The Half-Life Of An American Essayist

The Half-Life Of An American Essayist-42
Formally, one might describe the work of Sedaris, Crosley, Rothbart, and company as autobiographical comic narrative: short, chatty, funny stories about things that happened to me—weird things, or ordinary things that are made weird in the telling.What we now call an essayist used to be called a humorist.

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.

“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.

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.The new essay, like the old essay, is a prose composition of medium length; but beyond that the differences are more salient than the resemblances. The essay, traditionally, was defined by its freedom and its empiricism—qualities that it inherited from its modern inventor, Montaigne. ” Montaigne asked, and the essay is the form that allows both the “I” and the thing it knows equal prominence.For this reason, the essay could address any subject, exalted or trivial, as long as it displayed the mind of the writer engaged with the world.Did Sedaris actually take an IQ test at all, and if so did he really score lower than expected? The important thing is that the idea of Sedaris failing an IQ test fits in perfectly with the fictional character that he creates over the course of the book, a “David Sedaris” who is perpetually, amusingly incompetent at school, art, and learning French.But it is not just Sedaris’s haplessness that wins his essays their popularity.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 crowd moved closer,” he writes,” and if the other three to four hundred people were anything like me, they watched the young woman and thought of the gruesome story they’d eventually relate to friends over drinks and dinner.” If someone told you this in real life, you would recoil; but coming from “David Sedaris” it is amusing, because it is so delightfully consistent with the egotism that we always see him display.(By contrast, when a traditional essayist such as Hazlitt confesses to hating promiscuously, in “On the Pleasure of Hating,” the result is not amusing but harrowingly self-revealing.) Sedaris’s selfishness is much like Jack Benny’s cheapness: a comic vice that we forgive because we know the difference between the performer and the performance.If Sedaris said he had an impatient French teacher, we would believe him, but not be very interested.When he says that his teacher “singled me out, saying, ‘Every day spent with you is like having a Caesarean section,’ ” we recognize not so much an experience as a one-liner, and relax into the knowledge that we are watching not a reflection but a performance.


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