The pieces in the book were published in the 2011 calendar year. Vargas’s essay, in which he announced that he is an undocumented immigrant, ran in The New York Times Magazine that June.)

Still, this transition did make writing essays complicated, particularly for writers who were critical of American politics and society. They were realizing that magazine journalism was turning into a mere entertainment commodity. Still, they couldn’t simply take refuge in principled cultural critique. The Vietnam War had discredited intellectual liberalism, and writers didn’t want to lose their connection with life as ordinary people actually experienced it (that is, increasingly troubled by unemployment, addiction, and all the other problems of urban decay and rural poverty alike). Marxism had promised solidarity, but the revolutionary intelligentsia’s connection to and feeling for the masses had always been illusory, as the horror of European totalitarianism had revealed by then. Yet the one resource that had always been open to American freethinkers—to stride off into the woods with little more than a notebook, a pencil, and one’s masculinity—was no longer regarded as a serious method of inquiry. The forthright and manly kinship of democracy had been how writers typically related to their readers in the past. For writers such as Hunter S. Thomspon who continued to work and live in that mode, stories about the autonomy and sufficiency of the self became less compelling than narratives of its disintegration. For Foucault, this was simply the conclusion of the long process “from the epic to the novel, from the noble deed to the secret singularity, from long exiles to the internal search for childhood, from combats to phantasies,” whereby the individual was redefined as a scientific idea and literature devolved into case studies. Since then, the very idea of the self has become like a shore pine alone on a rocky headland—some ocean is eroding the sparse soil its roots still cling to.

In this country, at least, that individualist tradition had begun with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance.” In part, “Self-Reliance” is a statement of Emerson’s own aspirations as an essayist. “The highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton,” writes Emerson, “is that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men, but what they thought.” His ideal man “would utter opinions on all passing affairs” that “would sink like darts into the ears of men, and put them in fear.” In his introduction to Best American Essays, Brooks writes that Emerson’s “narcissistic self-reliance shtick is demonstrably bad advice and pseudomacho show,” and indeed much of the collection reads like a response to Emerson’s ideas about individuality. The first essay is Benjamin Anastas’s “The Foul Reign of ‘Self-Reliance,’ ” in which he blames “Emerson’s tacit endorsement of a radically self-centered worldview” for the contemporary conservative movement’s refusal to confront inconvenient facts.

Some of the writers are firmly in Emerson’s camp. In his essay on the value of a college education Mark Edmundson writes, “From Emerson I learned to trust my own thoughts, to trust them even when every voice seems to be on the other side” — exactly the worldview that Anastas criticizes. When Emerson is not being explicitly discussed, his influence is still apparent, as in Wesley Yang’s response to Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Yang describes the difficulty of living according to his own rules, not those of the culture into which he was born, a major theme in “Self-Reliance.” He is a first-generation Asian American, a writer, and, in contrast to Chua, a committed individualist:

Let me summarize my feelings toward Asian values: Fuck filial piety. Fuck grade grubbing. Fuck Ivy League mania. Fuck deference to authority. Fuck humility and hard work. Fuck harmonious relations. Fuck sacrificing for the future. Fuck earnest, striving, middle-class servility.

Emerson would be pleased.

All the same, the Emersonians in Best American Essays seem to be in the minority. Most of the essays explore the dissolution of the self, a result of sexuality, insanity, senility, or the use and abuse of substances (which are everywhere in this collection—the antidepressant Zyprexa appears in two pieces). The problem is that if the individuality Emerson advocated is no longer a reliable way of thinking about human experience for whatever reason, it isn’t clear what can take individuality’s place in the structure of the contemporary essay.

This is not merely a theoretical or academic problem. It is an immediate, practical one for every essayist. A writer has only a few lines to answer every reader’s immediate demand: “What is this person’s claim on my time and patience?” The subject matter alone is never enough, since no matter how supremely interesting a topic is, dozens of other writers have written about the same thing, or are writing about it now. To write a great essay, not one that merely holds the reader’s attention, the essayist needs to cultivate a voice, a way of thinking on the page, a “special way of looking at things,” in Raymond Carver’s words. That requires answering, or at least trying to answer, some difficult questions: “What do I want my writing to sound like? How do I make it sound like me? What does ‘me’ really sound like?” A great essay requires self-reliance. A sense of self is the only way for a writer to make a demand on her readers that is uniquely compelling in spite of the genius of past writers and the terabytes of text the denizens of the Internet dump online every day. By projecting that sense of self, the essay can create a degree of intimacy between the reader and the writer that is unusual in ordinary human interaction.

The absence of any strong sense of self, betrayed by prose that is generally serviceable and polite, is frustrating in Brooks’s anthology. Robert Boyers’s memoir of a departed friend who was unusually attractive to women is moving and troubling. Reading it, however, you feel that the writer has taken refuge from the pain of the relationship in a consciously literary, even punctilious style:

There was, I felt, in my friend, some indiscernible correspondence between his looks, his demeanor, and his true self, which had to be “good” in a way not always apparent even to those of us who loved him. I would not have known how to defend this impression had I been forced to do so, and it seemed to me the sort of lazy notion that I typically despised.

Joseph Epstein’s “Duh, Bor-ing” has a similarly nineteenth-century feel. You wonder why Brooks included this piece. Perhaps he admired Epstein’s quixotic effort to revive a formerly redoubtable genre: the essay as rarefied digression on some thematically defined aspect of human experience, in Epstein’s case, boredom. Yet even as Epstein writes about one of the most fascinating features of our modern emotional landscape, he does little more than create for the reader the same feeling he sets out to analyze.
The tone of Boyers’s and Epstein’s pieces is more restrained, but even the bolder essays in the collection are stylistically unremarkable. Sandra Tsing Loh’s essay on menopause is gregarious and gossipy:

With that, she smeared the tiniest dot of clear estrogen gel on the inside of my wrist, and even though she said it would take a few weeks to take effect, I instantly felt high!

Loh’s writing is funny, smart, and genuinely enjoyable, but not much more. Menopause can be a complete replacement of a person’s identity with another, she argues, and the lack of a stable sense of identity is apparent in her frenetic, chatty prose. A piece that likewise examines society’s expectations for women, but which takes a different approach, is Prose’s essay on sexual liberation. Her former husband, she writes, may or may not have slept with the members of the “feminist consciousness-raising group” she joined in graduate school:

It makes for a better story to say they all slept with my husband. But whatever symbolic or metaphoric truth the fictive version exhumes, I don’t much care if it happened that way or not. I learned more than I would have if my feminist sisters loyally resisted my former husband’s advances. Gender doesn’t confer moral superiority, or the opposite, needless to say.

Prose’s style is more subdued than Loh’s, but also more powerful. Some readers may find her metanarrative predictable. Even so, the essay is a frank, thoughtful, and authentic consideration of the complicated history of feminism — the movement’s shortcomings as well as its achievements — in the writer’s personal life and in the world. Loh’s piece, by contrast, is entertaining but not satisfying, like many of the essays in the book. The conversation at Brooks’s dinner party is rarely intimate, always merely sociable.

There are exceptions, including Geoffrey Bent’s essay on Edward Hopper. That piece contains many astonishing sentences, such as this: “While light possesses the power to penetrate the elaborate grids the artist has constructed around his people, there is nothing beatific in the process; the recipients are illuminated, but they remain unenlightened.” Through Bent’s elegant constructions, you see what he saw looking at Hopper’s paintings. Being able to share another person’s experience of the world in this way is a rare privilege.

The question of selfhood preoccupies Jonathan Franzen in “Farther Away,” although Daniel Defoe, rather than Emerson, is Franzen’s point of departure. “Robinson Crusoe,” he offers, “was the great early document of radical individualism,” as well as the origin of an essentially narcissistic literary genre (the novel) and the essentially narcissistic culture that form has produced. “Farther Away” is the longest and most ambitious essay in Best American Essays. Set on the Chilean island of Masafuera, in the archipelago that likely inspired the setting of Defoe’s novel, Franzen’s essay is partly an old-fashioned tale of adventure, but combined artfully with literary criticism and with an elegy for his friend David Foster Wallace.

Wallace, Franzen argues, took his own life after suffocating in the selfhood he explored so thoroughly and cultivated so memorably in prose. Decades after the end of Brooks’s golden age, Wallace’s idiosyncratic style gave him the freedom to write monumental essays on grandly intellectual topics: language and democracy in “Tense Present,” what it means to live well in “Consider the Lobster.” Yet Franzen, confronting Wallace’s eventual suicide, concludes that self-reliance is unsustainable as an approach to prose and to life. He compares Samuel Richardson’s Pamela favorably to Robinson Crusoe as a model for novelists:

Defoe had staked out the territory of radical individualism, which has remained a fruitful subject for novelists as late as Beckett and Wallace, but it was Richardson who first granted full fictional access to the hearts and minds of individuals whose solitude has been overwhelmed by love for someone else.

Human relationships offer the novelist an escape from solipsism, Franzen concludes. Yet that route is not as readily available in an essay, a form defined by introspection. Brooks also selected David Lawless’s “My Father/My Husband,” a short, beautiful piece narrated in the third person about a man and his wife. She is growing forgetful, and the essay is little more than the repetition of one conversation, with slight variations:

“My husband? You wish! I never married you!”
“Yes you did. We married more than fifty years ago.”
“I never married anyone.”

You learn about this couple’s past together, though the woman remembers very little of it, and about their love for each other, which somehow is still tender and strong. But it reads more like a short story than an essay, and Lawless’s experiment indicates just how far essays can explore the relationships among the people in them before they begin to turn into something else.

The essay is not coming back, as Brooks believes. It is fading into autobiography or fiction. To write an essay today is a defiant and perhaps even arrogant declaration of the value of the writer’s individuality to the life of society. The contributors to Brooks’s collection make that declaration all the same, which is heartening. You can’t help but sense that even the distinctly colloquial and contemporary ones, such as Loh and Yang, are working against literary history, and that makes the best essays in the book all the more impressive. Our understanding of public discourse and its participants has shifted. The last century’s literary conventions have departed like an indignant flock of migratory geese, noisily flapping and pontificating, assuring one another that the winter to come will be long and sunless. The essay has become an awkward, ungainly form that challenges every writer, one that every reader approaches with a degree of skepticism. It is that way now because the meaning of selfhood changed, and it will remain that way, unless our definitions change again.