This device allows the essayist to claim the authenticity of non-fiction while indulging, with the reader’s tacit permission, in the invention and shaping of fiction.
Consider David Sedaris, the master of the new essay and its most popular practitioner.
Books of essays regularly turn up on the best-seller lists; many of their authors are stars on the radio, especially on the cult program “This American Life.” In the HBO show “Girls,” the character portrayed by Lena Dunham declared her ambition to become a writer and “the voice of my generation,” but she did not hope to write the Great American Novel: she wanted to produce a book of essays.
Here as in so many of its details, “Girls” proves to be a faithful stenographer of its moment.
It was Wednesday morning, not ‘the day after 9/11.’ ” That is exactly wrong.
The day after 9/11 was just that, and nothing else; and while doing business on such a day does not make one a monster, Crosley’s way of writing about it feels disingenuous and self-exculpatory.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.“It belonged to an age when reading—reading almost anything—was the principal entertainment of the educated class,” Larkin argued, an appetite that “called for a plethora of dailies, weeklies, monthlies and quarterlies, all having to be filled.” Now it is television and the movies that cry out for ever more “content,” while the lush Victorian ecosystem has thinned out to half-a-dozen serious magazines, most of which have only slightly more appetite for essays than for that other obsolete form, the short story.It is strange, then, to look around a quarter-century after Larkin and discover that we are living in a golden age of essays, or of ruminative writings that call themselves essays.In Me Talk Pretty One Day", which appeared in 2000, Sedaris writes about taking an IQ test and finding that he is “really stupid, practically an idiot. Were my number translated into dollars, it would buy you about three buckets of fried chicken.” Of course, the reader does not believe this for a minute: the cleverness of the prose refutes its own premise.The effect is to call the whole story into question.Sedaris’s books are sold as essays, but he is plainly trying to be Thurber, not Addison.This is a particular kind of humor, rooted in the creation of a fictional alter ego who shares the author’s name.