Greatest Contemporary Essayists

Greatest Contemporary Essayists-38
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. In her essay “The Ursula Cookie,” from her first book I Was Told There'd Be Cake: Essays"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. “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.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.

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The subjects in The Oxford Book of Essays" 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 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.

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.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.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. 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.“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.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. 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.


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