Even its name lends itself to rhapsodic obsession. Who could resist its melodic hiss, the way its very origin—to try—seems to encapsulate everything about the cracked human condition? To try, after all, is a modest claim: it implies something partial, not quite whole. It makes no great declarations of total understanding. Its work is always unfinished. The essay, as it’s often been described, is not a monumental form but rather something devious and loose, a provisional effort to bend reality’s raw mess into meaningful shape.
Though for many the idea of essay still fails to evoke much more than memories of chewed pencils and in-text citations, just as review fails to mean much more than evaluation and correction. And yet there are those of us who are still excited by the idea of reviewing essays, or even reviewing the essay. There is something about the essay’s self-consciousness that compels it to draw attention to its own neglect. To write criticism of the essay, it seems, is to constantly acknowledge past oversight, to place oneself again and again at the beginning of something.
Roland Barthes once proposed that the essay, as a natural consequence of thought and an emulation of thinking, may have long preceded the concept of genre. The irony, then, is that this ancient pre-genre genre—something close to instinct—seems to exist in a constant state of being discovered. Maybe the literary essay’s relative newness as an object of academic study keeps it in the self-conscious, teenage phase of its critical life—a phase primarily occupied with knotty questions of taxonomy and aesthetic legitimization. And yet what comes after the essay has been successfully installed in the house of art, after the patina of the new has worn away?
The writers in this issue strike toward that new ground of essay criticism. Some of them, established, have already worked to give the essay a greater space in the world. Some of them, emerging, have inherited a genre that has already shaken itself free of academic and artistic insecurities. They are not so much concerned with defining the essay, with figuring out what it means to write essays or what it means to love them. Instead, they look to broadening the essay’s frontiers, to exposing its blind spots, to coming to terms with its growing institutionalization. Here are essayists looking to what comes next.
Of course, in criticizing the essay they must also confront a crucial paradox. While other genres can stage critical conversations both within medium and through critical essays, the essay—already the most self-conscious of genres—relies solely upon itself for critique. Every essay is a kind of criticism of the essay, but so too is every criticism an essay. The essay cannot escape itself. And so it may be that all good critics of the essay must turn in on themselves, must introspect to speak. In this issue, we find that criticism of the essay can benefit from its own extreme self-consciousness, that it can dispense with a false separation between criticism and art and be as lively, as diverse, as transgressive, as the essay itself.
—Ethan Madore and Anya Ventura
Desirae Matherly sets out to defend the act of navel-gazing, only to fall deep into her own self-reverie.
Steven Wingate chases the essay—and his own family’s past—into a shifting labyrinth of hypertext.
Lucy Schiller tracks the essayistic impulse in the fabrications and framings of early American sod house photography.
Joshua Unikel contemplates the partnership between writers and designers and the essay’s physical life.
Amy Bonnaffons probes both white space and the gaps in the lyric essay’s canonization.
David Lazar advances hybridity and advocates for trans-genres.
Karen Babine reconstructs how the essay won the Great Plains.
Matthew Gavin Frank digresses on the essay’s tangents.