Just what makes an essay literary? I’ve been challenged on that recently, not least because I’d like to extend the capaciousness of creative categories. These notes provide an early opportunity.
As Montaigne demonstrated four hundred years ago, essays—or what we today often call creative nonfiction—are typically founded on memoir, reflection, or some other form of particular personal experience. In this issue of the Kenyon Review, for example, we feature Jaquira Diaz’s “Ordinary Girls,” rich with the lyricism, the punch of fine fiction. Consider here the rhythms, repetitions, and the dramatically significant details:
The Kilo I knew threw up gang signs and wore baggy jeans and wifebeaters and high-top Air Jordans. He was tattooed and foulmouthed and crazy. He looked at people hard, laughed loudly, talked back to everybody, played streetball and dunked on half the guys in Normandy Park. The Kilo I knew smoked blunts, drank Olde English 800 by the quart, talked dirty, cracked his knuckles, sucker punched a guy twice his size, tagged all over the back of the Metro bus, got kicked out of school. (6)
Essays on science or travel or the natural world or medicine have also, of course, aspired to literary status for many generations, from, say, Sir Thomas Browne in the seventeenth century to more recent authors such as Helen Macdonald with H is for Hawk or Rebecca Skloot in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Each author, or his or her nonfictional narrative I, engages something external in the world and undertakes the research or journey necessary to bring the subject back to readers for reflection and meditation and greater knowledge.
Here is another excerpt from a recent KR, this from “Garden of the Fugitives” in the March/April 2015 KR. Matt Donovan describes the empty molds of human figures discovered at Pompeii:
Needless to say, the formation of those casts was far from instantaneous. First, the preservation of those centuries-old body shapes required precise chemical and geological conditions within the volcanic ash. Then, before the hardened layers of debris being excavated were hauled away, workers at the site had to be trained to recognize the subtle signs, such as a small depression in the earth, that might indicate a void below. (24)
But again: what makes such essays literary?
The first part of an answer begins with the medium itself, language. In nonliterary essays authors generally seek to convey information, a point of view, an argument. They may do so with greater or lesser sophistication and degree of clarity. They may evince wit and insight. But the words and sentences are always a means to an end, be that end entertainment, persuasion, greater knowledge or understanding, or some other form of record entirely.
In literature, it seems to me, language similarly conveys information of various kinds and for many purposes, but it is always, at least partly, also an end in itself. Its rhythms, its diction, its metaphors are more than merely precise and effective—they exhibit a particular beauty of sound and sense and expression. The end here for the reader is pleasure. And literary writing strives always toward such feelings. We delight in, for example, le mot juste. Or a metaphor that explodes with force and unexpected illumination.
In an age-speckled book about Pompeii, where the text shape-shifts on nearly every page in order to allow space for drawings of coins and amphitheaters and mouth-gaping masks, of columns and shadows of columns darkening excavated streets, I came across the dead yet again. Although given how the engraver had rendered them, how he crosshatched fingers and slimmed calves and knees and draped thighs with what resembled less a hard jut of plaster than swaddling folds of cloth, the dead now seem as we seem to want them to be: restored, untouched, asleep. (31)
The creative I in “Garden of Fugitives” is not merely reporting. Matt Donovan uses metaphorical, literary language to convey his imaginative engagement with those beautiful and tragic body casts in order to help us see as he has seen.
Of course, there’s a larger dimension to the literary as well. Yes, language may provide a joy in itself, but the experience of fully engaging an essay’s tenor—the argument or subject or meaning—may sweep a reader toward a far deeper sense of fulfillment. This is equally true of poetry and fiction, naturally, of all true literature. It’s a process that catalyzes us into seeing in a new way, to grasping what may intuitively lie beyond language itself. My wager is that anyone who’s read this far in these notes has experienced the shift in perception I’m suggesting. It can be abrupt, a shock, almost as if a film has been pared away from one’s eyes.
And one step further still: just as the characters of a great story or novel are profoundly changed by its action, readers themselves, engaged and moved by sharing in the transformative experience of the narrator, are not only enabled to see the world differently, they themselves are subtly but meaningfully transformed by the crucible of the literary.
On the Cover
Illustration by Jeffrey Fisher