Reading literary essays

I’ve been reading a bunch of essay collections recently. I began with John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead, went on to Tom Bissell’s Magic Hours: Essays On Creators and Creation, and am currently working on Elif Batuman’s The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books And The People Who Read Them.

I liked them all. How can I dislike it when an intelligent writer tries to work through a knotty problem in as simple a way as he or she possibly can? Of course, I did have my quibbles here and there. Sullivan’s book seemed a little too focused on providing colorful bits of the author’s personal experience and sometimesfailed to actually provide much insight into whatever he was writing about. This was particularly notable in one of his essays on attending a Christian rock concert, where he failed to answer what seems like the most basic question: “Why does this music excite people? Why have 100,000 people–most of them teens–come to this festival?”

Perhaps that was the point of the collection. Sullivan is willing to shine as much light on a subject as he is able, but he’s not willing to BS up some insight that he doesn’t actually possess. And, okay, that’s fine, but at some point I’m kind of going to prefer the writer who’s actually able to say anything. The David Foster Wallace style thumbsucking faux-innocence is cute enough when it actually pays homage to the basic complexity of the world, but it ceases to be cute when it is used as a way to avoid coming to a conclusion.

But that’s just a minor gripe. In general, I enjoyed the essays. Tom Bissell’s collection was particularly good (especially for aspiring writers). He had a great essay in which he categorized all the different kinds of writing books, and another in which he dissected a literary movement by a bunch of angry writing aspirants. Both were fascinating glimpses into literary culture.

Mostly, though, I just want to know how a person gets into this whole essay-writing racket? It seems awesome. I’d like to pontificate about stuff at length. Also, what exactly qualifies novelists (and aspiring novelists) to spout off about stuff? This whole form–the literary essay–seems rather odd. It’s a bunch of people who are using the literary skills acquired as fiction writers in order to write non-fiction. The result, presumably, justifies itself through its high prose quality.

It would kind of have to, right? Because if it doesn’t, there doesn’t seem to be any reason for the literary essay to exist. None of these essayists seem to have done much research on their topics. None of them seem to have any journalistic training. They don’t pretend to have much more information (or even expertise) on the topics that they write about. But the implication is that their novelistic training allows them some kind of insight that ordinary journalists don’t have.

I like that. It’s a kind of talismanic faith in the power of a writer. A novel is measured against other novels. It’s either better than other novels or worse than other novels. Literary essays, though, are measured against our own insight and our own experience. If an essay exceeds the quality of our own thinking on a topic, then it’s sublime. If not, it’s pointless. It’s like philosophy, but not quite as ambitious.

Anyways, after Batuman’s book, I am thinking of going on to Bissell’s Extra Lives or Franzen’s How To Be Alone. Anyone have any other good essay collection recommendations? I considered Jonathan Lethem’s The Ecstasy of Influence, but it was way too long for me.

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