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If the form possesses a defining characteristic, it is that the essay makes an argument (and does so, unlike academic writing and other forms, for a general rather than a specialized audience).That argument can rest on fact, but it can also rest on anecdote, or introspection, or cultural interpretation, or some combination of all these and more.And what makes a personal essay an essay and not just an autobiographical narrative is precisely that it uses personal material to develop, however speculatively or intuitively, a larger conclusion.
D’Agata, whose first anthology did not appear until 2003, has hardly saved the genre from oblivion. Of course, D’Agata would say that the essays he collects are not essays, or not those kinds of essays.
They are “lyric” essays—something altogether different. They deal not in information or assertion but in ambivalence and ambiguity; in emotion, exploration, and suggestion.
D’Agata’s rationale for his “new history,” to the extent that one can piece it together from the headnotes that preface each selection, goes something like this.
The conventional essay, nonfiction as it is, is nothing more than a delivery system for facts.
There are “public essays” and “personal essays” and essays that are both or neither; the form is broad and various and limitlessly flexible.
Yet what distinguishes an op‑ed, for instance, from a news report is that the former seeks to persuade, not simply inform.The genre, as a consequence, has suffered from a chronic lack of critical esteem, and thus of popular attention.The true essay, however, deals not in knowing but in “unknowing”: in uncertainty, imagination, rumination; in wandering and wondering; in openness and inconclusion.And that is certainly worthy as an organizing principle.But the qualities D’Agata claims to prize are not confined to a single genre, no matter what he wants to call it. D’Agata also gives us pieces that indubitably trade in fact, argument, and assertion. In three thick volumes, over 13 years, he has published a series of anthologies—of the contemporary American essay, of the world essay, and now of the historical American essay—that misrepresents what the essay is and does, that falsifies its history, and that contains, among its numerous selections, very little one would reasonably classify within the genre.And all of this to wide attention and substantial acclaim (D’Agata is the director of the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa, the most prestigious name in creative writing)—because effrontery, as everybody knows, will get you very far in American culture, and persistence in perverse opinion, further still.What it’s like is abysmal: partial to trivial formal experimentation, hackneyed artistic rebellion, opaque expressions of private meaning, and modish political posturing.We get gimmick pieces like Donald Barthelme’s “Sentence” and Kenneth Goldsmith’s “All the Numbers From Numbers,” flaccid “theme” writing like Fabio Morabito’s “Oil” and Alexander Theroux’s “Black,” lightweight narrative vignettes like Susan Steinberg’s “Signified” and Brian Lennon’s “Sleep,” and overwrought poeticizations like Dino Campana’s “The Night” and Saint-John Perse’s “Anabasis.” D’Agata is a professor of creative writing, and a lot of this material is indeed “creative writing” in the worst, collegiate sense: not fiction or poetry or memoir or essay, but verbiage that manages to be both all of them and none—formless, monotonous, self-indulgent, and dull.We find it, especially, in many of his more modern selections, including the bulk of the first anthology, The Next American Essay, which covers the period from 1975 to 2003.We find it, that is, when he isn’t limited by the literary record of older ages and can show us what his taste is like when granted full indulgence.