by Colin Hosten
Jerald Walker’s Street Shadows is subtitled “A Memoir of Race, Rebellion, and Redemption.” The book chronicles the author’s journey from troubled teenager to accomplished academic, and was hailed by Nikki Giovanni as “a powerful read.” “On the basis of this impressive literary debut,” writes Robert Atwan, series editor of Best American Essays, “I predict that we’ll be reading Jerald Walker for years to come.”
It is quite possible, in fact, that one place we’ll be reading Walker for years to come is in Best American Essays, where he’s been featured previously, and where some of the chapters from Street Shadows might have ﬁt right in, since the book was originally conceived as a collection of essays. The memoir designation in the subtitle was added for publication. This particular detail is so striking because such rebranding has become commonplace in the contemporary publishing industry. Essay writers are now so frequently instructed to reshape their collections into memoirs or theme-driven narratives that the essayist Marcia Aldrich recalls the cautionary advice she once heard from author Cheryl Strayed, that essays are the “kiss of death in publishing.”
Yet essays continue to be published in great numbers under the umbrella terms of memoirs, chronicles, and meditations. What explains the aversion that many publishers have to the essay as a form for publication? Is it simply, as author E. J. Levy puts it, a “contrivedconceitintendedtomarketbooks”? Doreadersevennotice or care about the different designations? Kim Dana Kupperman notes, in “The Essayist’s Dilemma,” that the general reading public, “trained by the beginning-middle-end schema, desires an organizing principle, a structure that imposes meaning, even if it is quite nuanced.” Yet readers continue to consume and celebrate individual pieces and collections by classic essayists such as Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, Charles Lamb, and Washington Irving, and by more contemporary writers such as James Baldwin, Gore Vidal, and Joan Didion. What part of this equation has changed for the essay writer of today?
Robert Atwan suggests that the disparity in literary nomenclature “has been complicated by the history of genre and by our rhetorical expectations.” There was “greater tolerance for essayistic playfulness, artiﬁce, and deception during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries,” he argues, “when ‘nonﬁction’ was genuinely ‘creative.’” Readers have come to expect less narrative ﬂair from essays, while the memoir genre suggests a more evocative read. But what does it mean that the lines between essay and memoir have become so blurred that so many essay collections are now published as memoirs? A healthy appetite for the creative work of essayists clearly exists, yet the modern publishing industry continues to disguise this work as memoir or other. How will this affect today’s essayists, who must continually rebrand and reshape their work for publication? What is the long-term effect on the reader’s perception of the essay as a literary form? And in a century of growing access to and consumption of short-form literature, is the designation between essay, memoir, and other types of nonfiction even going to be relevant for much longer?
I pursued answers to these questions and more from the perspectives of the different stakeholders in this process—author, editor, reader—via interviews with Jerald Walker, Marcia Aldrich, E. J. Levy, and Robert Atwan.
1. What does “Essay” Mean to the Author?
Jerald Walker is the author of Street Shadows: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion, and Redemption.
CH: Why did you choose to write the story of your life as a collection of essays as opposed to a traditional memoir? Are there specific aspects of the essay as a literary form that make it preferable to you?
JW: Actually, my publisher asked me to turn an in-progress collection of essays into a memoir. I write essays because I love the form, but publishers want books to have a “narrative arc,” and when I sold my manuscript it was on the condition that the essays become “chapters” and that the unwritten chapters ﬁt into the arc of what would become a “memoir.”
CH: When you describe your book to friends, family, or professional acquaintances, do you call it a memoir, or a collection of essays? Why?
JW: I call it a memoir because that’s what it is, though I add that it started out as an essay collection.
CH: Is there an inherent aspect of the essay form that particularly appeals to you?
JW: My wife is fond of a cooking show where the chefs have to make tasty meals from a basket of seemingly incongruous ingredients: say, an apple, goat cheese, three pickles, a box of Fruit Loops, six eggs, and a can of spam. Essay writing is in many ways like that, trying to ﬁnd ways to create meaningful stories out of the ingredients that life provided. Fiction writers can make things up, pull what they need from thin air. Nonfiction writers have to find ways to connect things that already exist.
E. J. Levy is the author of Love, In Theory, winner of the 2012 Flannery O’Connor Award for Fiction, Amazons: A Love Story, and the Lambda Literary Award-winning Tasting Life Twice: Literary Lesbian Fiction by New American Writers.
CH: In “The Essayist’s Dilemma,” published by Welcome Table Press, you offer a defense of incoherence. Do you believe that the essay form lends itself to teleological arrangement at all? At what point does an essay collection stop being a collection, and become a different form altogether, such as memoir or book-length narrative nonfiction?
EJL: I don’t mean to suggest that essays are de-natured by being linked thematically or dramatically in a collection, only that the essay form has been—from its start—a marvelously meandering form, as Montaigne intended. It follows the mind’s movements as it weighs a matter rather than reaching certainty, so I’d like to argue that the essay collection may do the same: meander, offer a portrait of thought, represent the adventure that is cognition, rather than having to ape the drama of the novel or the memoir or the teleology of argument. But I think that much can be gained by wrestling with one’s essays to seek a common thread, which in turn can suggest additional essays and reveal new depths in the work. So, I’m not against collecting essays in a coherent fashion; I simply reject such coherence as a necessary condition for a successful collection.
CH: Can a group of essays come together naturally in a collection, or is this mostly an artifice prompted by other motives?
EJL: Oh, yes, of course. I love to read collections of essays to see how the same mind moves over different matters—or moves over the same matters at different times. I ﬁnd that illuminating, not artiﬁcial at all. You get this with David Foster Wallace’s collections, for example. But I’m less charmed by collections that seem forced by their own conceit, in which you sense the writer straining to come up with one more thematically linked piece to ﬁll out the book. I could name a bunch of those, alas, but won’t. It’s the heavy hand of marketing, I fear, and I don’t think those fingerprints should be on the essayist’s page.
CH: You’ve written that an essay collection is “a distinctly different kind of pleasure from reading a memoir or a novel.” How much of this pleasure is compromised when a group of individual essays are collected under a common theme—or further, rebranded as memoir?
EJL: Essays collected together are delightful, whether they have in common merely their author (as in Montaigne’s) or a subject.
Marcia Aldrich is the author of Girl Rearing and Companion to an Untold Story.
CH: Why are essay collections, as Cheryl Strayed once told you, “the kiss of death in publishing”? Is there anything about the essay as a literary form that might arguably be the opposite of a kiss of death—anything that might give essay collections a leg up in the publishing world?
MA: The essay is positioned as a literary form particularly savored by other writers for its stylistic merits, variety, and innovations, but maybe there are not enough of us, because the form is rarely a big seller. Lia Purpura is an example of a much admired writer in the world of essays whose collections have been published by a relatively small press.
When I speak of the essay collection, I’m primarily referring to collections of personal essays or literary essays. Collections of essays built around a hot button subject, or written by a “celebrity” writer like David Sedaris experience an entirely different reception. Sometimes I think I’m just the wrong person to ask about why essay collections are so difﬁcult to publish because I love the essay. I enjoy reading one essay at a time, and then coming back later to read another. It’s a different reading experience from picking up where you left off in a memoir. Memoirs tend to have a more consistent tone and an unfolding narrative. I am a fan of anthologies and collections because each essay has the potential to surprise and transport me somewhere the essay before it didn’t take me. Given our much interrupted lives, I don’t know why the essay collection is struggling for its place at the table.
CH: Is there any strictly editorial value in packaging a book as a memoir versus a collection of essays? Or is this trend completely driven by sales and marketing?
MA: There is a wide and important difference between memoir and essays—they are not the same animal. Essays don’t have to be retrospective and focus on the writer’s life. They don’t have to be works of memory. Essays can be more investigative, immersive, subject and research driven, and most importantly, they don’t have to be organized around narrative. They can be lyric or driven by the impetus of thinking. Memoir appeals to publishers because it tends to be rooted in story and narrative and therefore is closer to the novel [in form], and more familiar to readers. The assumption is that a narrative in the form of a memoir is easier to read and therefore easier to market. I don’t think that assumption is necessarily correct, but it is pervasive. On the other hand, the assumption is that one must learn how to read an essay—that essays are more difﬁcult. Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth was marketed as a memoir composed of essays. It is treated as a contemporary memoir, but not everyone is satisﬁed by that label. I have heard writers speak positively of the process imposed by a publisher to ﬁnd and bring out a more continuous through-line in their collection of essays, that is to make the essays more cohesive and unfolding in time. I mention this because it is worth noting that not all essayists resist this trend toward memoir.
EJL: I can’t speak to the editorial value, but I do think there’s an artistic value in examining one’s essays and seeing how they might form a memoir, what common obsessions or themes emerge, what might be left out or added. I think that lens can be a productive one for the writer, and that’s important. I ﬁnd the collected essays in Gretchen Legler’s gorgeous memoir All the Powerful Invisible Things, more powerful for her rigorous effort to forge a connection among them. She does two things that make it work beautifully: ﬁrst, she adds these brief, lyrical, interstitial essays that provide a structural link among the longer pieces; and two, she searched the material for what they had in common and found a profound story of how death is a necessary foundation of life. So both on a structural and thematic level, the effort to link those essays deepened the book.
II. An Editorial Perspective
Robert Atwan is series editor of Best American Essays.
CH: You, and others, have referred to current times as the “age of memoir.” What do you mean by that? Is there a corresponding age of the essay that you can identify in the past, present, or future?
RA: Of course, memoirs have been around for a very long time— Virginia Woolf’s Bloomsbury Group had a Memoir Club—but sometime around the early 1990s, critics such as James Atlas began to notice the way memoirs had taken the publishing world by storm.
In an important 1996 essay for the New York Times, Atlas tried to account for the growing popularity of the memoir as publishing houses began crowding their lists with the genre, many of these confessional, multicultural (Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father being one of these ’90s memoirs), and many covering incest, alcoholism, depression, addiction, child abuse, family dysfunction, disability, and other topics that a generation earlier may not have been seen as appropriate unless published anonymously. The rapid rise of the memoir in some ways turned out to be a mixed blessing for the essay. Publishers were now extremely interested in personal nonfiction, but were demanding confessional, cutting-edge, or shocking stories as opposed to reflection or rumination on a topic; many insisted on nonfiction that had to be shaped by the so-called “narrative arc,” which isn’t usually essay-friendly.
CH: Regarding E. B. White’s “Death of a Pig,” you’ve written that we consider the piece an essay in large part because it appears in many essay collections. When it comes to literary form, does a rose by a different name read the same? How important are the designations of “essay,” “essay collection,” “memoir,” etcetera?
RA: The I of a personal essay (say, E. B. White) and the I of a ﬁrst-person ﬁctional narrative (say, Twain’s Huck Finn) are both, of course, literary constructs, though one purports to be autobiographical, and the other is a ﬁctive character invented by Twain. To a large extent, both the personal essayist and the novelist avail themselves of similar literary devices and techniques (Twain’s ﬁrst title for his novel was Huck Finn’s Autobiography). As everyone knows, it’s possible to write a ﬁctional tale in the guise of a ﬁrst- person narrative that behaves exactly as though the story were true. If you compare E. B. White’s classic essay “Once More to the Lake” to a short story that uses the similar theme of “bizarre thoughts” that White published in 1954, “The Second Tree from the Corner,” you can see how White distinguished in this case a true account from fiction—he wrote the story from a third-person perspective with an invented protagonist. But suppose he decided to write it in the first person using an unnamed protagonist? Mostreaders, Ibelieve, would consider “Second Tree” a confessional essay. The sensibility of the central character is identical to the sensibility of White’s essayistic personae. So much fiction today is driven by first-person narration that it is often very difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish a short story from a personal essay by internal characteristics alone. I am often fooled into thinking that some short stories are in fact essays, and I remain obliged to those literary journals that provide me with labels, whose editors departmentalize or otherwise identify ﬁction, poetry, nonﬁction, and drama. Left to my own devices, I would be inclined to think that any short story that can be mistaken for an essay is probably not a very good story, and vice versa.
CH: Relatedly, is the blurred line between short stories and personal essays part of the reason why publishers often push authors to recast collections of personal essays as memoirs? Do you think the response would be different for a collection of philosophical, reﬂective, or critical essays?
RA: I had a teacher in graduate school who was a superb essayist, Paul Fussell. He once in an interview said something to the effect (I can’t recall the exact words): “If you want to see an editor squirm, walk into his office with a collection of essays on disparate subjects.” This I believe was in the mid-1980s. Such collections have long been a tough sell—Baldwin had trouble publishing his first collection, Notes of a Native Son. It’s a shame this is the case, that book publishers are generally so essay-adverse, but it’s a reality, and especially so for emerging, yet unknown, personal essayists. Specialized publishers can still market collections of critical, philosophical, or scholarly articles, but when it comes to publishing a collection of separate personal essays, most editors, as I said earlier, want to see a narrative arc that unifies the essays and sets them galloping along a discernible path (e.g., dysfunction to recovery). This situation would of course change if one publisher released a collection of disparate personal/reflective essays of serious literary quality that became a blockbuster bestseller.
CH: What difference do you think it makes to recast an essay collection as a memoir?
RA: When a writer attempts to transform a collection of essays published independently into a memoir, he or she usually needs to do three things: 1. Cut extraneous material, 2. Eliminate redundancies and overlapping information, and 3. Rearrange material so that it is less essayistic (digressive, leisurely) and more driven by a unifying narrative. Most contemporary memoirs aren’t full or formal autobiographies but rather life stories that focus on some particular chain of events or experience (surviving radiation treatment). Though I’m partial to personal essays, I’m well aware that simply having published, say, seven or eight of them doesn’t, from a publisher’s standpoint, necessarily make a viable book, even if they circle the same topic.
III. Essays in the Publishing Market
CH: Jerald, was there any strictly editorial value for you in packaging your book as a memoir versus a collection of essays? Was there any editorial drawback? Was any part of the process a learning experience for you?
JW: Packaging the book as a memoir was purely a marketing decision made by my publisher. What I learned from this process is that sometimes writers have to compromise, and that compromise isn’t necessarily a dirty word. It doesn’t always mean “to sell out.” It can also mean “collaborate.” It means that a writer’s goal to have his or her work in print has to be weighed against a publisher’s goal to make money.
CH: Bob, you’ve written that readers of creative nonfiction should “develop a keen sensitivity to the literary art of fabrication.” Is the degree of fabrication, do you think, increased when an author reworks a collection of separate essays into one continuous narrative? Is there a temptation to, as Frank Conroy said, invent scenes “for dramatic purposes”?
RA: Most definitely. Narrative can produce reasonable doubt in all sorts of areas. Take psychotherapy: Freud distrusted patients’ dreams that appeared overly coherent. He distrusted the “literary” effects behind their reports. It’s well known that patients in therapy will often try to shape their stories to give them the weight and coherence they otherwise might not have—so many incidents in our lives are fragmentary, prosaic, inconclusive. The narrative arc invites distortion, exaggeration, embellishment, deception, self-acclaim, and what I call “unearned epiphanies,” as personal stories tend to unfold toward that fulfilling moment of “I suddenly realized.” Think what would happen if the memoirist were forbidden to use that now almost clichéd expression.
CH: E. J., can you brieﬂy describe the process of recasting your essays as a memoir? How much rewriting is involved? How much do you find yourself having to add/remove?
EJL: I have taken it through several drafts that involved all that you describe (adding, subtraction, rewriting essays), but for the time being, I have set that project aside in favor of fiction. I found the pleasure of writing the original essays was lost in the effort to rewrite them as a memoir. Something about that effort feels forced to me and it shows in the prose. It’s straining after an effect. Then again, maybe it just needs some time to “set,” like Jell-O. I mean, I was writing about events as they were happening and may simply lack the necessary distance. So, I’ll give it six months, and read it through with fresh eyes and see how it reads.
CH: Jerald, what was your experience like?
JW: Fortunately, when I sold the manuscript, it was on the basis of ten or eleven essays, not even a fifth of what the book would be in size. Once it was decided that I was writing a memoir instead of an essay collection, I began writing essays that would ﬁt into the narrative arc. Some of the essays that I’d already written simply didn’t ﬁt into that arc and couldn’t be used. Others fell into place without changing a single word. And then there were the ones that had to be altered so that rather than having conclusions, they were left open-ended in a way that pointed the reader forward.
CH: Your book is subtitled A Memoir of Race, Rebellion, and Redemption—how did you land on these three themes as the central unifying core of the book?
JW: All three play an important role in the book, and, well, never underestimate the appeal of alliteration to publishers. Incidentally, I wanted to call the book The Mechanics of Being since a major theme of the book is self-creation. My publisher thought that was too Zen.
CH: What were some of your main considerations in deciding the sequence in which the essays appear in your book? How much does the final sequence reflect the order in which the essays were actually written?
JW: Once it was decided that the book would be a memoir, the essays/chapters had to tell a story in a way that’s consistent with the memoir form, which is, actually, consistent with the novel form: conflict, rising action, climax, denouement. The order of the chapters in the book isn’t faithful to the order in which they were written; many of the chapters in the beginning, for instance, were written long after some of the chapters near the end.
IV: The Reader
CH: Bob, you’ve written that “most educated readers are still uncertain about how best to evaluate a memoir or an autobiographical essay,” which may result from the few critical studies that exist about the art of memoir relative to the art of fiction. Do readers and publishers push writers into certain literary forms primarily because of the comfort of familiarity?
RA: A lot of writers discover their genre slowly, by trial and error. Things may be changing, but I doubt many ambitious writers start out by thinking “I want to be an essayist.” Many are still motivated by the lure of the novel and its supreme position in today’s hierarchy of literary forms. Novelists and poets are still sexier than essayists, despite Lena Dunham’s admirable (to me) efforts to spice up the essay on “Girls.”
There’s really not a whole lot of critical guidance for readers of literary nonfiction. In my opinion, MFA programs don’t do enough instruction on the evaluation of nonﬁction and essays, and in graduate ﬁelds, I don’t see sufﬁcient attention to the aesthetics of nonﬁction. This is slowly coming around as more programs now offer nonﬁction courses but most reviews of nonﬁction books are still heavily into the book’s content. Essentially, the criticism of essays and nonfiction has not yet caught up with that of fiction and poetry, mainly because these are still considered more imaginative.
CH: Jerald, have readers ever told you that your story might not have been as resonant if packaged as an essay collection? How important do you think the designation is in a consumer’s decision to buy or read your book, all other things being equal? What has been your general impression of your publisher’s approach to marketing your book, and of the sales it has enjoyed since publication?
JW: Interesting questions. No, I haven’t had any readers say that an essay collection would have resonated more. Ultimately, as in all forms of commerce, the literary market is driven by consumer demand. If readers demand essay collections instead of memoirs, publishers would encourage memoirists to turn their chapters into essays, and memoir would be the shunned word that essay has become. I’m happy with the way the book turned out and I can’t complain about the sales. My publisher did a great job.
CH: Do you think readers can appreciate any of the pieces in the book on their own, out of context—or does the book’s current structure necessitate reading through from beginning to end?
JW: Pretty much each piece can be read on its own, out of context. In fact, many of the chapters have appeared in various magazines and anthologies as essays.
CH: E. J., in your own writing, what made you decide to write the story of your life in essays, as opposed to a traditional memoir? How important do you think the designation is in a consumer’s decision to buy or read your book ?
EJL: Honestly, I write essays when they occur to me. They’re a nice break from ﬁction. I only thought to collect them into a narrative- length book when one of mine was reprinted in Best American Essays and I realized that its food theme might serve as a through- line for a collection of food-related essays, a memoir in meals.
CH: Marcia, in “The Essayist’s Dilemma,” you note that readers “might be surprised at how often essayists have been urged to reshape their material as memoir.” This is a chicken-and-egg question. Do you think publishers reshape collections as memoirs because that’s what readers prefer, or do readers gravitate toward memoir because that’s what publishers publish?
MA: I believe that publishers ﬁnd it easier to market memoir. The conventional wisdom suggests it is easier to blurb a memoir, to write copy for a memoir, to ﬁnd a hook for a memoir, and therefore easier for readers to ﬁgure out what the book is about. If a book seems ambiguous or too diffuse, it may not appeal to as many readers.
Readers think they know what a memoir is. And whether they are right or wrong in their expectations, they feel conﬁdent they know what they are getting. The success of memoir in the last twenty years or more begets more success, more popularity. Memoir builds on memoir. I don’t think there’s any buzz or excitement about a collection of essays, nor do I think a reader knows what to expect. A collection of essays operates as a kind of mystery object, contents unknown. Many of my students will spontaneously say, “I love memoir.” I have never heard a student say that about essays. Why? Well, I would say that the publicity around memoir has been more successful than the publicity around essay.
V: Where does Essay Publishing go from here?
CH: Bob, when you write that there was a greater tolerance for essayistic playfulness in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when “nonfiction was genuinely creative,” are you implying that the essay will continue to be under- appreciated in the twenty-first century?
RA: The essay as a literary genre can only be fully appreciated if it is considered as a form of imaginative literature, a genre equivalent to fiction, poetry, and drama. But the word imaginative doesn’t necessarily mean that something cannot be factual or historically accurate, as though to write imaginative nonﬁction means distorting or inventing facts. The imagination is at play in all sorts of ways, in shaping a form, in metaphoric patterns, in the interplay of voices, in the creative resistance to one’s own style and structure. Lately, there’s been, in my opinion, too much emphasis on “objective truth” in creative nonfiction and not enough on how the writer’s imagination plays a key role in the overall process of writing any nonfiction, personal, polemic, or informational. I like to tell students that the key syllable of information is form.
CH: What is your impression of the changing needs and habits of the general reading population? What trends do you see coming in the twenty-first century? Does the growing influence of technology have a bearing on the public’s appetite for short-form essays? How much influence do you think the sales and marketing arms of trade publishers will continue to have on how an author’s work is packaged?
JW: I think the reading public’s obsession with memoirs will continue, and publishers will continue to respond by encouraging young writers to write them, which means essayists will have to continue to fight for attention. But that’s a fight worth having.
EJL: It seems to me that we’re an increasingly visual culture, so while I trust that prose is with us to stay, I do think the form in which we engage it will continue to change—that as writers our work will increasingly need to engage the cultural terms of the twenty- first century, rather than aping those of the sixteenth or nineteenth centuries. That said, I do think the essay is kind of an ideal form for our age, offering the “thought-bite,” as it were. Brief, idiosyncratic. And I think the popularity of blogs afﬁrms our interest in seeing how another mind moves over a subject, and suggests that new technology may in fact support—rather than limit—our engagement with the form. In general, I’m thrilled that I can get an obscure Hazlitt essay online pretty much instantaneously. It’s wonderful. And as the web continues to undermine the role of publishers as gatekeepers of culture, I think we have the potential for a richer literary culture as a result.
MA: I imagine the present trends will continue. Publicity, whether you have it or don’t, plays an enormous role in whether a book is reviewed, made visible, sells, or disappears with a tiny splash. Most writers don’t have a publicity machine behind them. Even writers with books from major publishing houses now hire an additional publicity team. A writer without that apparatus simply can’t compete.
I don’t have a position worked out about the growing trend of publishing online. I do think books will be read less because people are spending so much more time reading and writing blogs, and other social media. There are only so many hours in a day and if you are spending two hours writing on Facebook, tweeting, reading blogs, answering email, and managing your sprawling empire of words online, there isn’t much left over for actual books. Surely the book as we know it is disappearing.
RA: Over a half-century ago, E. B. White wondered if the popularity of audio-visual aids in our schools would dramatically affect reading. The literary arts for centuries have creatively absorbed every technological innovation, and so I see optimistically only a state of perpetual literary renewal. I do think, however, students today are less well-read than those of my generation and possess less literary and historical background, but on the other hand they are at the same time strangely more open and sophisticated. I won’t be around to compile it, but I often wonder what The Best American Essays 2050 will look like.
Colin Hosten is an essayist/memoirist/whaterist who believes in the power of words. His work has appeared most recently in OUT Magazine. Originally from Trinidad, he recently earned an MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Fairfield University, where he currently teaches in the Core Writing program. He lives in Connecticut with his husband and their dog, Bugsy.