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The Essayist’s Dilemma (Occasional Papers on the Essay: Practice and Form, from Welcome Table Press) by Marcia Aldrich, Lucy Ferriss, Kim Dana Kupperman, and E.J. Levy

This paper is available for free download here. (Full disclosure, again: Kim Dana Kupperman, one of four contributors to this pamphlet and founder of the press, is currently my semester advisor.)

I expected a rather dry read, a how-to, a craft book(let), in short. Instead I found a brief, punchy discussion, in four voices, of something that matters to me. It was quick and fun to read. I’m so sorry I doubted.

This is such a brief piece of work that I’m in danger of writing more in review than there is to review, but here goes. Marcia Aldrich’s introduction sets up the dilemma: publishers don’t like essay collections; essay is a dirty word; essayists have trouble getting published as such. (Examples given.) Lucy Ferriss responds with “The Parts and Whole”: the idea of needing to group a collection around an idea, to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts, is not such a bad challenge, and one that can yield good results. We should not resist this push. Kim Kupperman, in “An Essayist’s Dilemma,” shares the journey (I just used that word because Kim hates it. Sorry, Kim)… the evolution her book I Just Lately Started Buying Wings experienced on its way to the form in which I read it. As she sums up: “a question, a taking apart and reassembling, a husband’s instinct, a poem’s fever, an editorial directive, and, finally, a return to an original idea.” Finally, E.J. Levy writes “In Defense of Incoherence”: she quite likes a thoroughly disconnected essay collection, thank you, and screw commercial concerns.

It’s all good, useful stuff. I think it’s true, that essay collections are unpopular with publishers, because they are unpopular with the (profitable) general readership. Ferriss’s argument makes perfect sense to me, perhaps because my mind works the same way, or I believe the same thing she seems to: that an overarching and unifying idea (or the dreaded theme) is a good thing. This is very much the concept that Levy argues directly against in her piece. As a reader, I am much more like the profitable general reader than I am like Levy. I prefer unity. In fact, I have long resisted reading essay collections, especially when they are presented as miscellany. I realize how damning an admission this is: I hope to write and even publish essays; but I don’t want to buy or read them. Well, it’s a little less damning than that, because I hope to write and publish a memoir-in-essays, or a decidedly connected collection.

Kim, as I read her, does not take a position on whether connectedness is desirable or no. I loved reading the story of Wings; it was the perfect example to learn from, since I studied this and her later memoir rather closely and have been getting to know the author herself some. (Also, its organization is a little unusual, or complicated, but clearly it has an organization.)

Although I don’t read and think the way Levy does, I enjoyed reading her opinion – especially as she called in Fisher’s Consider the Oyster:

I’m a fan of M.F.K. Fisher’s work, but by the time I’m on the fifth oyster in Consider the Oyster, I’m queasy. It’s nto that such a strategy can’t work, but that it makes me suspect that the essayist was considering something other than the oyster–a check from a publisher maybe, the adorableness of her own conceit.

My first thought was, Levy does not like oysters as much as I do. I’d love the opportunity to discover how many oysters it would take to make me queasy! I haven’t found it yet. Seriously, I see her point; but I guess I also found Fisher’s conceit adorable, enough to be unbothered by it. Maybe it’s just how much I like oysters.

Perhaps the greater point here is that we all, always, still, have different preferences. I agree with the thesis of this pamphlet (as I see it), that a preference for a disconnected miscellany of essays is less universal than an appreciation of connected collections (or books with narrative arcs, like memoirs). And I’m on the side of the majority here. That will make it harder to publish the unconnected. I hope it still happens, because I desire a multitude of options and value the tastes of the minority; but I agree with the majority, taste-wise, and with the problem presented here.

I guess the most optimistic thought I have to offer is: this is why we have Welcome Table Press, Kim Kupperman’s small press that publishes weird little essay things that perhaps no one else wants; and thank goodness for that, and for all the other small presses that publish the minority’s desires. It’s The Long Tail all over again, and I’m in favor of it.


Rating: 9 brief and well-stated arguments.

2 Responses

  1. I find it peculiar in this age of the Dwindling Attention Span that essay collections aren’t more popular, be they disconnected in theme or not. My preference is that they’re part of a larger theme (ala Ed Abbey’s nonfiction), even if it’s a loose one, but I’ll read any collection, so long as the works within are entertaining, inspiring or enlightening. The bonus is that even if they’re not, I don’t have to struggle too long to get through them!

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