The Half-Life Of An American Essayist

The Half-Life Of An American Essayist-80
Did Sedaris actually take an IQ test at all, and if so did he really score lower than expected? The important thing is that the idea of Sedaris failing an IQ test fits in perfectly with the fictional character that he creates over the course of the book, a “David Sedaris” who is perpetually, amusingly incompetent at school, art, and learning French.But it is not just Sedaris’s haplessness that wins his essays their popularity.If Sedaris said he had an impatient French teacher, we would believe him, but not be very interested.

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Crosley, too, fills her stories with implausible comic details, like the friend who got married and changed her last name to “Universe.” When Crosley retails her experiences as a bad employee or a bad volunteer at a museum, however, the reader is tempted to respond with judgment rather than laughter. In her essay “The Ursula Cookie,” from her first book I Was Told There'd Be Cake: Essays"The bad impression is confirmed when Crosley chooses September 11, 2001, as the day to hand in her resignation, and goes to a job interview the very next day. “How could I have gone through with a job interview at such a time?

We didn’t know how dark things were or how much darker things were going to get.

“The essay, as a literary form, is pretty well extinct,” Philip Larkin wrote gloomily in 1984.

Extinct was the right word, capturing the sense of an organism that could no longer survive in a changed environment.

Formally, one might describe the work of Sedaris, Crosley, Rothbart, and company as autobiographical comic narrative: short, chatty, funny stories about things that happened to me—weird things, or ordinary things that are made weird in the telling.

What we now call an essayist used to be called a humorist.

The self, then, has always been at the heart of the literary essay.

But the new essay is exclusively about the self, with the world serving only as a foil and an accessory, as a mere staging ground for the projection of the self.

A talented writer such as John Jeremiah Sullivan might, fifty years ago, have tried to explore his complicated feelings about the South, and about race and class in America, by writing fiction, following in the footsteps of Walker Percy and Eudora Welty.

Instead he produced a book of essays, called Pulphead: Essays"But all is not as it seems.


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