Essays: The modern genre, and why writing for the web counts

In writing about Paul Graham’s “The Age of the Essay,” I forgot to mention this:

Up till a few years ago, writing essays was the ultimate insider’s game. Domain experts were allowed to publish essays about their field, but the pool allowed to write on general topics was about eight people who went to the right parties in New York. Now the reconquista has overrun this territory, and, not surprisingly, found it sparsely cultivated. There are so many essays yet unwritten. They tend to be the naughtier ones; the insiders have pretty much exhausted the motherhood and apple pie topics.

This leads to my final suggestion: a technique for determining when you’re on the right track. You’re on the right track when people complain that you’re unqualified, or that you’ve done something inappropriate. If people are complaining, that means you’re doing something rather than sitting around, which is the first step. And if they’re driven to such empty forms of complaint, that means you’ve probably done something good.

This is part of the reason I write a fair amount about sex, sexual politics, sexuality in writing, and so forth: they’re not as deeply mined as other topics, and they’re also changing rapidly in strange, unpredictable ways vaguely reminiscent of cellular automata or Go. A lot of people do complain about writing on those subjects because they’re subjects about which people often have a) very strongly held belief that b) are not based on or supported by evidence. So a lot of people will complain that “you’ve done something inappropriate” when you write about them; that was certainly part of the response I got to Status and sex: On women in bands never getting laid and Norah Vincent’s Self-Made Man and Sexting and society: How do writers respond? Lots of people have written about sex in fiction, the most obvious being The Joy of Writing Sex, but even that one has a bogus-seeming chapter on HIV. Not too many have written about it like I have (so far as I know).

Plus, almost no one in writing programs or English classes—where I spend a lot of my time—tells you to pay attention to contemporary sexual politics or how things have changed and are changing—which leaves a lot of space for re-conquistadors. Instead, they want to tell you that you can see parallels between Jane Austen’s world and ours. Which is true, but not very helpful to, say, fiction writers: if your characters have the same relationship to marriage and sex that Austen’s did, you’re probably not writing compelling fiction. You’re writing to standards that have already changed so much that people reading your work will feel like they’ve entered a time warp. Hell, as I read Updike’s work from 1959 – 2008, I can’t help but notice that he seems like he’s writing about a world that, although it’s closer to me than Jane Austen’s, is still pretty far from the one I grew up with and live in now. He has lots of naughty parts, but also lots of people very concerned with each others’ religions. They also tend to live in suburbs, which was once a big deal but which I now find pretty boring, on average; I tend to write about characters who want to or are escaping from the suburbs. Updike is a high-status writer, but I can’t help but thinking a lot of his writing does feel like he’s playing an insider’s game.

In reading The Research Bust, Mark Bauerlein implicitly points out the consequences of what happens when “the reconquista has overrun” the major position of people in “New York” or academia. It used to be you had to be an academic or journalist to write anything that might be read by more than a handful of people. Now that almost anyone can for virtually no marginal cost, the academics especially are trapped in a world of diminishing returns: people can read things other than their articles, and academic journals appear to have responded by narrowing their focus even further. Bauerlein says that “after four decades of mountainous publication, literary studies has reached a saturation point.” Literary studies of canonical writers may have “reached a saturation point,” but I see little evidence that people no longer want to read anything; one could argue that, with the advent of the web, many people are reading more than ever. The logical response to that circumstance is to do what Graham advocates: look for something new to write about. A fair number of academics have said or implied that I’m wasting my time writing this blog, since that time could be spent on academic articles. This sounds very close to “inappropriate” to me. Which might mean that I’m on Graham’s right track: by producing work outside the scholarly hothouse, and by not believing in its importance, I’m infinitesimally lowering its value. And that’s a pretty scary thing, if your whole life is based around the model of letting others validate your work. But I’d rather spend time in the “sparsely cultivated” territory of of the web than fight for a spot of dubious value off it.

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