The 20th century saw the novel displace poetry as the pre-eminent written art form, and these days non-fiction seems to be threatening to do the same to the novel; there’s just so much good stuff coming out. This past year in particular was remarkable for the number of quality book-length essay collections by women that got published, so perhaps we can take a minute to appreciate some highlights of the wave that just passed over us.
That women are writing great essays is of course neither sudden nor surprising. From Virginia Woolf to Susan Sontag, many of the giants of the form over the past century have been female, and several walk among us still, including Janet Malcolm, who kickstarted things last year with a predictably sublime collection, Nobody’s Looking at You. But it’s Joan Didion to whom the newest crop of writers clearly feel they owe the biggest debt, a debt they pay by citing her frequently (unlike poor old Montaigne, the essay’s charmingly weird progenitor).
Didion’s best work has often been about trauma. In the case of her seminal essay The White Album, that trauma was the violence of late sixties, including the Manson murders, which affected her directly. Although written with her trademark cool, The White Album includes a psychiatric report Didion received after she went to a neurologist complaining of nausea and the sense that she’d lost life’s script. Fast-forward half a century, and here’s Canadian-born Jia Tolentino, in her recent essay collection, Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, saying in reference to the American election and the #MeToo movement that followed, that “throughout this period, I found that I could hardly trust anything that I was thinking.”
She’s not alone. Trauma and anxiety over the events of 2016-17 were the spark for several of last year’s essay collections, including Terry Tempest Williams’ Erosion, Elizabeth Renzetti’s Shrewed, Rebecca Solnit’s Whose Story Is This? and Meghan Daum’s The Problem with Everything.
Daum, who refers to the fall of 2017 as “the fall of the Fall of Man,” began The Problem with Everything in 2016, intending it as a critique of the “excesses” of fourth-wave feminism. Then, Donald Trump won the presidency and the book morphed into “a personal story of feeling existentially unmoored against the backdrop of a country falling apart.” Although it’s still a pretty harsh critique of millennial feminism, one in which Daum uses Didion as a cudgel while pointing up the hypocrisy of Didion’s millennial fangirls who treat her like a goddess, but happily ignore her more conservative early career views – views they’d rake anyone else over the coals for online.
The essays in British-Canadian novelist Rachel Cusk’s Coventry are cool, too, but they’re crisper-drawer cool rather than hip-cool, Cusk having perfected what you might call the depersonalized personal essay. In the title piece, she explains how, growing up, she battled her manipulative mother with her only weapon, words. She claims she rarely won those battles, but she’s sure winning now: the almost imperiously analytical eye she brings to Coventry’s panoply of subjects makes its essays intellectually stimulating, and at times intimidating, in the best way possible.
Leslie Jamison’s splashy Let it Burn, Let it Scream, meanwhile, explicitly conjures Sontag in its focus on metaphor and photography, including James Agee and Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (which Sontag also critiqued). When Didion makes her inevitable appearance, however, Jamison admits to conflicted feelings. In the same paragraph, she tells us that she loved The White Album as a coming-of-age writer, but “hated its smugness – how [Didion] positions herself as a knowing skeptic in a world full of self-delusion.” Jamison’s skepticism of skepticism is the product of her time in a 12-step program, which necessitated banishing it altogether, she says, and has since fuelled much of her writing.
There were books that explored other kinds of trauma. Esmé Weijun Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias is lucidly written from within the grip of that disease. Alicia Elliott’s A Mind Spread out on the Ground touches on topics ranging from colonialism to mental illness, and the latter also comes up in It’s Not About the Burqa, a collection of crackerjack writing by British Muslim women on, among other things, that divisive piece of clothing. Maria Tumarkin’s Axiomatic takes a sui generis approach, looking at how we process traumas such as suicide through the axioms (“time heals all wounds” etc.) meant to assuage them.
Self-doubt, or at any rate admitting to it, has often been stereotyped as a female thing (although Montaigne himself readily 'fessed up: “I distrust my present thoughts hardly less than my past ones and my second or third thoughts hardly less than my first”), so it’s notable that virtually all these women manage to harness doubt as a strength in their essays. One of the many things to love about Pulitzer-Prize-winning TV critic Emily Nussbaum, for example, is her willingness to change her mind (something Sontag also did), and one of the standout pieces in her warmly chatty I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution reads like a live-streaming of her conflicted thought process about the #MeToo’d men whose work she admires.
And if it’s non-trauma-based essays you’re wanting, then fear not, there’s Elena Ferrante’s Incidental Inventions, the result of a year-long experiment of writing weekly essays for the Guardian; Lydia Davis’s Essays One, a stunningly long and deep collection of criticism and essays on the writing craft from a master of the extremely-short-story form; and Mary-Kay Wilmers’s Human Relations & Other Difficulties, which consists mainly of criticism, mainly about female writers, by the LRB co-founder.
The persistent view of writing as process and identity as performance in these books suggests most of their authors would agree with Didion’s statement that “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking.” Tolentino, again following suit, says she wrote Trick Mirror “because I am always confused, because I can never be sure of anything … [and] writing is either a way to shed my self-delusions or a way to develop them.”
We’ll have to take her word about that confusion, since the essays that follow sure hide their seams well. Part of what makes Tolentino the essay writer of the moment, and, one hopes, of the future, is her ability to probe millennial culture (she was on a reality show, and got her chops writing for online magazines) by cherry-picking from the best of her forebears’ narrative techniques: Malcolm’s slipperiness, Sontag’s rigour, Woolf’s dubiousness and Didion’s remove. Her views are clear, but rarely predictable, making each essay its own thrilling micro-journey. Tolentino enjoys gradually scraping away a subject’s romantic gloss, much like Didion did with the San Francisco hippies in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a difference being that Tolentino’s subject is often herself.
How aware Didion is of her impact on the new generation of female essayists is anyone’s guess. Maybe someone will ask her in February, which sees the publication of Slouching Towards Los Angeles: Living in Joan Didion’s Light, a collection of original essays that, according to the publisher, will revisit “the turf that made Didion a sensation” as a “love letter and thank you note.” Or another, at least, to add to the pile.
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