The New Essayists, or the Decline of a Form?
“The essay, as a literary form, is pretty well extinct,” Philip Larkin wrote gloomily in 1984. Extinct was the right word, capturing the sense of an organism that could no longer survive in a changed environment. “It belonged to an age when reading—reading almost anything—was the principal entertainment of the educated class,” Larkin argued, an appetite that “called for a plethora of dailies, weeklies, monthlies and quarterlies, all having to be filled.” Now it is television and the movies that cry out for ever more “content,” while the lush Victorian ecosystem has thinned out to half-a-dozen serious magazines, most of which have only slightly more appetite for essays than for that other obsolete form, the short story.
The self, then, has always been at the heart of the literary essay. But the new essay is exclusively about the self, with the world serving only as a foil and an accessory, as a mere staging ground for the projection of the self. Formally, one might describe the work of Sedaris, Crosley, Rothbart, and company as autobiographical comic narrative: short, chatty, funny stories about things that happened to me—weird things, or ordinary things that are made weird in the telling. What we now call an essayist used to be called a humorist. Sedaris’s books are sold as essays, but he is plainly trying to be Thurber, not Addison.