This piece on Graywolf Press is charming and sharp, but I leave it feeling even more sure that the “lyric essay” is not much of a definable thing. Any genre that could include Karl Ove Knausgaard and Joan Didion and John D’Agata and David Foster Wallace just can’t be much of a genre. It’s a genre the way “realism” is a genre.
But I suppose I appreciate the existence of a discussion of lyric essays, as I am increasingly desperate for nonfiction writing that treats the explanation of reality and the presentation of facts as a minor aspect of its purpose, a begrudging chore or a necessary evil that we have to get through together to get to the actual important work of nonfiction writing. Reality is a prosaic and pointless thing, and I have increasingly little patience with it as I get older. If “lyric essay” is a clumsy term, a panchreston, then it at least opens the door to the consideration of an alternative to the current vogue in nonfiction writing, which is as didactic and stepwise as a manual for a vacuum cleaner.
In a Longform.org podcast with the great Renata Adler, she says, “Unless you’re going to be fairly definite, what’s the point of writing? I mean I don’t think I write into situations in which I don’t feel some confidence that what I’m saying is likely to be true.” In similar terms, Dayna Tortorici of n+1 said on that same program that she wanted to make that journal simpler and easier to understand.
To each their own. But this impulse — to explain more, to handhold more, to make every essay into a matter of A+B=C — is precisely the opposite of what I want, as a reader of nonfiction. I don’t mind nonfiction writers who know things definitely, but I want them to leave their explanation of the definite indefinite. For n+1 to become more undergraduate in its approach would be the easiest way to lose my interest. We’re living in an era of explainers, slideshows, how tos, “you’re doing it wrongs,” and all sorts of summaries, condensations, simplifications, and lessons. That’s fine. I don’t mind that those exist. God made ants and elephants. But I have personally felt that there’s a creeping cartographic approach to nonfiction that hides all the things I like best in the form. To be clear: I’m not talking necessarily about fact-fudging in the habit of D’Agata; I neither prefer nor avoid that kind of work. I’m not necessarily talking about experimental nonfiction or creative nonfiction, whatever those are. I’m talking, instead, about nonfiction writers who, like burlesque dancers, know that the most powerful tool in their arsenal is the ability to conceal. And I’m talking about the kind of nonfiction writers who ask not “do you understand?” but rather “do you dig me?,” digging implying effort, a need to move an essay’s earth to reveal the precious metal underneath. The nonfiction writing that moves me the most is the kind that asks the most of me, that demands my effort, out of a conviction that I can be trusted to provide it. That’s what I’m talking about.
I like difficult people. I’m attracted to them. I like people with sharp elbows. I do not recognize “easygoing” or “laid back” as compliments. I like the kind of people who it costs something to know, who bring risk and angina into your life, and whom ultimately are worth it, the kind many people don’t have time for. I like essays to be that way too. I like nonfiction when it’s a fussy little thing, cranky, unwilling to part with its opinion unless you really ask the right way. It’s OK for writing to contain secrets, but I’d prefer for writers to part with them only begrudgingly. My favorite writers are all misers.
I would like a better term, so I that I can ask for more. I would like to be able to ask nonfiction writers, and editors, and publications to, as the man said, “make the visible a little hard/ To see….”