Ambulance-chasing essays

As for popular culture, the essayist’s chronic invocation of its latest bandwagon fads, however satirically framed, comes off frequently as a pandering to the audience’s short attention span—a kind of literary ambulance chasing….There is something so depressing about this desperate mining of things in the air, such a fevered search for a generational Zeitgeist, such an unctuously smarmy tone of ‘we,’ which assumes that everyone shares the same consumerist-boutique sensibility….

That’s Philip Lopate, writing not about the depthless and ephemeral snark of so much of the writing on the web, but instead about “life-style” pieces in the pages of the periodicals of the 1980s. But I think it applies just as well to the blogosphere and the net in general, and it’s as good of a statement as any of the kind of writing that I try to avoid indulging in here. Here’s what Lopate (in “What Happened to the Personal Essay?”, from his 1989 collection Against Joie de Vivre) calls for instead:

One longs for any evidence of a distinct human voice—anything but this ubiquitous Everyman/woman pizzazzy drone.

Lopate (who has a new book on Susan Sontag, about which he was recently interviewed over at the Millions) does, indeed, write with “a distinct human voice” in his essays—he’s smart and funny without going for cheap shots or condescending, and has a real knack for spinning fairly inane subjects (such as shaving a beard or arguing with his landlord) into thoughtful and lively explorations of human behavior. He has a distinctly confessional impulse—the kind of thing that ordinarily bugs me in essays, and which has led me to keep a safe distance from the personal essay (and an even greater one from the memoir) in the past. But Lopate’s winning sense of humor makes the fact that he writes endlessly about himself more tolerable—as does his remarkable honesty, and his capacity for gentle self-mockery. And though he has a penchant for being cranky and contrary, there’s also always a very human warmth bubbling up from underneath—or, in some cases, right up at the surface, as in his wonderful essay “Chekhov for Children” (in the same collection), which made me want to stand up and cheer.

Recently I’ve been giving the personal essay a second chance, and (much to my surprise) I’ve been falling for the form headlong. As the whole genre is in some respects new to me (or at least seems like new to me again right now), I’ll probably be posting on essayists here a great deal in the relatively near future. If you have any recommendations or favorites, I’d be glad to hear about them.

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Recent Publications

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