Books

“To throw in our lot with the essay . . . is to accept the idea of a more or less continuous self that can make its observations, emotions, interpretations, and opinions intelligible to others.”

Taken together, D’Agata’s headnotes constitute a meditation on the nature of the essay. For him, the essay is “less a genre in its own right than an attitude that’s assumed amid another genre.” If you had to describe that attitude based on D’Agata’s anthologies, you might say that it’s one of deep preoccupation. The narrator has puzzled over a problem or an incident or a feeling for a long time. She may not have answers, but she has certainly come up with every relevant question. And she has emerged from her preoccupation essentially sane; the form of the essay suggests that obsession leads not to madness but to productive thought. Where D’Agata sees an essayistic mode of address being used in a poem or novel — T. S. Eliot’s “The Dry Salvages,” say, or Chapter 42 of Moby Dick, “The Whiteness of the Whale” — he calls it an essay, a term that for him designates some of the best literature from both sides of the fiction/non-fiction divide. One gets the sense that if D’Agata were able to mold the reading public according to his own sensibility, “essayistic” would be not merely a term of neutral description but high praise, an epithet sprinkled liberally on book jackets the way that “lyrical” is today.

Taken from Elaine Blair’s “Note to Self,” published in Harper’s.

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