Monday, March 27, 2017

The New Essayists: an Incomplete List.

It's never easy to admit it, but I've found that essays these days really speak to the soul. What I mean is that essays speak to my soul, these days. I didn't always think this, but it was reading James Baldwin that changed my mind and made me fall in love with the essay, and especially the personal essay. Interestingly enough, his sharp eye in the non-fiction essay was mixed with Borges' pseudo-essays [1] to create my current path of trying to add some insight to today's world while also stretching the imagination. That I missed the Fake News money boat probably says something about my own lack of imagination, but let's not get into that. 
No, I wanted this post to highlight some of the better essay writers of today. I brought this question up as I was reading some Montaigne and felt that I couldn't readily recall any writers today putting out some good insightful essays. So I decided to write who in this century was creating something that said something worthwhile about our world.

Mind, that I will include blogs, if they meet the standard, as this seems to be a new way of communication and may very well be more important than what writers of mainly books are putting out. That being said, though I like what Brad Delong and Krugman and even Corey Robin put out, none of what they have written seem to rise to the level of Baldwin in terms of insight.

This might not be fair. The first two mainly deal with wonkish economic analysis (and somehow seem to always avoid stickier subjects, IMO), and the latter one is really just trying to stay afloat of current events, and all seem to help with a more immediate analysis, but they don't seem to have what it takes.

Even some who write books, like Chomsky, and who indeed shine lights on the darkest parts of our society aren't included in this list (though you should read him), as they seem to lack something I can't quite put words to when they right. Sure, they are accurate and succinct, but does that mean one should be considered a great essayist?

It certainly has little to do with the literati. The less said about Oznick, and my views on her writing, the better. Having read the essays of Franzen, I wonder why there is such a lack of imagination out there. Franzen's passion only comes out when he describes an unknown book he likes. Sells me on it, at least. Outside of that I see suburban ideologies tainting his viewpoints. The essays of DFW come closer, but they too lack any insight into life or the current mss we find ourselves in. I mean, they are well crafted, signal the writer's intelligence. But that's about it.

The same goes for the essays of Saunders. They aren't bad. They are some of the best-crafted pieces I've read. But in the end, like the endless outdoor city malls of our age, they lack character, to say nothing of being crafted for the upper middle classes and so lack any real prophetic vision or even an attempt at that vision. Even in the face of Trump, the antithesis of their cultured view of the world, little worthwhile has come out. Perhaps Zadie Smith's essays come closer, but again, something is lacking. [2]

And the less said about what goes on for essay writing in our favorite newspapers, the better. Again,—as is the case with the LRB—many write some of the best analysis around, but they seem to lack for a certain insight to say nothing of "heart" or a fearlessness that we still require of our writers, if they are to be of any use to us. [3]

Well, without further ado, here's the list:


Coates. Though it seems like Coates has given up on writing for his blog at the same level as he started, the archive alone is still worth it. I do hope that he comes back to the same level of output as he once had. Or perhaps he'll switch to the book form. We'll see. Definitely worthy of checking out.

Arundhati Roy is another great one. This might be a matter of reading someone who agrees with my world view, but I find some of her essays to be entirely worthwhile.

Teju Cole might be the new master, as he moves so well between sharp observations of the world and  manages to show his seemingly complete knowledge of the history of that world.

That's it. Really. I know my knowledge of this field is incomplete, but who am I missing? Please let me know who should be added to this. Meanwhile, I have a list of others to look out for:

Adiche. Read one of hers and was impressed. However, I have not read so until I do I cannot make that call. I hope to add her to the list soon. 

[1] It's funny that I find many of his non-fiction essays to not have anywhere near the same value.

[2] The list of close but no cigar goes on. Rushdie also has some good points, great craft, but many of his essays have not aged well.

[3] Don't worry, as a writer I understand that this applies to me as well. I still hesitate when sending certain essays out. Let's see what happens to my own craft and improvement as a human/writer

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