I was just about to let loose with my latest personal essay when I encountered this buzzkill in The New Yorker: “The Personal-Essay Boom is Over.”
I know I shouldn’t let my New Yorker reading pile up. I had heard rumblings of the essay crisis even before the May 2017 New Yorker piece by Jia Tolentino. And Tolentino’s piece led me to another personal essay critique, titled “First-Person Industrial Complex” by Laura Bennett in 2015. Bennett’s piece in turn led me to an essay written in 1905 by Virginia Woolf, “The Decay of Essay Writing.”
But I don’t want to think about my reading life without E.B. White and Calvin Trillin. Lately I’ve been enjoying Charles D’Ambrosio and his collection called “Loitering.” These are a few of my favorites. Many of their efforts you could call personal essays.
I discovered D’Ambrosio because he wrote an essay about Richard Hugo’s great poem, “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg,” which I learned of through my sister, Hope, who lives in Montana. E.B. White always seemed to be around the house when I was growing up and he has remained in mine. Calvin Trillin is a byline I discovered in the New Yorker decades ago and is an essayist I return to often, especially when I’m hungry or start taking Santa Fe too seriously.
I admit that I was vaguely aware of the essay epidemic while nicked by the fever myself. The form seems to come to me naturally. It’s partly the easy path of the first person “I.”
As E.B. White explained:
“The essayist is a self-liberated man, sustained by the childish belief that everything he thinks about, everything that happens to him, is of general interest. He is a fellow who thoroughly enjoys his work, just as people who take bird walks enjoy theirs. Each new excursion of the essayist, each new ‘attempt,’ differs from the last and takes him into new country. This delights him. Only a person who is congenitally self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays.”