Greatest Contemporary Essayists

Greatest Contemporary Essayists-15
Did Sedaris actually take an IQ test at all, and if so did he really score lower than expected? 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.But it is not just Sedaris’s haplessness that wins his essays their popularity.“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.

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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: Essays"But all is not as it seems.

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.

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. The essay, traditionally, was defined by its freedom and its empiricism—qualities that it inherited from its modern inventor, Montaigne. ” 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.“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.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.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.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.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.


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