“The essay is alive; there is no reason to despair,” wrote Virginia Woolf. At the Deep Water Literary Fest in 2019, we gathered four essay writers to discuss how this statement still holds true. While the pandemic made it impossible to meet for a second iteration of the discussion this past year, we find solace by distilling the thoughts offered to us by Alexander Chee, Sloane Crosley, Laura Kipnis, and Luc Sante. This discussion was moderated by professor and poet Sandra Lim.
On What Sparks an Essay
Alexander Chee: The ideas come from me. You could say some of my ideas are just me looking at me, like, “So, what’s going on?” Some of my ideas are what I call the right things in the wrong places. Something sticks out to me in a landscape or in a cultural setting, or what have you, and I want to know how it came to be like that. I’m thinking of a hiking trip I took with my brother in Korea, where when we soldiered our way to the top of this mountain, sweating and struggling. At the top there’s this woman with a soda cart and a little umbrella, reading some Buddhist literature, not looking at us, and I’m, like, “Did she bring the soda cart up here? Who supplies the soda cart? What is her commute like?”
Sloane Crosley: I heard the writer Jim Crace speak once, and he said, “Never forget that as a writer you’re a volunteer.” It is a dark way to look at the arts in some ways: no one really needs you. But there is a hierarchy to the world and you’re a volunteer. You can’t spend 18 pages describing an oak tree just because you can. You have to entertain people. I write partially in order to find out what I think about things. It’s a thing I’m good at and I would do anything else if I was better at it. What I do for other people is to serve to remind you, especially in this age of Trump, that you can be annoyed by a lot of other things. It’s your God-given freedom to be annoyed by issues of interpersonal relationships and etiquette and all of these things that create humor in life. It’s a form of escapism that is less pronounced than Game of Thrones, but anything that fits into that sort of escapist realism is where I live, that humor of exasperation. When things come across my path that fit into that, and that hopefully have a larger structure, so that they’re not just me complaining about something, then they become an essay.
Luc Sante: For me it starts with curiosity. If it’s something that I want to find out about, I know when I see it. It’s such a difficult time that politically I feel that anything I might have to say has probably been said better by others. Especially at my advanced age, I don’t find it incumbent upon me to deliver an opinion on every single damn thing. It’s really less about what I have to say, or what I think or feel, than how well can this be translated into a piece of writing. I guess I am a formalist until the end.
Laura Kipnis: I wrote an essay in The Paris Review online called “Love in the Time of Trump.” The inception of that piece was that I couldn’t stop thinking about living in the time of Trump, and there’s a character in it who I refer to as my husband, who is a person who doesn’t exist, and he and I are negotiating the elements of their marital situation through the lens of this figure of Trump. I read a long time ago an interesting book about the way the body of the president becomes this symbol of the nation, particularly in the Clinton years, when Clinton’s body was very much in the public consciousness and I was interested in the ways that Trump’s body is so central. So that was the inception: partly the disgust of living in this moment, and partly thinking about, post-Me Too, how does that play itself out in private life? It was about trying to write an essay using fictional characters that was about living in this moment.
On beginning to write essays
Kipnis: I’m naturally a polemicist. I just want to argue with people. My early essays in particular were often book-length arguments. In Against Love: A Polemic I argued with everyone about love and compulsory monogamy and that sort of thing. The essay, at least as I’ve deployed it, really allows for this sort of mobility between things that are highly personally irritating, while also bringing in other voices. That’s what attracted me: the range of things you can do within an essay.
Chee: I took a class at Wesleyan with Annie Dillard in 1989 and she had just edited Best American Essays 1988. She basically taught the essay as an approach to figuring out the world yourself, as well as other things. But she was also very clear about the use of the essay professionally as a way to introduce yourself to readers, and to make some money, as she put it. My first essay was not something I did for money, but I was an intern at a magazine called Outlook, which was the gay and lesbian studies journal. Their writer for a cover story about Queer Nation had just disappeared, so the editor turned to me and said, “I know that you go to those demonstrations. Can you write something?” So that’s what I did, and it started my freelance writing career.
Sante: I started as a poet and, to the extent that I had a writing education, it was all about poetry. Then I realized that I prefer to write prose, but I still had the poetic impulse. So it was a kind of a default situation. It’s really hard to say where the essay starts and stops. For years at Bard, I taught a class called “The Essay,” and I used to tell my students that the essay is the Wild West of literature. It can be anything. If it doesn’t have dialogue and it’s not written in verse, it’s an essay.
Crosley: I stumbled a little bit backwards into it. One day when I was 24, I locked myself out of two different apartments on the same day when moving, and it was the same New York neighborhood. So the same locksmith came to bail me out; first at eight in the morning, and then again at eight at night. I had this doormat that read “déjà vu,” forwards and backwards, and he pointed at it with his pen while writing me this exorbitant bill, and said, “That’s a funny doormat.” I wrote it up and I wasn’t quite sure what the piece was. It didn’t occur to me it was an essay so much as a humor piece. It got published in the Village Voice and that’s how I started writing essays. Really I see the essay as a way to write humor without having to be a standup comedian.
On constructing a persona or voice
Sante: It’s all me and I’m never conscious of assuming a persona, although something happens to me when I write. Not to sound all woo woo about it, but the sentences tell me where to go. I always think of the famous Romanian Dadaist, Tristan Tzara, who said that thought begins in the mouth. Until I’ve written the sentence, I don’t know what the next sentence will be. I really don’t know where my thinking is going to go until my writing tells me. I’m also always conscious of the Anglo Saxon-Latin balance. English is my second language and, to a certain degree, it’s a priori artificial for me. I’m always conscious of what it sounds like, even when I’m speaking in a way. I’m uncomfortable if what I’m writing is too Latinate. I have to be able to throw in some slang. Then I can relax.
Chee: The answer depends on what kind of essay am I writing. Is the essay about me or something that I experienced? Or is it something that I’m thinking about as a piece of criticism? There are essays that are more of a lyric essay where it feels like me, but a very distilled version of me. My approach is probably more intuitive in those moments. And then if it’s something that has more structure, if I’m aware that I need to be visible on the page in some way for the reader to understand what’s being described, then yes, I’m very aware of all that stuff.
Kipnis: The voice for me changes from piece to piece. There is a very constructive persona that I like a lot. It’s a sort of ego-ideal that’s far more insouciant and impish and fun and convivial than I am. With the pieces that get closer to the personal, or to the first-person, it’s harder to maintain that conviviality or insouciance. But what’s funny is when you go out in public and people have read things that I’ve written in that persona and mistake that persona for me. Particularly for Against Love, which was written in a voice that I thought of as id-like, fun, and very irresponsible. It was a book about love that was very much not in the mode of an advice book, yet people kept writing me to ask for advice about their love lives. Or telling me that they’d read this book and then signed the divorce papers immediately, as though I had written this book from full sincerity, when it was a kind of mixture of playfulness and sincerity and taboo breaking.
On the expectations of a readership
Chee: One of the risks that you can run into when you are writing a lot of essays is to forget to introduce yourself to the reader, especially for the reader who doesn’t know you at all. Being aware of the context of your relationship to whatever you’re writing is something that I try to remind myself to do. As for what people expect me to write about, I did start turning down those kinds of pieces that you always get asked to do when you’re a writer of color. “Please respond to this aspect of your identity on this hot topic within 24 hours. I’m going to pay you $400.” Stepping off of that train was delightful. I just realized that I like to think about everything for longer than 24 hours. I’m not that guy. Some people are definitely that person. They know what they’re thinking, they line their facts up, the whole thing goes out. Not me.
Kipnis: As we know, we’re living in very politically bifurcated times. I’m somebody who thinks of myself as a person on the left who got drawn into the free speech debate. I’m also a professor at Northwestern. Things I wrote got protested, and I got drawn into hearings on campus about what you can and can’t say about campus sexual politics, and I ended up writing a book about it. So things people tend to associate with me are more to the center or a libertarian-center than I am. People are very surprised about where I’ve ended up politically. I’m very surprised about where I’ve ended up politically, because the times are so strange. It’s hard to be on the left but also take liberal positions on free speech because those are issues that seem to be owned by the right these days. So to try to wend one’s way through those thickets is something I spend a lot of time thinking about. It’s a difficult moment to take complicated positions that don’t follow a predefined path that everybody has already agreed are set positions that fall under the heading of ‘On The Left.’ It’s been interesting but also confusing and daunting and depressing.
On how publishing essays has changed
Kipnis: There are more places to publish now, but the experience is different because the editing experience is different. There’s this huge market for opinion at this moment, and everyone has an opinion, and partly it has to do with social media and everybody expressing their opinions on social media. There are just endless pieces, just think pieces and opinion pieces and first-person pieces, and I don’t find them particularly well crafted. You have a lot of very young people running these online sites so the editing can be more slipshod. Things are just sort of slammed up, and they’re not proofread. It’s just the nature of the editing process but also the cycle of them. They seem very disposable to me.
Sante: The key word here is money. There are more places to publish but they don’t pay for shit. I make a living as a writer. I do teach, but I’ve been making my living primarily as a writer for 35 years. A lot of these places will pay exactly what they were paying in 1984, which is distressing. At the same time, it’s kind of better for the essay because magazine work has its limitations. I kind of hated writing for magazines in the ’80s because what everybody wanted was personality profiles, which is my least favorite form of writing. Some people do it well. Whereas now, for example, I’ve got a little series going on at the Paris Review Daily that probably would not have existed in quite that way, and may not have existed at all, without the format of the online literary journal. As often happens, I didn’t really get paid much, but it probably commanded more passion from me than many things that paid a lot more.
Crosley: It’s like the Dorothy Parker exchange in The Paris Review: “Why write?” “Need of money, dear.” I was writing for the Village Voice almost bi-weekly, and then in 2012 it was bought by this conglomerate from Arizona, and they decided that nobody in New York read essays or listened to music or went to museums. I was sort of rendered homeless, so I went to The Observer and worked in the New York Diary section. Then they changed format just before or just after Jared Kushner took over. I was rendered homeless again, and then I went to the city section of The New York Times, and they shut that. My first essay collection, I Was Told There Would be Cake, was a paperback original because there wasn’t a huge market for hardcover essay collections specifically for women. So for women, there’s been an amazing boom for that kind of essay.
Chee: In 2007 when I first talked to my agent about doing an essay collection, she said, “Well…” At the time I had been struggling with my novel The Queen of the Night. She said, “You know, when you finish the novel, we’ll talk about the essay collection.” Eight years later, we had the conversation again, initiated by me, and her whole approach had completely changed. I don’t know why people like them so much right now, but they really do. Publishers are paying more attention. These publishers, should they invest in you, are not just paying you money. There’s a whole publishing process you get that includes copy editing and fact checking as well as the editing itself.
On stretching the boundaries of the form
Sante: I find myself referring to other arts besides writing. In other words, music is often what I’m thinking of when I’m writing: the flow, but also the abrupt break. Here you want the wall of trumpets, the drum solo, or visual art. One thing that’s happened to me recently is that I’ve gotten into making collages, which I did in my teens and 20s and I stopped for a long time. I’m always finding formal analogues and trying to apply them when I can. I try to do things without calling attention to them, and sometimes I try formal experiments in the middle of pieces where they’re not really called for, but I’m trying to simulate them.
Kipnis: I think of myself being all about ambivalence, and I rely on irony quite a lot. The value of it is that it sort of allows you to be in two places at once, and say contradictory things. I said I’m a polemicist but I think I also really loathe over-certainty, so I’m kind of trying to move between contradictory positions and oftentimes at the level of style. Irony is the way you can do that, because you can say something while also undercutting it so you get access to both positions at once.
Crosley: Every time you sit down to write it’s that balance between trying to bring what you know how to do, and to reinvent the wheel, although you can’t become obsessive about that. There’s only one wheel, so it’s really hard to reinvent. What I’ve tried to do as I’ve gotten older is take objectively unfunny things and make them funny. I saw a baby bear get killed in Alaska—not funny. But everyone’s reaction to it was pretty funny. Or to take something like the pressure to have kids, or slightly meatier subjects—disease—and find the humor in that. Structurally, I’m always looking for a different way into an experience or into a story and trying to avoid doing that thing which is sometimes, in magazine writing, especially if you have a deadline, kind of inevitable. You start out with an image, you go on this lovely journey, you end with the image, you hand it in, someone gives you a check. Just trying to avoid doing that because it’s the easiest thing to do.
Chee: The way I end up improvising formally comes out of what I sense to be the difficulty or even the impossibility located in each essay. I like to make a problem, in a sense, out of the subject, or even the structure of the essay. That’s partly what’s so great about the form: You can do anything you want with it. It’s so plastic that I don’t know that you could break it, but I think there are certain cliches that have emerged over time, like the essay where the writer has a problem, and they overcome it, and it’s the story of a victory, and an education. But those stories about failures are always more interesting, and maybe less marketable. So I think about that a lot when I think about assignments that I take and the things that will never have a news peg, that doesn’t have a reason to be in a magazine except for the fact that you wrote it. Those kinds of essays are the ones that I try to look out for in myself.
On their influences
Chee: Anne Carson’s “Kinds of Water,” from her book Plainwater, about being on the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage. I think I have read that essay more than just about any other text. It’s easily the most influential piece of writing I can think of. Then Annie Dillard, obviously. And actually Lorrie Moore is a fantastic essayist, in addition to her other qualities. Also James Baldwin is a huge essay influence.
Crosley: It’s cheating to say Joan Didion, but Joan Didion. It’s like saying air. Really Annie Dillard. I keep thinking about a line she has in The Writing Life, and I’m going to butcher this, but she describes writing well as chopping wood. If you aim for the wood, you’ll miss. If you aim for the chopping block, you’ll split it in half. That idea of holding an idea a little bit lightly, and not to bludgeon it. I remember being influenced by that specific piece of advice. But also Marilynne Robinson, Geoff Dyer, and then when it comes to writing about New York specifically, Colson Whitehead’s The Colossus of New York. He weaves in fictional elements, and he can’t help but write beautifully.
Sante: Joan Didion, Elizabeth Hardwick, Walter Benjamin. Then it gets funny because I start thinking of journalists: A.J. Liebling, Joseph Mitchell, great New York writers of the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s. I’m not a reporter, but they very much influenced my style, and the way they used language. They’re reporters but they’re not limited to this colorless language. Liebling just throws his elbows in every direction. Mitchell is more reserved and discrete, but it flows. I think reading that stuff, which I came upon completely by accident some time in the late ’80s, really helped make me.
Kipnis: The person who influenced me early on was Sontag, particularly “Fascinating Fascism,” which had really influenced me when I was in college. I was struck by the amount and the vigor of the thinking in it. Then when I reread it five, seven years ago for a conference, I thought, What a load of lies. She actually plagiarized pieces of it and there are other pieces of it that aren’t substantiated. So she was a big influence, if now a renounced one. Others include Geoff Dyer who is incredibly pleasurable, and here’s the offbeat answer: Saul Bellow, but not for his essays, which are terrible. But in his fiction he is always essaying. I don’t know how to conjugate it, but he’s very much an essayist in his fiction. But the thing that strikes me about him and that invigorates me is this amount of freedom on the page. There’s this freedom to go between fictional worlds and the world of ideas, and figuring out ways to incorporate those into narrative. There’s this crossing of genres. He seizes this freedom at the level of the language.
Alexander Chee is the author of the essay collection How to Write an Autobiographical Novel and two novels, Edinburgh and The Queen of the Night. He is a contributing editor at The New Republic magazine.
Sloane Crosley is the author of three essay collections I Was Told There’d Be Cake, How Did You Get This Number?, and Look Alive Out There. She also is the author of a novel, The Clasp.
Laura Kipnis is the author of How to Become a Scandal: Adventures in Bad Behavior, Against Love: A Polemic, and Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus. She is a cultural critic and a former video artist.
Luc Sante is the author of Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York, Kill All Your Darlings, The Other Paris, and The Factory of Facts. He is a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books.