|An Essay Is An Act Of Imagination|
by possibly noteworthy at 7:05 pm EST, Nov 29, 2009
For David Shields it is exactly what is tentative, unmade and unpolished in the essay form that is important. He finds the crafted novel, with its neat design and completist attitude, to be a dull and generic thing, too artificial to deal effectively with what is already an "unbearably artificial world". He recommends instead that artists break "ever larger chunks of 'reality' into their work", via quotation, appropriation, prose poems, the collage novel ... in short, the revenge of the real, by any means necessary. And conventional structure be damned.
The world exists. Why recreate it?
So many things these days are made to look at later. Why not just have the experience and remember it?
We have a population explosion of ideas, but not enough brains to cover them.
In the first place, "well-made novel" seems to me to be a kind of Platonic bogeyman, existing everywhere in an ideal realm but in few spots on this earth. I think it's the limits of the essay, and of the real, that truly attract fiction writers. In the confined space of an essay you have the possibility of being wise, of making your case, of appearing to see deeply into things - although the thing you're generally looking into is the self. For a writer, composing an essay instead of a novel is like turning from staring into a filthy, unfathomable puddle to looking through a clear glass windowpane. That's fiction for you: it taunts you with the spectre of what you cannot do yourself. Meanwhile, the essay teases you with the possibility of perfection, of a known and comprehensible task that can be contained and polished till it shines.
An eclectic essayist is necessarily a dilettante, which is not in itself a bad thing. But Malcolm Gladwell frequently holds forth about statistics and psychology, and his lack of technical grounding in these subjects can be jarring. When a writer's education on a topic consists in interviewing an expert, he is apt to offer generalizations that are banal, obtuse or flat wrong. The banalities come from a gimmick that can be called the Straw We. First Gladwell disarmingly includes himself and the reader in a dubious consensus. He then knocks it down with an ambiguous observation, such as that "risks are not easily manageable, accidents are not easily preventable." As a generic statement, this is true but trite. But as a more substantive claim ... it is demonstrably false.