Absorbingly so

I've come across a well-wrought essay about essays, here, by Michael O'Rourke. Among other things, he expresses how a good essay is like literary jazz. It can sound as though the author isn't really trying, it can seem to meander unintentionally. But, oh, I'm learning how challenging the "music" can be, and how worthwhile it is finding a way back to the theme.

The essay disposes of the writer/narrator distinction, and the first-person narrator speaking is the writer writing. Who is the speaker in E.B. White's brilliant "Once More to the Lake" if not White himself, and how does it advance our understanding of this essay to say that he's not? He gives himself no fictional name; no "tension" is evident between the speaker's observations and some writer-behind-the-scenes; and for what it's worth, his essay tells us, "This happened to me." We don't "suspend" our disbelief when we read the essay as we do when we read, say, Charlotte's Web; we take what White tells us at face value the same as we would were he telling us in the flesh. In an essay, the writer speaks directly to his reader, without the buffer of an invented middle-man narrator. He risks being candid, risks being himself-risks, most of all, not being believed.

When the essayist is believed (as we always believe White, whether he's fishing with his son on a lake in Maine or mourning the death of a pig), the effect is a feeling of kinship with the writer himself that we rarely experience with other, more overtly "artful," forms of literature. The essayist isn't posing, and he isn't setting himself apart. He speaks to us as equals, and flatters us with the notion that we are at least as intelligent as he. He doesn't sit in his director's chair and dictate every move. He's one of the actors, like us, and he never upstages us, and frequently is content with a lesser role.
~Michael O'Rourke, "Literary Balls: An Essay On Writing Essays"


I recommend a meander through White's essay.

Awesome, huh? Nowadays they call this stuff creative nonfiction (cnf). Maybe they do because "essay" means "try", and we essayists want to sound somehow more sturdily, yet prettily, intentional. I'm still making little essays at cnf, but I'll write literature of my own about that someday.

Comments