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Where Have all the Essays Gone?
Welcome to our weekly column offering perspectives on lit mag publishing, with contributions from readers, writers and editors around the world.
On May 17th Becky Tuch of Lit Mag News conducted one of her best interviews ever. Her guest was Paula Deitz, Editor of the prestigious quarterly journal The Hudson Review. What a memorable interview. Chocked full of sweetmeats for writers, served up by an esteemed journal editor with real chops.
The Hudson Review receives about 1,500 fiction submissions per year, publishing only eight. For those eight writers landing a piece in The Hudson Review can change everything. “There’s one thing I might say…I think agents and publishers watch us,” Paula says at a point. “So, I think our authors, once they’re in The Hudson Review…they get books. And I think that’s very exciting.”
In spite of this magazine’s prestige, Paula reported that only about 100 essays come to The Hudson Review. Why the wide gulf between fiction and non-fiction?
The Hudson Review just celebrated its 75th anniversary. Serving as Editor-in-Chief since 1998, Paula Deitz in her editorial longevity is a rarity in the world of literary reviews. In addition to her role as chief editor, Paula forms a committee of one on the front lines of non-fiction at the New York based, gilt-edged literary journal.
Why gilt-edged? Consider the names Paula dropped while recounting the journal’s storied early days. Alan Tate, the Southern man of letters hired by Princeton in 1939 to teach a hand-picked bunch of “boys” who showed early literary promise. Among them, Joe Bennett, and Frederick Morgan who went on to become The Hudson Review’s first editor.
Alan Tate, one of the twelve Agrarians of Vanderbilt University. Along with John Crowe Ransom, Andrew Lytle, and Robert Penn Warren, author of All the King’s Men. Then, Paula mentioned the translator, William Arrowsmith.
“And Thomas Mann was living in Princeton then…that you know…had left Germany….
“Of course, Merwin, W.S. Merwin was still a student at Princeton, but he was already in the magazine in those earlier years.”
Quite a who’s who, no matter your literary taste.
And yet today, The Hudson Review remains hungry for essay submissions.
At a point in the interview, Paula offered a thought in an offhand way. But on close examination it wasn’t an offhand thought at all. It was a thought that lies at the heart of writing and evaluating writing, particularly in the matter of essays, Paula’s stock in trade.
“You know it’s like everything else, you have to read a lot to write,” she said.
As an over sixty-year-old student at the College of Charleston, I’ve been taking a couple of courses every semester for going-on three years. And yes, I take them for a grade. People often ask me why I’ve gone back to school. First, I’ll say, “For fifty dollars a semester, it’s the best deal going here in South Carolina.” Then I tell them the real reason, “I’m shoveling like hell to fill the humanities-sized hole in my techno-business training that for years has passed for an education.”
That usually squelches my interlocutor’s impulse to carry on with something like, “Oh that sounds fun going back to college…I’d love to try it!”
For the Fall 2023 semester I’ve scored a seat in ENGL 367, Brett Lott’s course in non-fiction writing. But I had to grovel and scrape to get the English Department to let me register for one of the 22 precious seats.
“That course is required for our majors to graduate,” they first told me. “It fills up, with no space for over-sixty students.”
By comparison, I would have had an easy time registering for ENGL 223, Fiction Writing-I, where three sections were available, with a total of 66 seats. Do English departments think the world needs more fiction writers than essay writers? Are students gravitating more naturally to fiction writing than essay writing? You have to wonder.
Paula Deitz is not the only one feeling anguish over the state of essay writing. My favorite podcast, Entitled Opinions, operates under the aegis of Stanford University. On April 12th the show’s host Dr. Robert Harrison interviewed a fellow colleague, Dr. Ana Ilievska, in an episode titled “Humanities in the Age of Artificial Intelligence.” About halfway through the hour-long segment Harrison said, “I hate to say this on KZSU Stanford University, but the Stanford students…the undergraduates…often times the graduates…the writing is appalling! And it’s gotten worse!”
Remarkably, Professor Harrison goes on to say that reading an essay written by the suddenly available Chat GPT artificial intelligence technology actually comes to him now as a relief.
“Sloppy writing which is the norm in institutions of higher education is a manifestation of an inability to think.” And “You’re not going to get better writing until you get better thinking,” he says.
Harrison and Ilievska are deeply intellectual polyglots. They make many points in their fascinating discussion. But one theme resonates throughout their human-to-human chat—a consensus that there has long been too much emphasis placed on writing in the pedagogical world—and not enough emphasis on thinking and thoughtful reading.
According to Ana Ilievska, “All the logistics of dealing with new technologies creates even less space for thinking.”
There has long been too much emphasis placed on writing in the pedagogical world—and not enough emphasis on thinking and thoughtful reading.
George Bernard Shaw maintained that "effectiveness of assertion is the Alpha and Omega of style." With that in mind, I sense the time has come for me to assert something. And my assertion needs to bear on the fact that so many more aspiring writers find it in themselves now to write and submit a short story than the number who find it in themselves to write and submit an essay to a prestigious literary journal such as The Hudson Review.
I spend a lot of time studying what other writers have to say about writing. And I’m careful about which writers I model. Along these lines I encountered something memorable that Andre Dubus told the writer and critic Thomas E. Kennedy during an interview in the literary journal Delta in February 1987.
“What is the objective of fiction?” Kennedy asked Dubus. “What is fiction’s highest aim and greatest accomplishment?”
“I think the first objective of fiction is to give pleasure,” Dubus answered.
So, as a first point of assertion, let me assert that the objective of fiction differs mightily from the objective of the essay.
Bolstering this assertion, by Providence, I happened upon something relevant while reading James Agee’s non-fiction magnum opus, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a book the New York Herald Tribune called in 1960, “the most famous unknown book in contemporary letters.” He describes his approach to the task of non-fiction:
If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and of excrement. Booksellers would consider it quite a novelty; critics would murmur, yes, but is it art….”
Agee’s one sentence manifesto strikes me as a slap at his contemporary William Faulkner who proclaimed imagination as vital to the fiction writer.
And yet, Agee has more to say:
If I had explained myself clearly you would realize by now that through this non-“artistic” view, this effort to suspend or destroy imagination, there opens before consciousness, and within it, a universe luminous, spacious, incalculably rich and wonderful in each detail….
In the person of James Agee, I assert that we have found an opening into the heart, mind, and soul of the essayist—if only we will enter.
We have found an opening into the heart, mind, and soul of the essayist—if only we will enter.
In the final analysis, I’m left to think that until we aspiring writers start doing the hard work of reading and thinking first, the prerequisites Dr. Robert Harrison and Dr. Ana Ilievska insist are sorely missing in our present time (even in the rarified ranks of their Stanford students), then we will be limited by a process of ideation that calls upon “experience, observation, and imagination” (the three essentials of the fictionist as listed by William Faulkner himself in his famous 1956 Paris Review interview with Jean Stein).
Granted, with these three formidable building blocks, our writing might turn out to be entertaining, or pleasurable—thereby meeting the Andre Dubus test. We might craft a passable story. And our stories might compete somehow in the very real and present age of generative artificial intelligence. But will our writing bear evidence of the anger, the indignation, the smug disdain for art and injustice that James Agee unapologetically proclaimed as the foundation for his best documentary work among the poor in rural, Depression-era Alabama?
And perhaps most importantly, will our writing satisfy the requirements of the essay?
In Brett Lott’s words,
Creative nonfiction is, in one form and another, for better and worse, in triumph and failure, the attempt to keep from passing altogether away the lives we have lived. The French word essai, first used by Montaigne to describe his innovative writing form, means to test, to try, to attempt. It is through creative nonfiction that we attempt to understand, from what we have done, who we have known, what we have dreamt and how we have failed and succeeded, the universe that is ourselves.
Could these two writing worlds be any more different? The inward-focused non-fiction world of Brett Lott, versus the outward-focused world of observation, experience, and imagination, the province of William Faulkner.
According to her method, Becky Tuch always asks a catch-all question near the end of her interviews.
“What would you like to see more of in submissions?” Becky asked Paula.
“Better essays…better essays,” Paula answered. “I reject too many…I probably only accept…maybe two essays out of 100.”
“Is there something that takes a B+ work up to the A+ level?” Becky asked.
“It can’t be a personal essay…[one] that’s so personal it has nothing to do with the world…I think it’s much more. The theme. What’s the point?
“Yeah…what’s the point?”
Now, how will we as writers answer Paula Deitz’s non-rhetorical question? What is the point?
We must answer it through effectiveness of assertion, I assert. Because I am convinced that essay writing is different. And until we writers approach essay writing for what it is, the fruit of thinking, and deep, immersive reading (in addition to experience, observation, and imagination), Paula Deitz will keep receiving 100 essays a year. And most of them won’t have what she’s looking for—the originality, clarity, and elegance—which is style.
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