Writers write to understand themselves, but they also write to understand others. This can be true about any genre, but essays, it seems, are often one-sided examinations as the author tries to understand her own point of view. This isn’t the case with Leslie Jamison, the best-selling author of “The Empathy Exams”; or Roxane Gay, author of the forthcoming essay collection “Bad Feminist.” Both writers form their own opinions and are fascinated with their own questions, but they also have a talent for writing toward a larger truth.
“A good essay,” Virginia Woolf said, “must draw its curtain round us, but it must be a curtain that shuts us in, not out.” While Woolf is correct, her sentiment is half-formed: A successful essay should draw us in, but also draw us out of ourselves so that we can see the rest of the world around us.
Jamison’s humanistic and gorgeously written collection largely lives up to the title of the book. She is an empathetic person who writes about medical exams and teens accused of murdering boys, female pain and a disease many suffer from that may or may not be real. She is also the author of the novel “The Gin Closet.”
Roxane Gay has long made a name for herself as one of the best cultural commentators and essayists, at Salon and other publications. She’s the essays editor for the Rumpus and also the author of the new novel “An Untamed State” (which will be published next week). Gay is similar to Jamison in that she’s searching for answers while also thinking about a larger context. Whether she’s writing about reality television or feminist issues, Gay has a refreshing, inviting and engaging style that feels urgent and crucially vital.
I spoke last week with both essayists, together, about what works and doesn’t work in an essay, whether essays need to be political, and so much more.
Leslie Jamison: I find that my mind shies away from categories … I mean, what I can say is that I think that a lot of people are doing really exciting work with essays, but I also feel like some of the things people are excited by now are things that have been happening, or I feel like their reach extends pretty far back … I’ve always been a little bit confused by the way an essay collection is the most unmarketable kind of book to sell … It seems to me like essays lend themselves so naturally to being reader friendly, like they’re like these vignettes that you can kind of take on as an experience, an entire experience in an afternoon so … If there is a resurgence that makes sense.
Roxane, what do you think?
Roxane Gay: I don’t think the essay is any more popular than it has been before, but I do think we’re in an age of beautiful essay writing. And I think we think it’s the best because it’s the one that we’re here for and the one that we’re aware of. I also think that there is a cultural preoccupation with the exposure of the self, and so people are really interested in the ways in which people are willing to sort of excavate their personal lives for some other reason, for the reader. And I think … the essay is popular in many of the same ways that reality television is popular. You kind of want to see how people are going to reveal themselves, but I don’t say that to diminish the essay. I think the essay is wonderful and I haven’t read better essays than the ones I’ve reading lately. I think it’s very similar to why we watch reality television. We want to see people open themselves up and we want to see where they’ll take that openness.
Jamison: That’s really interesting for me to think about, how the essay fits into a larger cultural preoccupation with exposure. I mean one of the things that used to seem distinctive about the era of writing now was the Internet and what virtual culture does to us. And I feel like it makes sense to me that, in an era where there is so much self-exposure and kind of unself-aware, or uncritical ways, like reality television, or the way that people are constantly constructing themselves and consuming other people through Facebook profiles and Twitter feeds, that the essay offers the opportunity for a kind of annotated self-exposure, a sort of self-exposure that’s also questioning itself and being aware of its moves and interrogating its own moves, and when I think about the confessional writing that I love, [it’s] precisely because you get this thrill of exposure that I do think shares something with all of our forms of reality consumption — but you get that thrill of exposure alongside a certain kind of self-consciousness and a certain kind of contextualizing.
Well, going along with what both of you said, I wanted to ask what each of you think makes a good essay. You kind of hit on it already a little bit but … I feel like the essay can be so different, much like a novel. There are different kinds of novels, and there are different kinds of essays. But for both of you, when you’re writing them and when you’re reading them, what do you want to see in an essay?
Gay: I definitely want to see writing that looks both inward and outward. I love the exposure, the way in which people reveal themselves, but I also want an essayist to connect to something beyond themselves, something bigger … that kind of inquiry that’s both personal and beyond personal is what makes a really good essay. I also love attention to the sentence. I love a really well-crafted sentence, and a well-crafted essay. Someone who is putting as much time into the writing as they are into the revelation.
Jamison: Yeah, I would definitely echo both of those. I think that when I write, and when I read, I like that whole gaze inward and outward, I also love to be surprised, and I love to be surprised on the level of the sentence certainly, the level of cadences and rhythms and how those can kind of lull me into a certain trance, a certain set of expectations and then jolt me out of it again, that sensation is pleasurable to me. But I also love surprise, I love the kind of surprise that testifies to ways that the writer was surprised in the act of writing the essay … I love coming back to the essay as an attempt or as an inquiry, and that certainly resonates in my experience as a writer. Like, almost every essay that I’ve written that I feel is successful is partially successful because it surprised me at some point because it ended up being about something very different than what I thought it was going to be about when I started writing it. And I love as a reader when I’m granted some version of that experience in an essay as well. It thwarts where I thought it was headed, or another kind of floor opens up beneath the floor I thought I was standing on.
So, what doesn’t work for you guys in essays, then?
Gay: I tend to not like essays that are merely confessional, without any sort of forward progress, without any sort of catharsis or just, direction. And I don’t begrudge people writing those essays because clearly they need to do something, they need to unburden themselves. But I think we see a lot of unburdening that is not productive, and I don’t really love that. And I also don’t love essays that lack intellectual rigor, which we see quite a lot of, because the machine sort of demands that we, you know, something happens and we respond, and we respond right away. And it’s a race, you know, how quickly can we get this response up? And in doing so, we create arguments sometimes that aren’t rigorous and don’t make any sense and are full of straw men or other rhetorical fallacies. And that’s troubling.
Do you feel the same way, Leslie?
Jamison: Yeah. I do think sometimes I feel a sense of claustrophobia or limitation in essays that are purely confessional and … there are definitely essays that I’ve read that are purely personal where it does feel like there’s some kind of motion. But I think that there has to be something more than unburdening … An example of this might be this structure is the structure of guilt or confession or somebody who’s confessing how many different men that they’ve slept with in a given year, but really there’s a kind of mediated self-promotion embedded in what is marketing itself as confession, and I know that sounds a little bit vague but there are moments where I feel like there’s another layer of self-interrogation that has to happen which hasn’t happened yet … I think that’s a form of limited intellectual rigor but a limitation of rigor and introspection, and there are other limitations in rigor when you’re talking about the social climate or events that happen, and I think that some of that can be about … the imperative to produce and respond quickly. But that’s something that I feel sometimes when I hear a voice; it’s like why can’t I quite trust this voice? And it feels like there’s some sort of persona being constructed and the author isn’t willing to question what’s going into that construction.
So both of you have written novels in addition to essays and I’m wondering if you feel at all like either form uses different parts of your brain, or if you think essays and novels are coming from the same place. Or whether one feels more natural than the other to you?
Gay: Well, I definitely see both my fiction and my nonfiction coming from the same place. I’m concerned with similar things in both my fiction and my nonfiction. Though I will say there’s an urgency that [is] applied in my nonfiction that is manifested differently in my fiction. I love writing them both, but I will say that fiction is my happy place and definitely my first love, but I view them interchangeably, and I enjoy doing them interchangeably. They’re very similar. I do believe that genre distinctions matter, and when I’m writing an essay, I’m writing an essay. And when I’m writing a short story or a novel, I’m writing a work of fiction. But both genres are deeply concerned with truth; it’s just about how we get at that truth that differs.
Jamison: I want to answer too, but can I ask Roxane a question?
Jamison: I was just going to ask on a pragmatic level, what’s your unit of, I mean because you have this novel and essay collection at very similar times, do you switch back and forth in the course of a given month or week or year, between fiction and nonfiction?
Gay: Oh, I will work on both in the same day.
Jamison: OK. Amazing.
Gay: Yeah, I just … like today I have to write an essay and a short story that are both overdue, and I’m going to work on both of them. I work on both simultaneously, and I love that. I’m a Libra, so balance is a big thing with me, and I love having that balance.
Jamison: That’s interesting, because I actually have invoked my astrological signs in relation to my genre habits as well. I’m a Gemini, well, actually I’m a cusp between a Gemini and Cancer … because to me that’s representative of like angst rather than a kind of balance. I think I tend to spend longer chunks of time in one mode or the other. I mean, my arc is a little bit different, because I was writing almost exclusively fiction for a long time, and I’ve been writing almost exclusively nonfiction for almost four years, so for me, experientially they feel very different. I have a deep love for prose, and I absolutely agree that both are accessing truth in very different and very important ways … My feeling when I’m writing fiction is that I’m traveling somewhere, and my feeling when I’m writing nonfiction is that I’m transcribing the contents of my thoughts. And that’s just sort of the way I’d describe the texture of the experience. But I do think that so many things that are important to me about writing come up in both … core things like thinking about how a painful situation will feel to multiple people involved. I feel like that’s something I’ll return to again and again, and I’ll return to it on the level of scene in fiction. In my novel … [with] certain scenes that are written from multiple perspectives, it’s because I’m interested in seeing how does this pain play out differently for different people involved. And I feel like with an essay, I’ll look at that same question, but I’ll be sort of just inhabiting my own stance, and trying to speculate about how a given trauma or event might repercuss toward different figures who are involved. I don’t actually know whether “repercuss” is a word, but, just warning so …
I feel like there’s a long tradition of attention to the male essayist, like if we’re going all the way back to Montaigne and going forward to now, with Lee Gutkind christening himself as the godfather of creative nonfiction and, you know, Phillip Lopate being widely regarded as one of the best essayists. John Jeremiah Sullivan, David Foster Wallace, etc., etc. … in terms of female essayists, we’ve seen a lot of amazing essayists like Susan Sontag and Joan Didion, and Jo Ann Beard and Annie Dillard. But I feel like we’re seeing more female essayists now than ever before, and do you guys think that’s the case too, and this is kind of a great time to be a female essayist?
Gay: You know, I think that women have always been essayists but … now we have more access than we traditionally have had and so it helps. … In every genre, almost every genre, I would say, men are crowned as the gold standard of the genre and … that’s just the way the world is. It’s going to change. We’re definitely aware of it now, and we’re railing against it now so … that’s a good thing. But I also think women essayists still aren’t taken as seriously as men. I think that you can look at all of the major, all the publications that publish essays that we all want to get into, I don’t think that there’s a disinterest in women, but their mastheads feel very male. And so I think we’re in a golden age of women essayists, but in what publications?
Jamison: Yeah, yeah. I absolutely agree that there are so many … well, both that women have always been essayists and beautiful essayists, and that right now there are so many women writing wonderful essays … It feels like a really exciting time in those terms and, yeah, a couple other names that I would put out there too, like I love Eula Biss’ essays, I love Maggie Nelson’s writing, and I love Sarah Manguso’s writing …There’s a lot of exciting voices at play. I think that women’s writing can tend to get read in a more limited way than men. Like, I think sometimes when men write about private feeling, it’s seen as exploratory or daring, and when women write about private feeling it’s seen as limited or in the vein of a kind of circumscribed emotional writing. So I think there can be a shame in the confessional that uniquely attaches to women that doesn’t attach in the same way to men. You know, it’s been really interesting to me to see some of the ways my own essays have been responded to because I write very explicitly about the kind of taboo that can attach to women writing about or speaking about their own pain. But I actually still think that taboo kind of — you can be really self-aware about it and acknowledge it but it still gets applied to you or it still gets enforced in often very quiet or implicit ways. And I do think that women confront that taboo in a sharper way than men do, and I think that’s something that women essayists have to face in a different way than male essayists.
Well, so, kind of related to that, both of you write about feminist issues, I’m thinking specifically, just for example, about “How We All Lose,” and “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.” Leslie, in your essay you say, “I want our hearts to be open. I mean it.” And Roxane, in your essay you say about writing or talking about gender that we have to be more interested in making things better than just being right or interesting or funny. And I’m wondering what we can do as essayists to make things better both for our hearts and our minds.
Gay: That’s a good question. I definitely think that one of the ways we make things better is by using nuance, which we don’t see enough of in contemporary discourse. So we have to acknowledge that there’s more than one way to be right, and that the people we disagree with often, but not always, have merit to what they believe and what they think. We just have to acknowledge that we’re not the center of the universe and that there are other ways to be right. But we also have to stand by what we believe. Because when I write my essays, of course I think I’m right and I’m going to try to prove that to you, but I’m also going to acknowledge that this is not nearly black and white, and that frankly, if we’re worried about right and wrong, we’re not even having the right conversations. So I’m definitely interested in how we can have the better conversation, the more sophisticated conversation about many of these difficult issues.
Jamison: … Amen to nuance. And I think that “nuance” is a great word to describe an entire bent and a kind of habit of mind … that we can actively cultivate or let atrophy. And I think it gets back to the imperative to seek intellectual rigor that Roxane was talking about earlier as well. And I think some of the writers, and I’m thinking particularly about Maggie Nelson here, but [with] some of the writers that I love best [it’s] precisely because they are rigorously unwilling to deny nuance and complication and that’s part of the way that an essay becomes a journey, is the way that it attends to many facets of nuance and refuses to settle for easy answers. And I think that refusal to settle is one way we can make things better. I would also invoke the prerogative or imperative to look both inward and outward. I think that one of the ways that essays can make things better is by being willing and driven to look at experiences that are very different from the experience of whoever is writing the essay, and I think that can be … you know, it’s a journey for the writer, but it also takes readers on a journey to kind of … attend to other lives, to attend to other experiences of the world … I feel like that works on a specific level like, here, look in this essay at a particular other way the world can be experienced. But it also works on this more general level of recognizing that the world is experienced in 6 billion odd ways by 6 billion odd, different people, and insofar as essays can constantly remind us of those differences in experience … I think that is really freeing to the world.
Well, and Roxane, you said that we’re not having the right conversations, and I’m wondering what you guys think about, if enough writers are adding to the conversation surrounding gender and sexuality in an effective way, or if we always need more writers?
Gay: You know, I think we always need more writers and more points of view but more than [that], we need more listeners, we need more readers, more people to say, “I don’t have to speak on this issue. I can just hear what you have to say.”
There is a tendency to believe that when one has an Internet connection, they are magically endowed with the power of expertise. And I think we have to rail against that, we have to rail against the command that once you start to become an essayist, you have a response to every single thing that’s happening.
And so I do think that the more people who are on there, it’s great, especially as it does diversify the voices that we have out there. But I also think we need to develop a better sense of when to speak and when to listen.
What do you think, Leslie?
Jamison: I think balancing speaking and listening seems important. And I don’t know. I think also about paying attention to how to best use all of the different media that are available to us right now. Like we can communicate on the level of the essay in print, the essay online, the blog post, the quick comment. And I think that each of those can create conversations that are worthwhile, but each of them has kind of perils. Like I’m thinking in particular, a friend of mine wrote a piece for the New Republic about the male rights movement and their attempts to redefine rape and I thought it was a really important piece. But she got a lot of pushback on Twitter from voices I respect — but I actually didn’t respect the way they were pushing back. They were pushing back in 140 character dismissals, and it made me feel like there’s so much valuable stuff that happens on Twitter, but I also think that was a moment when I was recognizing not just the limitations of Twitter, but, the really destructive potential of allowing ourselves to speak in a very definite, declaratory, emphatic way, with only a few brushstrokes … I think the intense connectivity that we’re living inside means certain words can echo even when they’re not holding the level of nuance …
Do you guys think that essayists need to have a political stance in each essay that they’re writing or even overall, as they’re thinking and applying themselves to their form?
Gay: I think that each essayist writes in the way they want to write and the way they need to write. I’m not [going to] offer some sort of universalist prescription for what an essayist should do. I do think that when you are a woman, when you’re a person of color, when you’re queer, I think that your writing is inherently political because you are using your voice when all too often that voice has been ignored. So I think the political is just inherent to a lot of what we do. And I think it’s important to use our voices toward political ends but sometimes, you know, I’ve read many beautiful essays that are not political in any way but are still important essays, so it really just depends.
Jamison: I think that most everything that is written is political, however, hopefully it is or isn’t addressing political themes. Every voice that ever speaks is embedded in a political context, and so I think that there’s a lot of that weight that’s carried no matter what degree of intentionality is applied to that carrying, but I absolutely agree. I think essays have the right to be about all kinds of things, and I think that some of those topics and modes are more overtly political than others. And I’m totally behind that kind of polyculture. But I do think it’s important, I mean one of the ways I feel like I have grown, and would like to keep growing as an essayist into my own work, is becoming increasingly aware of the politics of what I’m writing, and particularly the way my work … is carrying political weight even when I didn’t intend it to. But it’s still my responsibility to think about its political impact … Especially when I write about class issues or issues of citizenship and national identity … I feel like it’s the essay’s responsibility, not necessarily to explain all the ways that an essay can be read, because how could you, but to think about ways in which it could potentially be received or politically charge conversations out there in the world.
One last quick question. I’m curious how both of you come up with your ideas for your essays, whether it comes from a news story, a book you’re reading, a conversation with a friend, any sort of thing. Where do you get most of your ideas from for your nonfiction?
Gay: It really depends. I get ideas from everywhere. I could be watching a television show and I’ll see something or hear something. I can be walking down the street and hear a snippet of conversation that makes me start to think. Yesterday, I was in the car on the way to work and I was listening to music, and three songs in a row used the word “bitch,” and so I started an essay about the limits of imagination in popular music, and so it really can be anything. Of course, with my cultural criticism it’s often what’s happening right now that I’m responding to, but in terms of my longer essays, I’m trying to answer a question, and that question comes up in all kinds of ways as I’m going about my day.
Jamison: … I also feel that my essays come from all sorts of places, but one of the things that I really enjoy and feel is truthful, is kind of the arbitrary quality of where an essay might come from and basically the arbitrary confluence that an essay can come from that … I might be thinking about how many artificial sweeteners I’m consuming and reading “Madame Bovary” at the same time, and that is an accident of circumstance that those two things are happening, but what’s not an accident is the way the mind is constantly making connections, [and] interpreting all of those connections can’t hold water, but the trick is to find the ones that can. And so I love the kind of way that synchronicity and the kind of rhythms of a lived life can generate material as well, and can generate those moments of sparking.