The Essay Has Never Been Healthier

“Without education,” wrote Chesterton, “we are in a horrible and deadly danger of taking educated people seriously.” If you fancy a dull trudge affecting to defend the literary essay you’re in luck: see rebarbative and stodgy William Deresciewicz in the latest Atlantic. Though it’s not easy some writers can be unattractive and dull simultaneously and Deresciewicz, since his early retirement from Yale, has made a career of it.

Defending the essay is unnecessary: the art is broad, muscular, and in good health. Still Deresciewicz can’t resist. His Atlantic piece is turgid, silly, and vain but he thinks he’s guarding “the essay” from the unwashed. Accordingly he pretends to aim high while pointing his arrows low. For this there’s nothing better than fustian prose. Here’s his opening:

John D’ Agata has accomplished an impressive feat. In three thick volumes, over 13 years, he has published a series of anthologies—of the contemporary American essay, of the world essay, and now of the historical American essay—that misrepresents what the essay is and does, that falsifies its history, and that contains, among its numerous selections, very little one would reasonably classify within the genre. And all of this to wide attention and substantial acclaim (D’Agata is the director of the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa, the most prestigious name in creative writing)—because effrontery, as everybody knows, will get you very far in American culture, and persistence in perverse opinion, further still.

Of John D’Agata we shall have more to say presently, but note straight off Deresciewicz’s three strands of bombast: false praise, (sentence one); faux incisiveness (sentence two, sophomoric as it is); and manifest sophistry (wink, wink, effrontery, as everybody knows, will get you very far…).

This is prime Deresciewicz. There’s deceit in the land and it’s occurring at the very best universities, right now, under your nose and you can trust him as he’s abandoned his suspect, icky job at Yale to be, well, a big time prevaricator—which, while you may not know it, comes from the Latin praevaricat “to walk crookedly” but of this he’ll have nothing to say.

Deresciewicz’s golden calf is his noisome antipathy to professors. It’s a living. But one thinks of Truman Capote’s assertion: “I like to talk on TV about those things that aren’t worth writing about.”

John D’Agata is a poet and essayist who earned notoriety (in the provincial way of American letters) when he wrote a book about Las Vegas wherein he uncovered the manifold ironies and tragedies of the Entertainment Capital of the World, Sin City, the City of Lights, Glitter Gulch—and neighbor to Yucca Mountain. Vegas is a vast, grim palimpsest and D’Agata aimed to reveal it with prose at once factual and impressionistic. The latter put D’Agata in the crosshairs of the Joe Friday Squad of nonfiction writers and critics—“just the facts m’am”—“this is reality we’re talkin’ ‘bout!”—“and by God don’t confuse us with colors and fancies!” In fairness to D’Agata he blends facts with fictions—the latter intended to flesh out what isn’t knowable—rendered as a matter of speculation. He tells his readers as much. Still, nonfiction is thought by some to be journalism just as journalism is imagined a stepchild of photography. “Give us facts and more facts! We’re hungry! Num num num!”

In the Vegas book D’Agata plays with chronology while telling the story of a young man’s suicide—injecting an imaginary sequence of circumstances into a verifiable and tragic incident. This was a red flag to the Joe Friday squad and the resulting brouhaha spread across both the blogosphere and whatever still passes for trenchant journals. The matter came to light when  D’Agata and his fact checker engaged in a public war of words about the relative value or the lack thereof of facts in essays and nonfiction.

In Nonfiction Land defending the impressionistic, the fanciful, the subjective is risky, though it shouldn’t be, since Montaigne, the grandfather of the essay, was a splendid writer of fancies. Essentially the essay became a delivery system for facts and factoids in the 20th century and D’Agata’s goal (one I share) has been to lend nonfiction—return it—to a high romantic (small r) sense of poetic possibility.

It’s easy to make enemies in literary circles of course, and even easier to make them if one adopts an outlier’s position, which of course John D’Agata has. One would never know from Deresewiecz scree that literary nonfiction has bloomed in our time; that richly imaginative practitioners are stretching forms; that this work is superb and not at all invidious. One is free to not like the lyric impulse in nonfiction. Taste is a matter we should never treat lightly. I for instance dislike tight little formalist poems about sexual dysfunction and accordingly I don’t believe Philip Larkin is worth a second read. This is merely taste. Mine.

Second rate writers imagine poetry or nonfiction or the novel as real estate. They have theirs. It’s all they’re interested in. I don’t remember the lines precisely, but the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai once wrote something like: “people who live in houses in fog on the hillside think the whole world is covered in fog.” So it is with both aesthetics and politics.

The literary essay is not harmed by poetry anymore than the novel is damaged by science fiction or a cookbook by personal narrative. But in Deresewiecz’s view there’s something nasty in the woodshed. Them faculty types are once again doing something invidious over thar in the groves of academe. This is of course piffle.

Should nonfiction be factual? Of course. Should it have room for poetry and divagation? Of course. Can we imagine readers who make artful choices? Of course. Which is the problem ultimately with the Joe Friday Squad: they’re enforcers but so very refined. For the JFS crowd literary essays should always be like table settings at the Four Seasons. You’d better know which fork is which and what it’s used for—and thank god there’s an essayist who’ll tell you!

John D’Agata is febrile and wholly unapologetic in his defense of subjectivity and impressionism, arguing the essayist can in fact capture feeling and sensation in lieu of a slavish devotion to verities. “My God,” cries the Joe Friday Squad, “they’re letting inmates run the asylum!”

How easily one forgets the asylum is real estate. Over its lifespan it will have many uses.

Simple then to believe the essay is in distress; that facts in creative writing are under attack; that civilization is in danger; that something nefarious is going on at a college near you.

Deresewiecz would have his readers believe D’Agata is Typhoid Mary, infecting the libraries and bookstores of America with meretricious nonsense. The truth and indeed the scruple is, and always, more nuanced and compelling. Ronald Reagan said famously “Facts are stupid things,” but D’Agata doesn’t think so, nor do most lyric writers who work with the essay form. What marks Deresewiecz as duplicitous is his failure to make a distinction between D’Agata’s willingness to look beyond facts and the instances where D’Agata simply makes a mistake. (Much is made of D’Agata’s assertion in the forward to an essay that the USA went to the moon 18 times. “Foul!” cries Deresewiecz without acknowledging a rather simple mistake—we sent 18 men to the moon on six rockets. In the final analysis Deresewicz has published a second rate ad hominem attack rather than writing a nuanced view of D’Agata’s work or of the essay as it’s practiced in the 21st century.