Personally Universal

From Didion to Dunham, Female Essayists Seize the Day

Joan Didion’s trailblazing nonfiction set a forbiddingly high standard, but a slew of idiosyncratic writers are proving that her example may be inimitable but it is also inspiring.

10.17.14 5:01 PM ET

“There is nothing gutsier to me than a person announcing that their story is one that deserves to be told, especially if that person is a woman,” writes Lena Dunham in the introduction to her essays-cum-memoir Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned.” But does simply announcing one has a story automatically legitimize its telling? Surely there needs to be some kind of discerning critical judgment involved? Writing a good essay involves a process akin to alchemy; the base metal of intimate, individual experience is transmuted into a shining nugget of universal truth, the meaning of which resonates with a larger audience. “I never sit down to write anything personal unless I know the subject is going to go beyond my own experience and address something larger and more universal,” explains essayist and columnist Megan Daum in a recent interview in the New Yorker.

In a piece published in the New York Times last year under the title “The Essayification of Everything,” Christy Wampole takes her readers through a brief history of the form—from Michel de Montaigne’s Essais from 1580; Francis Bacon’s appropriation of the term from French to English for his 16th century work; Robert Musil’s use of the term “essayism” (Essayismus in the original German) for the “leakage” of the essay, “when it cannot be contained by its generic borders;” through Adorno’s quote about the “essay’s groping intention.”

“The essayist,” Wampole then goes on to explain, “is interested in thinking about himself thinking about things.” Note her use of the male pronoun at a point in her essay that deals entirely with the genre’s male progenitors. But only a few paragraphs later, where she’s describing the work of the figure she calls the “true essayist,” there’s a switch in gender and the “he” becomes a “she”:

“Our often unreflective quickness means that little time is spent interrogating things we’ve touched upon. The experiences are simply had and then abandoned. The true essayist prefers a more cumulative approach; nothing is ever really left behind, only put aside temporarily until her digressive mind summons it up again, turning it this way and that in a different light, seeing what sense it makes. She offers a model of humanism that isn’t about profit or progress and does not propose a solution to life but rather puts endless questions to it.”

I might well be reading too much into this slippage, but I like the idea of “the essayist” as a figure subject to the same gender vacillations as Woolf’s Orlando; and one who, at this particular moment in time, is proudly embodying the female gender. From cultural critic Susan Sontag and journalist-turned-screenwriter-turned-novelist (and Dunham’s mentor) Nora Ephron, and on through to the host of talented female essayists writing today, this is clearly a flourishing genre that the following women writers—in my mind some of the best writing today—are very much making their own; as Carol Hanisch famously declared in 1969, the personal is political; if, that is, one’s personal experience is mined eloquently and intelligently enough.

Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968)

It would be impossible to talk about female essayists without beginning with Joan Didion, not least because she pioneered the emotional engagement we’ve come to expect from all essay writers today, male or female. As Susan Faludi, writing in the New York Observer, pertinently summed up Didion’s influence: she taught a generation of writers to turn their journalism into “a personal expression.” Though, as fellow writer Katie Roiphe argues, the conversion of the masses to this “emotionally charged and coolly intellectual” way of writing, has rendered the original voice oddly derivative. “Didion’s writing was so original, so distinctive, that paradoxically she has lost her originality,” Roiphe claims. “She has become mundane, traces of her sharp personal lyricism scattered through newspapers and magazines.” All the same, it’s still worth reading anything and everything Didion writes, particularly her first, and probably most famous collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem; works inspired, for the most part, by Didion’s life in California that together paint a vivid portrait of American life in the ’60s, all crystalized through Didion’s unflinching eyes.

Janet Malcolm, Forty-One False Starts (2013)

Another grande dame of American letters, Janet Malcolm is a staff writer at the New Yorker who’s famous for her rigorously intellectual and intelligent reportage. As well as eight non-fiction books—the subjects of which range from biography, literary criticism, and psychoanalysis, to her infamous meditation on the ethics of her own profession, The Journalist and the Murderer (1990), which begins what must be one of the most incendiary, and most quoted opening lines in non-fiction: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible”—she’s the author of three collections of essays. The most recent, Forty-One False Starts, contains one of the best pieces of writing on the Bloomsbury Group I’ve ever read, “A House of One’s Own;” while other particular noteworthy inclusions are her 1986 profile of Artforum magazine’s editor Ingrid Sischy, “A Girl of the Zeitgeist,” as well as the stylistically innovative profile of the artist David Salle from which the collection takes its title. Malcolm has the last word on any subject she writes about, from the marriage of poets Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath to the very art of biography. Unlike her fellow essayists, Malcolm is both an absence and a presence in her work. Yet the pieces of hers that delight the most often feature a moment of Malcolmian self-reflection—the instance when she realizes that although she’s been claiming that she brought her own work to Salle while interviewing him in order to simply illustrate the difference between that of an amateur and a professional, she had secretly been hoping for his praise; or, a year after the fact, when she realizes that something Sischy once said to her was in fact a “covert commentary” on their relationship. Hers is a particular brand of essay: writing at its most crystal clear, subject matter at its most slippery and interesting.

Katie Roiphe, In Praise of Messy Lives (2012)

The essays in Katie Roiphe’s In Praise of Messy Lives were described by Dwight Garner in his New York Times review as “lean and literate”, a description so good, I don’t see how I can improve on it. With pieces on the giants who precede her (that on Didion quoted above, and Sontag), those in which she wades around in the territory of gender politics in which she made her name (her first book The Morning After: Fear, Sex and Feminism [1994] explored the culpability of women in the rise of suspected campus date rape incidents, inspiring, unsurprisingly, some hostile critical responses), musings on literature (from the figure of Shakespeare’s wife, Ann Hathaway, to the modern incest scene in fiction), and the problems of the contemporary child-centric middle-class world, to name but a smattering of Roiphe’s topics, it’s a collection that both celebrates and questions our messy, modern lives and the way we live them.

Rebecca Solnit, Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness (2014)

Solnit is one of the most prolific writers on my list—the author of 15 books and countless essays—and one of the most far-reaching in terms of the subjects with which she concerns herself, too. Apt then that her next book parades this scope so proudly. The 29 essays that make up Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness (due for publication in November) are global in their reach, combining meditations on history, politics, science, art, literature, climate change and natural disasters, and take us from the snowy tundra of the Arctic to the carnival-filled streets of New Orleans. She’s also a writer who pushes the already pliable boundaries of the essay form—The Faraway Nearby (2013), ostensibly a memoir, but actually a book that covers its own near exhaustive encyclopedia of topics, was eloquently described by writer Leslie Jamison as “an experiment in applying the associative liberties of the essay genre to an entire book.”

Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams (2014)

Jamison’s keen eye for the magic of Solnit’s work can be accounted for in part by the fact that she is an intrepid practitioner of the confessional form herself. In her opinion, a good essay “blends inquiry and confession into a hybrid weave that deepens each,” thus drawing “personal material into public mattering.” The Empathy Exams, Jamison’s first collection (though two further compendia: Archive Lush, which has been described as a “radical reinvention of the addiction memoir,” and Ghost Essays: On Love and Loneliness, on haunting and obsession, have already been acquired by both Granta in the U.K. and Little, Brown in the U.S.), concerned itself with the realm of distinctly intimate experience—her heart surgery, an abortion, and the time a stranger punched her in the face—but, as the title suggests, these are essays that don’t simply turn the private into the communal, they explore the very notion of the act that lies at the heart of good essay writing: of aligning one’s experience with that of others, and vice versa. “Empathy isn’t just something that happens to us—a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain—it’s also a choice we make,” Jamison explains: “to pay attention, to extend ourselves. It’s made of exertion, that dowdier cousin of impulse. Sometimes we care for another because we know we should, or because it’s asked for, but this doesn’t make our caring hollow. The act of choosing simply means we’ve committed ourselves to a state of behaviors greater than the sum of our individual inclinations: I will listen to his sadness, even when I’m deep in my own. To say going through the motions—this isn’t reduction so much as acknowledgement of the effort—the labor, the motions, the dance—of getting inside another person’s state of heart or mind.”

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Meghan Daum, The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion (2014)

By comparison to Jamison, Daum has always been eager to point out that the pieces she writes are “not confessionals.” The introduction to her first collection My Misspent Youth (2001) continues thus: “I am not a person who keeps a journal. Instead, I’m inclined to catalog my experiences and turn them over in my head until some kind of theme emerges and I feel I can link the personal banalities to something larger and worth telling.” Despite their apparent differences of opinion, this actually sounds decidedly familiar to Jamison (and Wampole’s) description of the genre, but one in which Daum—“for all my ambivalence about mining my own life for material, I can’t seem to quit for very long,” she admits in the introduction to her forthcoming volume The Unspeakable—is well aware she’s treading a tightrope. As she explains in a recent interview with the New Yorker: “To me, having ‘material’ for an essay means not only having something to write about but also having something interesting and original to say about whatever that might be.” Fundamentally, the subjects of her new essays are deeply and intimately personal—the death of her mother, the grief she feels when her dog dies, the time she nearly died herself, her decision to not have children, one made at the same time she was working as a court appointed mediator for children in the foster care system—but as she explains, “I wasn’t going to just write about my mother dying or my dog dying or me getting sick and almost dying. I wanted to offer readers some fresh or provocative interpretations of those events.”

Emily Gould, And the Heart Says Whatever (2009)

Earlier this summer the New York Times argued that “a case could be made that Ms. Gould’s warts-and-all brand of self-exposure anticipated a wave of confessional writing that paved the way for Girls” (and thus by extension, Not That Kind of Girl). They’re referring predominantly, of course, to Gould’s prolific blogging (including the pieces she wrote for Gawker during the time she worked for the New York-based gossip blog site). But Gould also authored her own book of essays-cum-memoir, And the Heart Says Whatever, a collection of elegantly written, melancholy-tinged accounts of her life in New York, which preceded Dunham’s adoption of the same structure for her book.

Marina Keegan, The Opposite of Loneliness (2014)

I’m breaking my own rules here as this wasn’t just a collection of essays, (it also featured Keegan’s short stories), but with good reason. Published posthumously after Keegan was tragically killed in a car accident just five days after she graduated from Yale in 2012, The Opposite of Loneliness showcases the small but perfectly formed body of work Keegan left behind. Despite her youth, her writing already demonstrated a talent and skill beyond her years; essays such as “Even Artichokes Have Hearts,” in which she laments the fact that 25 percent of her peers would be lured into working for corporate consulting and finance firms, initially published in the Yale Daily News before being picked up by the New York Times; the piece she wrote for the graduation issue of the same Yale paper (and from which the published collection takes its name), which went viral on the Internet after her death; “Stability in Motion,” a piece about her first car that now can’t help but take on a darker undertone; and a surprisingly moving profile of a bug and rodent exterminator, “I Kill For Money.” To return to the question I posed at the beginning of this piece, if not every story is automatically worth telling, the flipside of this is that if Keegan’s work proves anything it’s that sometimes the briefest of experiences can fuel the best writing.