The Art of the Essay

October 22, 2014   •   By Jessica Gross

WHAT MAKES a personal essay work, an essay that is partly about the writer and partly about something or someone else? This genre has a long, rich history, and Icon, edited by Amy Scholder and published by the Feminist Press, is the latest collection to take up the challenge. Nine writers deconstruct their obsessions with female celebrities. Their mission, as Scholder writes in her introduction, is to “explore the depths of these haunted relationships […] and in the process, reveal themselves.”

In the collection’s first piece, Mary Gaitskill uses her own experience of rape to inform a moving and nuanced examination of the complexities of porn star Linda Lovelace’s difficult life. Zoe Pilger, in turn, writes about Gaitskill, whose exploration of sadomasochism in her short story “A Romantic Weekend” influenced Pilger’s own fictional writing on the subject. Justin Vivian Bond tells of a lifelong fascination with the “blank and sphinx-like” Estée Lauder model Karen Graham, and Kate Zambreno looks at her attraction to Kathy Acker, whom she sees as “a gender-fucking, playful, subversive terrorist.”

Some of the essays in this collection are glorious, while others are a disappointment. Musician and writer Johanna Fateman’s piece on Andrea Dworkin tells the story of her decision to write about Andrea Dworkin. Fateman, having been invited to contribute to the collection, details her excitement upon alighting on her subject, the “quintessential antipornography feminist,” then her nervousness at how Scholder would react:

I cringed, imagining that when I said, “I think I want to write about Andrea Dworkin,” she would think that I was proposing a redundant, third-wave critique of a marginal political adversary. I also cringed imagining that she might think I wanted to write a love letter.

Fateman expresses a fair amount of concern over other people’s opinions in this essay, which, it turns out, is focused more on her research process — “I began to take notes. Actually, I copied quotations, whole passages, into a dollar-store composition book” — than on the research itself. She comes across as ambivalent and insecure: “I used to be in a feminist punk band, now I own a hair salon and pretend to be an art critic,” she writes.

Maybe there’s a hit sleeping inside me, but this potential, like everything else in my life, is sharply constrained by the overarching thing that I am: a mother since 2009, fulfilled but restless, happily in a deep malaise, and always tired.

She reconciles her desires by deciding that she will write a book about Dworkin, which seems to satisfy her need to appear both purposeful and rebellious. But her confessional, not-rigorous self-consciousness gives little insight into her or her subject. The essay’s final line — “And thus I began to write my book about Andrea Dworkin” — is supposed to be clever, but instead sounds like she’s saving her best material.

Rick Moody’s submission, on the 1960s blues singer Karen Dalton, is still more painful to read. At 37 pages, it is one of the longest in the book, and it feels at least twice that length. The language is convoluted and clogged with “big words,” calling to mind Dale Peck’s 2002 hatchet job in The New Republic. “The plain truth is that I have stared at pages and pages of Moody’s prose and they remain as meaningless to me as the Korean characters that paper the wall of a local restaurant,” Peck wrote. “Actually, the comparison is not particularly apt, because I know that the Korean writing means something […].” I read every word, but the larger point of the essay remained unclear to me, as did Moody’s own role in the piece. Consider this particularly maddening passage:

The beauty of Karen Dalton also gets in the way of a discussion of the music of Karen Dalton, which is what this essay is about, not the singer’s life but the singer’s songs. The question might be rephrased thus: What do we mean by the beauty of Karen Dalton? Are we speaking of the physical appearance of Karen Dalton? Do we know what we mean by the appearance of Karen Dalton? Does the physical beauty of the singer have an effect on the interpretation of the songs? And the related inquiry is: What is the relationship of this white male music critic, the writer of these pages, to the question of the beauty of Karen Dalton? If a libidinous attachment to Dalton is what drives the legend of Karen Dalton, can I, the writer of these pages, entirely uncathect from the legend of Karen Dalton in order to arrive at, it is to be hoped, a critical detachment to see what’s good here, what’s valuable, without getting clotted up by a purely or primarily romanticized construction of the singer?

“Do we know what we mean by the appearance of Karen Dalton?” Well — yes, we do, don’t we? Meanwhile, the reader has questions of her own: Do we need the qualifying phrase “the writer of these pages,” once, much less twice? Do we need the stilted aside, “it is to be hoped”? And why use three variations on “cathexis,” itself a questionable translation of Freud’s German, throughout the essay?

Moody’s onslaught of questions culminates this way: “I did not, in truth, pay much attention to the physical condition of the singer in photographs.” (Really?) But then, finally, several pages in, he gets to something compelling: “The beauty of Dalton is an effect of the music, in some ways, and all the legends that spring up […] seem to be a way to attempt to describe the music as much as they are ways of describing Dalton herself.” This is intriguing, but such insights are few, and the mounds of filler that surround them all but swallow them up. Why pose an overlong series of questions about your consideration of Dalton’s beauty if in fact you don’t consider it? Why, for that matter, pretend introspection will help us understand the biographical when you’re unable to link the one to the other? If your argument is purely intellectual, why not just go ahead and make it, and delete all the false starts it took to get you there?


There are no false starts in the essay that comes after Moody’s, Hanne Blank’s on food writer M.F.K. Fisher. “Earlier in my career as a writer,” she begins, “I edited anthologies of erotica.” One paragraph in, and I may have audibly sighed in relief. But her piece isn’t just longed-for dessert after Moody’s: it is a masterly example of the kind of writing Scholder had in mind.

Blank begins by lamenting contemporary food writing, which, like sex writing, has become a vast field of noise. “Our food experiences are of course meaningful to us,” she writes:

But unless we can dissect and discuss their meaning as well as the simple fact of the experiences, obsessively documenting them creates little value to anyone except perhaps far-future historians looking for documentary evidence of the foodways of twenty-first-century narcissists with disposable income.

Food writing today, she adds, is a bunch of “gastronomic pissing contests of wannabe bad boys.” Ha! Yes. As “a digestif and a corrective” to this morass, “a reminder that it is possible to do better than the overindulgent and crazed,” Blank turns to M.F.K. Fisher.

Here we follow Blank into the personal: she writes that she discovered Fisher “in the squalid brown flower of my late adolescence.” That language! “Fisher’s books,” she writes, “were talismans of a sophisticated, observant, elegant, artistic adulthood I desperately wanted, and her writing was, then as now, an antidote.” Back then, Blank sought a corrective not to the broader landscape of food writing, but to her own persona. “I was about as capable of restraint and subtlety as I was capable of unassisted flight. I was ashamed of my self-indulgent but helpless intensity.” As for her prose, she tells us, “melodrama and hyperbole gushed forth.” For all this, it turns out M.F.K. Fisher was the cure. Therefore to learn about Blank is to continue to learn about Fisher.

At this point in the essay, I too had become hooked on Fisher, though I’d never read her work; Blank made me want to know more about Fisher’s story as well as her writings. And though Blank is open and honest about her own life throughout, she doesn’t share in order to titillate or provoke or posture or impress. She doesn’t urge us to think well of her, or poorly — nor does she include unnecessary information. Blank wields the personal: it’s a lens through which we can better understand M.F.K. Fisher, the author, and ourselves. And at the moment in the middle of the piece when Blank’s relationship to Fisher dramatically shifts, she takes our understanding to a deeper level still.

Danielle Henderson’s essay on bell hooks is another example of excellence. We learn that Henderson suffered much pain in childhood; that it wasn’t until she was 30 and in college that she was introduced to the work of the black feminist writer. “I learned about race from the outside in, caught in the crosshairs of intolerant, sheltered people,” Henderson writes.

I didn’t have the language to explain how these childhood experiences shaped my life until half of it was over and I’d already moved far away from Greenwood Lake. I didn’t understand how my own story fit into a larger cultural experience until I read bell hooks.

To grasp the import of this discovery, and her concomitant coming to terms with herself, it is necessary to have heard Henderson’s history, to know the full weight of it. But as with Blank in her essay about Fisher, the personal reveal is neither overwrought nor gratuitous. Henderson’s enlightenment, in all its resonance, helps us better appreciate hooks’s work, and the broader writer-reader relationship, as of vital and life-changing importance.

In other essays, similarly inspired, the personal lends access to the factual and faraway. Gaitskill proves herself uniquely qualified to write about Lovelace. Jill Nelson’s contribution, on Aretha Franklin, puts “Respect” into a personal and cultural context that renders casual listening impossible from now on. In what seems like a paradox, self-awareness and reflection help these writers, and us readers, to empathize with and understand their subjects. If Icon is uneven, it leads to an appreciation for the art of the personal essay: even the less distinguished examples reveal what, by contrast, is so magical about the ones that succeed.


Jessica Gross is a freelance writer based in New York City.