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Assaying Essays

Osita Nwanevu
7 min read
Assaying Essays

Hey all. I've been juggling a few pieces and work on the book, so it's been a busy week and a half or so. Expect another letter this weekend. Next weekend will be Mail Time, so don't forget to send me questions if you have any! I've already gotten one on the Constitution that might take up most of the post, but I'll try to get to whatever else folks send in.

Also, you can catch my recent appearance on David Schleicher and Samuel Moyn's legal theory podcast Digging a Hole here if you're interested. That conversation is really an expanded version of this post. I suppose writing's on my mind because I happen to be doing a lot of it at the moment.

Anyway, let's hop to it.


One of the few things we have going for us culturally and politically right now is the writing scene. Off Twitter at least, the intellectual climate of the web seems to be improving substantially; every few weeks, I’ll stumble across a newsletter or small publication publishing things novel and sharply-argued enough to genuinely excite me, which is more than can be said even for a lot of the workaday writing at larger outlets that I substantively agree with. I don’t really miss the old Slate pitch like Yglesias does, but I think he’s fundamentally correct that a lot of the big publications have become remarkably similar in tone and substance. That’s not to say there aren’t writers doing phenomenal work at those places too ⁠— I’ve featured many in this letter, and I’ll continue doing so. But there’s a “vibe shift,” to borrow a terrible phrase, happening in opinion writing and criticism right now, and the major publications aren’t on top of it.

I mentioned the latest issue of The Drift in a recent letter ⁠— this is one of the publications I’m talking about. And one of the standout pieces in that issue is actually about the state of writing right now ⁠— more specifically, the state of the essay. I happen to think the essay’s in good shape, but, as Jackson Arn argues in a terrific review of Phillip Lopate’s new anthology of essays, The Contemporary American Essay, you wouldn’t really know it surveying the kinds of essays the form’s gatekeepers promote and put out. “[M]any of the essayists in TCAE,” he writes, “seem oddly determined not to think clearly.”

A significant chunk of the essays concern some kind of nightmarish personal tragedy, subjects for which the first person seems not just suitable but unavoidable: there are dead parents and dead children, hideous diseases, suicides. But other I’s seem harder to justify. Meghan O’Gieblyn writes brilliantly and surprisingly about the history of pedagogy but with mere textbook flawlessness about her childhood. (If writing well were the same thing as writing without conspicuous flaws, TCAE would be a near-masterpiece.) Sometimes you get the sense that she’s writing in the first person because everybody else is doing it these days. The idea that you could write an essay about detective fiction or brain damage simply because these are interesting topics comes to seem almost nonsensical. The idea that you could write about cancer without once mentioning that you have cancer, as Susan Sontag did in the New York Review of Books in 1978, comes to seem positively inhuman.
[...] If the essay really is the intellectual bellwether of an age, America seems to have spent the last twenty years missing the big picture again and again. Ideas — ambitious, original ones — are unicorn-rare in this book. It’s not even clear that Lopate would disagree: the personal essay boom seems to have left little room for the kinds of big-picture essays with which he stuffed the last two Anchor anthologies. But an introduction is no place for grumbling, and so he finds a silver lining: “There seems to be a trade-off: more heat, urgency, diaristic excitement, less perspective.” What contemporary American essayists lack in clear thinking, in other words, they make up for in passion. And the twenty-first century is a passionate era, apparently. “The first quarter of the twenty-first century has been an uneasy time of rupture and anxiety,” Lopate writes, and the result has been an “outpouring of new and older voices responding to this perplexing moment in a form uniquely amenable to the processing of uncertainty.” Hard to disagree. But by “processing,” he seems to mean something between accepting and celebrating. Well-argued, logical essays are still getting written, Lopate allows, but in uneasy times they may be a little out of step with the zeitgeist. Failure to find the truth is “its own valid truth, matching as it does the spirit of our deeply unsure and divided age.” Hence the glut of fragmented, fuzzy essays like “Failure: A Meditation,” with, as Lopate gently puts it, “pieces that connect intuitively or emotionally if not logically.”
This all sounds fine, until you try to name the last age that wasn’t hot, urgent, ruptured, anxious, deeply unsure, and divided. If Richard Hofstadter’s essays could revolutionize political science in the midst of McCarthyism, what’s stopping some Bush-era scribbler from careful cogitation in the midst of the Iraq War? (And there are American essayists who’ve written about Iraq with perspective and passion; Lopate just doesn’t see fit to include them.) Mightn’t well-argued, logical essays be more important than ever in chaotic times? And why can’t essays be both urgent and logical? Just because contemporary American life is confusing doesn’t mean contemporary American essayists have to be ceaselessly, affectedly confused.

As Arn observes, a central characteristic of the well-regarded literary essay these days is a commitment to subjectivity ⁠— the essays likeliest to earn plaudits are the ones that insist we can be sure of little beyond our own experiences. And even then, our feelings about our experiences are to be puzzled over endlessly ⁠— every last millimeter of the navel merits investigation. There are plenty of great introspective personal essays, of course, and good writers have to be able to wrestle with uncertainties. But there’s a difference between wrestling honestly with uncertainty and, perhaps cynically, approaching certain questions from the outset as though they’re fundamentally irresolvable or impossible to reason through. “Uncertainty is made of a thousand competing certainties: it needs the rival tugs of reason,” Arn writes. “When it doesn’t emerge from a good-faith struggle to find something out, it becomes slack, wishy-washy, complacent.” I’d add too that it can become reactionary ⁠— I wrote about critiques of progressive moral clarity in my 2020 piece on George Packer and Christopher Hitchens:

As Packer reminds us, Hitchens once said that “views do not really count.” “It matters not what you think,” he said, “but how you think.” The remark is important because it is wrong. The views counted a great deal to the Iraqis. By the time the bombs fell, it mattered little how many strokes of the chin sent them down. And that is why a writer’s ultimate obligation isn’t to any particular mode of discourse, but to the truth.
A sense of clarity carries risks. Purely Manichean views of the world have led many astray with terrible results. But the idea that has taken hold of too much of the writing class—that writers who see a question in black and white are inherently less serious and thoughtful than those who see shades of gray—has taken us radically in the opposite direction. Our challenge as writers is to see the world as it really is. Meeting that challenge requires an openness to the possibility that certain questions are more complex than they appear, as well as the possibility that certain things are, actually, as simple as some faction of angry people says they are. We can’t know for certain until we examine the matter at hand—until we evaluate the arguments in themselves.

One of the other charges people level at moralists, ideologues, and partisans is that firm commitments inhibit your intellectual curiosity ⁠— often to the point where you’re not willing to engage with or educate yourself about the ideas of your opponents. This might be true of many, but as far as left-wing writers are concerned, the idea’s been exaggerated to the point that Ross Douthat found himself musing aloud about a cancellation of Joan Didion that never actually happened. Over the past few days, the late P.J. O’Rourke, who I’ve never really read myself, has been given his own share of left-wing tributes.

You’ll find more evidence that ideological commitments, rigorous introspection, and engagement with opponents can all go hand in hand in Know Your Enemy ⁠— a podcast about the right by two great writers on the left, Matthew Sitman and Sam Adler-Bell. Politico profiled them earlier this month:

Since its launch in 2019, Know Your Enemy, which bills itself as “a leftist’s guide to the conservative movement,” has become the go-to resource for political junkies and history buffs trying to get a grasp on the protean history of the American right. Despite the openly socialistic sympathies of its hosts, the podcast has found an audience with listeners of all ideological stripes — including dyed-in-the-wool conservatives and Republican shakers-and-movers alongside lefty journalists and liberal academics.
That makes it a unique artifact of the ideologically scrambled post-Trump era: A podcast designed to give committed leftists a critical take on the American right that became a trusted source for old-fashioned rightists and many others in between. Along the way, it has exposed a growing appetite on both the left and the right for a new style of political discourse that avoids predictable Trump-bashing and takes seriously the ideas behind the conservative movement.
“They’ve read more conservative political theory than most conservatives — I mean, they’ve read more political theory than most political theorists, probably,” said Nate Hochman, a fellow at National Review and at the conservative non-profit Fund for American Studies.

It’s a fine profile, but it’s written in a tone of mild surprise that I found irritating.  It’s understandable ⁠— the notion that progressives have become both too timid and too tyrannical to engage with any ideas but their own has been taken as gospel by the mainstream press over the past decade; if you believed that nonsense, Know Your Enemy seems like a weird aberration. But the show’s successful in the first place largely because there are plenty of leftists interested in learning about and debating conservative ideas. I’m one of them ⁠— the first magazine piece I ever wrote was about God and Man at Yale and the first collection of columns I ever purchased was one of Buckley’s.

I like to write things that cut and I like to read writers who try to do the same, whatever their ideology. Everyone writes for different reasons, none more intrinsically valid than the others; I, personally, got into this profession to make arguments. My faith that good ones can effect change all on their own has waned considerably since I started, but if there’s any chance at all that writing and debate have major roles to play in pulling this country forward, there’s reason for optimism.

Reasons To Be Cheerful

A Song

“Troupeau Bleu” – Cortex