Saturday, September 19, 2009

An Old Saw That Doesn't Cut It Anymore

"Nobody reads essays."

This comment, made in my recent committee meeting, and by a perfectly respectable bookseller, made in fact by a most eminently estimable representative of the trade, shocked me down to my shoes. It ought not to have, actually. This was not something I had not heard before. When it was said, there was much nodding 'round the table. This statement has been accepted as a truism of the trade for as long as I've been in it.

I refute the assertion absolutely!

I will concede, the essays I love best, the greatest essays of the greatest English and American essayists, have not the audience they had when Addison & Steele came to renown, or Lamb was still the darling of the drawing room. The kind of magazine that once existed to publish just such personal, literary and usually humorous stuff has, with its popular audience, faded almost to a nullity. The Men of Letters who once populated the pages of literary reviews and newspapers have gone largely the way of the institutions and periodicals that supported them; to be replaced by whom and what? Just the specialized journals that natter amongst their specialties, newspapers that can afford little more space for books than "reviews in brief," publishing-industry blogs, and book club lists? No.

The personal and literary essay, I would argue, has not been in so fine a state as it is now for more than a generation. In no small part this has everything to do with the shift away from traditional publication in subscription based magazines and books from major, corporate publishing, to newer, less narrowly defined venues like broadcast media, and the Internet, and the resurgent underground of little magazines, small presses and local distribution. Finding little or nothing much worth reading among the dead letters that now pass for literary criticism in the overspecialized and self-referential little circles of academia, where the dated and dusty theories of this or that dead French bore still spin in ever tighter coils of unintelligible polyglotal theorizing, the common reader has rightly come to distrust the motives the doctorates, and has no more use for them than they have any interest in educating us. Literary authority, once vested not only in the dons and drabs of campus teas and towers, but in the established writers of literary fiction and journalism, has passed out of existence all but entirely. For both good and ill, we have been left largely to our own devices.

And into the void, a new generation of less genteel humorists, of less papered and pedigreed critics, of more personal essayists have stumbled and wandered onto the scene; utilizing such opportunities as may be had in the free papers, in broadsides and self-published chapbooks, on radio and television and, yes, in the much celebrated and much rightly maligned Internet, to reach audiences large and small, still eager for individual voices, humane advice and enthusiasm, and accessible culture. Think just of the bestselling essayists that started as contributors to the free weeklies, like Dan Savage, or Bernard Cooper, or the reputations born of NPR radio, like David Sedaris and Sarah Vowell and Sandra Tsing Loh. Think of all the discoveries of McSweeney's and The Best Nonrequired Reading collections from Dave Eggers & Co. Think of "The Believer," and of Matthew Stadler's Clear Cut Press, by means of which I came for the first time to Charles D'Ambrosio, among others. How many essayists now see themselves "in print" for the first time on

It is not true then, the old cliche that essays do not sell. It may be true that much that gets published first in a chapbook or on a blog deserves no better than the oblivion to which it is destined, but so it has always been and will always be, for the essay as for any other kind of literature. (When I think of the tepid, sad poetry I've had to read recently, all by instructors in "writing," I can only marvel that anyone still reads poetry at all! But then, one ought not to judge by just such a slim sample, when I've also read good and powerful stuff in any number of less likely places than what gets cranked out from colleges lately.) I would argue then that the readers of essays, albeit perhaps unknowingly so, might never have been so many. If book publishing, always a laggard and wasteful business, and bookselling no better, has not yet served this new audience quite as it might or should, it is wrong to suggest that they might not yet. It's past time that booksellers at least loose themselves from such dated notions of what does or does not sell. We obviously are in no position anymore to rely on past precedent -- see where our reliance on trust in bestseller lists, publishers' publicity campaigns, and what passes for a "review" in the New York Times Book Review has landed us!

If "nobody reads essays" is still something we booksellers nod at, we just aren't paying attention.


  1. Excellent point made here. I can't help but wish you'd have made it at your committee meeting!

  2. But I am such a shy and retiring participant in such meetings! I wouldn't dare. Being honest, I think more clearly at the keypad, well after the fact.

  3. Thanks for posting this. I agree. I think there is an audience for essays (just look at the popularity of topical political books, books about globalism, and so forth). If poetry can do okay, so can the lit essay. They are being written and read, but bookstores seems confused by them, just as they are confused by short stories, and fiction for the most part. (The fiction sections seems like a vast Misc. section to me.)

  4. Short story -- or fiction at any length other than standard paperback size -- is a particularly difficult issue, as booksellers have been trained to think, like essays, this doesn't sell. With reproduced reviews and or staff recommendations though, this simply isn't true. Customers simply need better clues. And small presses, and authors of unusual forms, need better publicity for their work. Perhaps the Internet can help change this. Thanks, mattbriggs, for your comment.