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The New Essayists, or the Decline of a Form?

David Sedaris and a literary version of reality TV

“The essay, as a literary form, is pretty well extinct,” Philip Larkin wrote gloomily in 1984. Extinct was the right word, capturing the sense of an organism that could no longer survive in a changed environment. “It belonged to an age when reading—reading almost anything—was the principal entertainment of the educated class,” Larkin argued, an appetite that “called for a plethora of dailies, weeklies, monthlies and quarterlies, all having to be filled.” Now it is television and the movies that cry out for ever more “content,” while the lush Victorian ecosystem has thinned out to half-a-dozen serious magazines, most of which have only slightly more appetite for essays than for that other obsolete form, the short story. 

It is strange, then, to look around a quarter-century after Larkin and discover that we are living in a golden age of essays, or of ruminative writings that call themselves essays. Books of essays regularly turn up on the best-seller lists; many of their authors are stars on the radio, especially on the cult program “This American Life.” In the HBO show “Girls,” the character portrayed by Lena Dunham declared her ambition to become a writer and “the voice of my generation,” but she did not hope to write the Great American Novel: she wanted to produce a book of essays. Here as in so many of its details, “Girls” proves to be a faithful stenographer of its moment. A talented writer such as John Jeremiah Sullivan might, fifty years ago, have tried to explore his complicated feelings about the South, and about race and class in America, by writing fiction, following in the footsteps of Walker Percy and Eudora Welty. Instead he produced a book of essays, called Pulphead, on the same themes; and the book was received with the kind of serious attention and critical acclaim that were once reserved for novels.

But all is not as it seems. You do not have to read very far in the work of the new essayists to realize that the resurrection of the essay is in large measure a mirage. For while the work of writers such as David Sedaris, Sloane Crosley, John Jeremiah Sullivan, and Davy Rothbart are described as essays—My Heart Is an Idiot: Essays, is the title of Rothbart’s new book—they have little in common with what was once meant by that term. The new essay, like the old essay, is a prose composition of medium length; but beyond that the differences are more salient than the resemblances. Larkin was not all wrong.

The essay, traditionally, was defined by its freedom and its empiricism—qualities that it inherited from its modern inventor, Montaigne. “What do I know?” Montaigne asked, and the essay is the form that allows both the “I” and the thing it knows equal prominence. For this reason, the essay could address any subject, exalted or trivial, as long as it displayed the mind of the writer engaged with the world. The subjects in The Oxford Book of Essays, edited by the late John Gross, range from truth and dreams to wasps and the Hoover Dam. Not coincidentally, some of the greatest essays, from Addison on Paradise Lost to Mill on Coleridge, are engaged with texts, which is to say, with other minds. For the essay is one of the purest ways for a writer’s mind to record its own motions, which are the basis of prose style.

The self, then, has always been at the heart of the literary essay. But the new essay is exclusively about the self, with the world serving only as a foil and an accessory, as a mere staging ground for the projection of the self. Formally, one might describe the work of Sedaris, Crosley, Rothbart, and company as autobiographical comic narrative: short, chatty, funny stories about things that happened to me—weird things, or ordinary things that are made weird in the telling. What we now call an essayist used to be called a humorist. Sedaris’s books are sold as essays, but he is plainly trying to be Thurber, not Addison.

This is a particular kind of humor, rooted in the creation of a fictional alter ego who shares the author’s name. This device allows the essayist to claim the authenticity of non-fiction while indulging, with the reader’s tacit permission, in the invention and shaping of fiction. Consider David Sedaris, the master of the new essay and its most popular practitioner. In Me Talk Pretty One Day, which appeared in 2000, Sedaris writes about taking an IQ test and finding that he is “really stupid, practically an idiot. There are cats that weigh more than my IQ score. Were my number translated into dollars, it would buy you about three buckets of fried chicken.” Of course, the reader does not believe this for a minute: the cleverness of the prose refutes its own premise. The effect is to call the whole story into question. Did Sedaris actually take an IQ test at all, and if so did he really score lower than expected? Yet the answer hardly matters. The important thing is that the idea of Sedaris failing an IQ test fits in perfectly with the fictional character that he creates over the course of the book, a “David Sedaris” who is perpetually, amusingly incompetent at school, art, and learning French.

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But it is not just Sedaris’s haplessness that wins his essays their popularity. It is also the way he continually confesses to bad behavior and bad motives, which, if taken as literally true, would make him a despicable person. In his essay “I Almost Saw This Girl Get Killed,” Sedaris writes about seeing a woman trapped in a Ferris wheel accident, and his immediate reaction is to congratulate himself on witnessing such an interesting event. “The crowd moved closer,” he writes,” and if the other three to four hundred people were anything like me, they watched the young woman and thought of the gruesome story they’d eventually relate to friends over drinks and dinner.” If someone told you this in real life, you would recoil; but coming from “David Sedaris” it is amusing, because it is so delightfully consistent with the egotism that we always see him display. (By contrast, when a traditional essayist such as Hazlitt confesses to hating promiscuously, in “On the Pleasure of Hating,” the result is not amusing but harrowingly self-revealing.) Sedaris’s selfishness is much like Jack Benny’s cheapness: a comic vice that we forgive because we know the difference between the performer and the performance.

Maintaining that difference is an art, and not all of Sedaris’s epigones possess it. The key to the art is hyperbole: by exaggerating his experiences beyond plausibility, the comic essayist signals the terms on which we are to read him. If Sedaris said he had an impatient French teacher, we would believe him, but not be very interested. When he says that his teacher “singled me out, saying, ‘Every day spent with you is like having a Caesarean section,’ ” we recognize not so much an experience as a one-liner, and relax into the knowledge that we are watching not a reflection but a performance. Sedaris says as much when he admits to appropriating the life stories of his partner, Hugh: “His stories have, over time, become my own. I say this with no trace of a kumbaya. There is no spiritual symbiosis; I’m just a petty thief who lifts his memories the same way I’ll take a handful of change left on his dresser. When my own experiences fall short of the mark, I just go out and spend some of his.”

Reading Sloane Crosley, who is a generation younger than Sedaris and often compared to him, one comes to appreciate how much control and skill goes into the creation of Sedaris’s persona, and how difficult it is to remain likable while admitting to all kinds of bad behavior. Crosley, too, fills her stories with implausible comic details, like the friend who got married and changed her last name to “Universe.” When Crosley retails her experiences as a bad employee or a bad volunteer at a museum, however, the reader is tempted to respond with judgment rather than laughter. She lacks the egotist’s charm. In her essay “The Ursula Cookie,” from her first book I Was Told There’d Be Cake, she describes her incompetence as a personal assistant to a publishing executive, but in a way that leaves one sympathizing more with the put-upon boss than the feckless employee.

The bad impression is confirmed when Crosley chooses September 11, 2001, as the day to hand in her resignation, and goes to a job interview the very next day. “People are always surprised by this,” she writes. “How could I have gone through with a job interview at such a time? We didn’t know how dark things were or how much darker things were going to get. It was Wednesday morning, not ‘the day after 9/11.’ ” That is exactly wrong. The day after 9/11 was just that, and nothing else; and while doing business on such a day does not make one a monster, Crosley’s way of writing about it feels disingenuous and self-exculpatory. To write genuinely about what it was like on the day after 9/11 would require shedding the comic persona that Crosley has spent her whole book creating. It would require, one might say, an essay—a real one, rather than a riff.

The publisher of Davy Rothbart’s new book of essays says that he writes “in the tradition of David Sedaris and Sloane Crosley,” and the similarities are clear enough. Once again we have tales of a flawed hero named Davy Rothbart, and of the outrageous and comical things that allegedly happened to him. The difference is that Rothbart’s stories are so baroque and so absurd that the reader never really feels that they are meant to be believed. Rothbart comes across as a traditional American type of storyteller—the spinner of tall tales; and the “Davy Rothbart” we get to know has more in common with Paul Bunyan or Daniel Boone, those figures of legend, than anyone you might meet on the street.

Rothbart’s interest in the aesthetics of the tall tale is of long standing. Seven years ago, he published a collection of short stories called The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas. The first story in the book is titled “Lie Big,” and it concerns a hoodlum and master liar called Mitey-Mike, who evades arrest in a jewelry heist by spinning an intricately detailed cover story for the cops. The narrator, Mitey-Mike’s friend, explains that his lies were seductive even once they were known to be lies: “It was a glorious feeling to be in cahoots with him, to be backstage, behind the curtain, on the side of knowing, and watch him weave his brilliant tapestries. People delighted in him and his power over them was mesmerizing.” At the end of the story, however, we learn that the whole episode of the jewel heist, which Mitey-Mike put about to glamorize himself, was itself a lie. The gold chains he claimed to have stolen were actually acquired shamefully: “He traded his old Nintendo for them. And a bunch of games.” All at once, the daring liar becomes an immature fantasist, compensating with words for his own inadequacies.

What is most interesting about this sketch is what is missing, the third possibility: that a person might make up stories not because he is trying to fool other people or fool himself, but because stories can be inherently valuable. What is missing, in other words, is the possibility of fiction, which is a lie that, precisely because it makes no claim to be true, does not put the credibility of the teller immediately at stake. Story is what happens when the antithesis of truth and lie is reconciled in a higher artistic synthesis.

The stories in The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas are failures mainly because Rothbart does not achieve this kind of objectivity. The tales he tells are too plainly specimens of romantic fantasy and wish-fulfillment; they are too insistent on putting forward an idea of the author as a certain familiar kind of American popular hero, the streetwise romantic. The men in these stories are always on the road, usually in the company of, or in search of, a woman they love desperately and cannot keep. The stories culminate in scenes that even a teenager, or a Hollywood screenwriter, would find a little sentimental: in the title story, a group of afflicted men raise a chorus of “Amazing Grace”; in “Maggie Fever,” a boy tastes his tears, “sweet, salty, hot as a raindrop.” These tendencies reach their full floridity in “Elena,” where Rothbart’s narrator falls in love and hopes to rescue a fourteen-year-old Mexican prostitute, the ultimate hooker with a heart of gold.

The emotional universe of Rothbart’s essays in My Heart Is an Idiot is absolutely the same as in his fiction. The difference is that now we are ostensibly reading about things that really happened to the writer. But when we read that Rothbart once befriended a man on a bus who was 110 years old; or that he had a one-night stand with a woman and woke up to discover a dead body in her pool; or that he engaged in a long phone-sex relationship with a woman who turned out to be a man—the expectation of realism is, shall we say, relaxed.

A story such as “Human Snowball,” which chronicles the ever-expanding group of strangers who end up in Rothbart’s entourage one snowy night in Buffalo, is such a classic example of a shaggy-dog story that the reader simply cannot read it any other way, no matter what actual event lies behind it. Indeed, there is a kind of caveat lector in the first essay in the book, in which Rothbart recounts the way he used to invent fake phone calls to trick his deaf mother: “The phone was like a magic wand—every day I was creating new, alternate realities for my mom. I’d been acting as her ears my whole life, and she’d learned to trust and rely on me. Whatever I told her I was hearing through the phone, she took as the golden truth. The only limits seemed to be the boundaries of my imagination.”

What is gained by calling these yarns essays, and insisting that they all really happened to Davy Rothbart? In literary terms, nothing; in psychological terms, perhaps, a great deal. Where Sedaris and Crosley play up the comically unappealing aspects of their characters, Rothbart is too earnest and sentimental a writer for that. He clearly cares a great deal about the image he projects to the reader, and each detail conspires to give the impression that he is a true romantic, an emotional Don Juan who hopes that every new woman will bring him the fulfillment that he seeks. A number of these essays begin with Rothbart flying or driving to a distant city to meet a woman he barely knows, convinced that she is “the one.” In “Shade,” he describes a particularly egregious example of this pattern, as he goes to Arizona to meet a woman he’s fallen in love with over the phone, then immediately dumps her in order to pursue another woman he glimpses behind the counter at a Subway restaurant. His behavior, he admits, is “so bizarre and creepy,” but at the same time “so hopeful and honest.” These essays are born of just the same impulse, to seduce the reader with a display of ostentatious soul-baring. Davy Rothbart may be pathetic, he seems to say, but he really, really feels. Even the nickname “Davy” contributes to the man-child impression.

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In one of the most memorable essays in Pulphead, John Jeremiah Sullivan writes about the reality TV show “The Real World,” and the dialectic of self-consciousness such shows involve:

Here’s the surprising thing about this shift toward greater self-consciousness, this increased awareness of complicity in the falseness of it all—it made things more real. Because, of course, people being on a reality show is precisely what these people are. Think of it this way: if you come to my office and film me doing my job (I don’t have one, but that only makes the thought experiment more rigorous), you wouldn’t really see what it was like to watch me doing my job, because you’d be there watching me. . . . But now add this: What if my job were to be on a reality show, being filmed, having you watching me. . . ? What if that were my reality, bros? Are your faces melting yet?

Essayists such as Rothbart and Crosley and Sedaris, one might say, represent the prose equivalent of reality TV. They, too, claim to be recording their lives, while in fact they are putting on a performance; and they, too, count on the reader to know the rules of the game, the by now familiar game of meta. What makes this kind of performance different from the performance of a fiction writer is that, by “acting” under their own names, they inevitably involve motives of amour-propre. The essayist is concerned, as a fiction writer is not, with what the reader will think of him or her. That is why the new comic essayists are never truly confessional, and never intentionally reveal anything that might jeopardize the reader’s esteem. “Love me” is their all-but-explicit plea.

These essayists write fiction that claims to be autobiography. It is illuminating, then, to read them alongside a powerful recent book that uses autobiography but claims to be fiction. In How Should a Person Be?, the Canadian writer Sheila Heti emerges from the same generation and literary situation as Rothbart and company. Heti, too, is aware of how easy it is to invent a self to display to the world, and how many models for such facile self-creation are on offer in a celebrity culture. “I know that personality is just an invention of the news media,” Heti writes. “I know that character exists from the outside alone. I know that inside the body there’s just temperature. So how do you build your soul?”

It is that last question that separates her from most writers of her generation. The real purpose of How Should a Person Be? is to dramatize the difference between creating a soul or self and projecting one—and how easy it is to deceive oneself about that difference. The literary cunning and intelligence that Heti employs in the process have been underestimated by many of the book’s critics. Where the new essayists fictionalize reality to create an image, Heti uses ostensibly real people and even documents—e-mails, taped conversations—to underpin the classic fictional project of the Bildungsroman, the creation of a genuine self. The earnestness of her search is proved by her readiness to allow “Sheila Heti,” the character in her novel, to look genuinely, not comically, grandiose, foolish, and narcissistic, in a way that a conventional essayist would never dare.

“It is cheating to treat oneself as an object, or as an image to tend to, or as an icon,” Heti concludes. “It was true four thousand years ago when our ancestors wandered the desert, and it’s as true today when the icon is our selves.” In opposing the idolatry of the self, How Should a Person Be? offers a deeply intelligent antidote to the new essayists, and to much of the autobiographical writing of Heti’s generation—a generation that is now on the cusp on forty, an age when it is no longer charming for one’s heart to be an idiot.