The Perils and Pitfalls of the Lyrical Essay

By GD DessMay 22, 2019

The Perils and Pitfalls of the Lyrical Essay

The Word Pretty by Elisa Gabbert

THE LYRICAL ESSAY has proliferated in recent years. Its antecedents can be traced back to 1966 when Truman Capote, author of In Cold Blood (1965), introduced the idea of the “nonfiction novel” in an interview with George Plimpton for The New York Times. Over the years, the burgeoning genre of creative nonfiction, as well as the increased publication of personal essays, led to the development of what has come to be called the lyrical essay. An influential definition of the form, by John D’Agata and Deborah Tall, was published in the Seneca Review in 1997:

The lyric essay partakes of the poem in its density and shapeliness, its distillation of ideas and musicality of language. It partakes of the essay in its weight, in its overt desire to engage with facts, melding its allegiance to the actual with its passion for imaginative form.

Lyrical essays are often viewed as being closer to stream of consciousness or koan-like riddles than traditional essays. They are notably difficult to critique because of their association with poetry and the poetic license they claim as their due. When D’Agata and Tall wrote that the lyrical essay “partakes of the essay in its weight,” they were pointing to the ways it draws from our common understanding of what an essay is. While a precise definition of “essay” has remained elusive, readers can generally agree that the genre typically presents an author’s thinking about a particular subject; it involves an examination of a topic in the form of an argument. Arguments consist of premises leading to a conclusion. Like a concerto, then, essays generally adhere to a logical form.

But lyrical essays are more like jazz than a concerto. The idea that lyrical essays are more poetic than logical has allowed authors to play fast and loose with the truth, as D’Agata did in his 2010 essay “What Happens There,” in which he reported on the suicide of Levi Presley in Las Vegas. The essay was rejected by Harper’s because of factual inaccuracies but was eventually published in The Believer. The ongoing dialogue between D’Agata and the fact-checker Jim Fingal morphed into the book The Lifespan of a Fact (2012), in which they debated the liminal space between fact-based truth and art.

One of the perils lyrical essayists face is that it is all too easy to write statements that are nonsensical, meaningless, or simply false, while the rule of “poetic license” provides them immunity from prosecution. This is obviously an untenable position. Authors of lyrical essays may wish them to inhabit a never-never-land between art and reportage, but it cannot be the case that a creative form of expression is exempt from critique by the rules that govern its use of language.

The Word Pretty, by lyrical essayist Elisa Gabbert, was published late last year by Black Ocean. Gabbert had previously published The French Exit (2010), The Self Unstable (2013), and L’Heure Bleue, or the Judy Poems (2016). Gabbert has described her new work as “one of those books of random bits and bobs of unrelated prose that only famous people get to do.” A compilation of previously published online work, the bulk of The Word Pretty appeared on Drexel University’s blog The Smart Set. The essays have names such as “Dream Logic,” “Impossible Time,” “Variations on Crying”; and they are short — three-to-seven-minute reads. They tend toward shallow rather than deep thinking and offer, as their cute names hint, the promise of pleasure without a lot of effort.

In The Self Unstable, Gabbert presented short takes on a variety of subjects: the self, the body, art, love, and so on. The book was comprised of four-to-eight-sentence paragraphs surrounded by white space, a poetic presentation of thinking set on a pedestal for our examination and edification. Yet what we actually experience in reading The Self Unstable is a mind free associating, struggling, and failing to come up with something important to say. We are served up pabulum such as: “Information wants to be free, but what about beauty?”; “Faux fur is cruel by way of reference to cruelty.” I am not taking these statements out of a context in which they “make sense,” for there is no context. Their silliness stands on its own here, just as it does in the paragraphs from which they have been extracted. Statements like these seek to dance between poetry and philosophy but have more in common with the vacuous epigrams found inside Hallmark cards. And yes, I know there is an audience for this sort of thing.

In Gabbert’s new book, the topics covered are more or less the same as in The Self Unstable, but the pieces are longer: each essay is approximately two to eight pages. “On the Pleasures of Front Matter” is one of the more successful pieces in the collection, moving — in the stream-of-consciousness fashion that lyrical essays often employ — through a discussion that touches on the Tao Te Ching, an anecdote by Elizabeth Anscombe concerning Ludwig Wittgenstein (whom Gabbert hasn’t read), Lydia Davis’s translation of Madame Bovary (a book she has read), to the epigraph of E. M. Forster’s Howards End: “Only connect…” You can follow the thread of her thinking as it weaves its way through these disparate topics, delivering a meditation on a category of writing glossed over by most readers. It is, perhaps, everything a lyrical essay should be.

When Gabbert is simply connecting thoughts or images, her chatty tone — which, unfortunately, descends into snark all too often — is easy to digest. There are many statements that raise an eyebrow, but you’re likely to grant them a pass in order to keep reading. As there is no formal argument in this style of writing, you just float along the narrative stream. But when Gabbert moves into the more treacherous waters of analysis, she encounters difficulty and following her becomes problematic.

This is immediately apparent in “Meditation on the Word Pretty.” The essay begins with an uninspired discussion of the word “pretty” in contradistinction to the word “beautiful,” provides commentary on a cropped photograph of Debbie Harry’s face, touches on the idea of sublimity (via Terry Eagleton’s analysis of Edmund Burke), then goes on to speculate about the aestheticization of war (name-dropping Immanuel Kant on the sublime). Next, we are told about Gabbert’s failed attempt to watch Apocalypse Now (she was horrified and bored). Following this revelation, she delivers her pronouncement on war films: “[I]mpossible, maybe, to critique war in film without also glorifying it.” And here we land upon a pitfall. For this statement is untrue; it is not impossible to critique war in film without also glorifying it. There are many obvious counterexamples to rebut this cavalier proposition, first and foremost being the sad and tragic 1930 film adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 novel All Quiet on the Western Front.

Gabbert further opines about war: “The horrors of war are what make war necessary.” This has the ring of aphorism, but it doesn’t require much analysis to see that the statement is illogical. The “horrors of war” — which we can safely assume to include, at a minimum, destruction, bloodshed, and mass death — are not “what make war necessary”; these things are, in fact, the result of war. “The horrors of war are what make war necessary” is not some kind of aphoristic revelation; it is simply a false statement.

Unfortunately, this kind of confused thinking, in which Gabbert reaches for categorical pronouncements only to deliver frivolous if not meaningless sound bites, can be found throughout her essays. Here is another example, also from “Meditation on the Word Pretty”:

Supposedly, the mere exposure effect explains why we prefer a mirror image to a photograph — familiarity alone breeds appreciation. And yet: the familiar is pretty, the unfamiliar beautiful. (But if beauty is rare, it would have to be unfamiliar; aesthetics can be circular.)

Again, there is an obvious attempt to “aphorize” (“familiarity alone breeds appreciation”; “the familiar is pretty, the unfamiliar beautiful”). But this tangled concatenation of sentences is an example of what the critic John Simon maintained occurs when an author’s language use exceeds his or her grasp of their subject matter: “When gratuitous paradox and arbitrary pseudo-equivalence become the units of discourse, neither comprehension nor refutation is possible.” We’ll leave it at that.

In the promising-sounding essay “The Self-Destruct Button, on the Literary Death Drive,” Gabbert tells us she is fascinated by characters who “ruin their own lives.” One might think of Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina or any number of other figures who die tragically (since “death” does appear in the essay title). However, Gabbert draws her primary example from Jane Bowles’s 1943 novel Two Serious Ladies. There are many things that Bowles’s brilliant work is “about,” but the “death drive” is not one of them. The characters don’t die at the conclusion of the story; rather, the novel traces the adventures of two women who, to escape their stifling bourgeois milieu, set out on voyages of self-discovery. Miss Goering takes up with a series of disreputable men, while Mrs. Copperfield, the more radical of the two, takes up with a woman (Pacifica), a prostitute no less. At the conclusion of the novel, Mrs. Copperfield tells Miss Goering that she has fallen in love with Pacifica: “I can’t live without her.” Mrs. Copperfield goes on to say that she has “gone to pieces,” “a thing I’ve wanted to do for years.” But neither woman has achieved, as Gabbert claims, “self-destruction.” On the contrary, Mrs. Copperfield, in particular, has re-created herself. Her voyage of self-discovery has allowed her to come into her own, discovering the self she had been repressing throughout her married life. She is thrilled. Yet Gabbert tells us that the protagonists were “attracted to spiritual debauchery and destroy themselves in pursuit of it.” This is not the case at all.

Perhaps the most contentious piece in the new collection is “Aphorisms Are Essays.” Gabbert tells us that an aphorism is “something more like an essay, an attempt to define. An aphorism is an essay, an essay in its smallest possible form.” She goes on to say that “an aphorism is not a truth but a kind of test (an assay), a statement you are meant to run up against to decide if you agree.” This definition seems wrongheaded since aphorisms are thought of as truths, truths that are generally grasped immediately, almost intuitively: “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”; “art is long, life is short.” Aphorisms, as one of the greatest practitioners of the form, Friedrich Nietzsche, put it, are “a form of eternity.”

Gabbert’s attempt to present her aphorisms as “tests” harkens back to D’Agata and Tall’s definition of the lyrical essay. To help shore up its conceptual legitimacy versus the traditional essay, they claimed that the lyrical essay remained loyal to the “original sense of essay” in so far as it can be conceived “as a test or a quest.” The problem with their definition is that, while the traditional essay has an exploratory function, it is not a “test”; it is an expository piece of writing in which a point of view is argued. A test is what you take after reading an essay to ascertain your level of understanding.

To be generous, Gabbert may be expressing a poetic or lyrical point of view about aphorisms, but her notion is not supported by everyday language or by common sense. Moreover, she complicates her tenuous position by going on to say, without providing examples, that the “best” aphorisms are “not the most true but the most undecidable” and that aphorisms are “worth endlessly testing.” It is hard to comprehend what she means by saying aphorisms are “worth endlessly testing.” What would we test them for? To “decide if you agree” with them? But if we recognize a statement as an aphorism, then by definition we know it’s true, since by definition an aphorism is a terse, pithy proposition expressing some truth or general principle. There is nothing to test. Moreover, a proposition is either true or not; it can’t be “most true.”

In her 1999 article “The Professor of Parody,” the philosopher Martha Nussbaum critiqued the writing of feminist theorist Judith Butler for being overly convoluted and confusing. The same critique Nussbaum leveled against Butler can be applied here. Gabbert’s idiosyncratic choice of topics “creates an aura of importance” that she manipulates through her breezy, patronizing tone — as Nussbaum puts it, she

bullies the reader into granting that, since one cannot figure out what is going on, there must be something significant going on, some complexity of thought, where in reality there are often familiar or even shopworn notions, addressed too simply and too casually to add any new dimension of understanding.

While critical reviews of Gabbert’s work have been generally positive, the author doesn’t take kindly to criticism. In the essay “Aphorisms Are Essays,” Gabbert quotes a review of The Self Unstable that was posted on Goodreads: “While I like the philosophical ramblings, and love the brevity of the collection itself, I found myself disagreeing with many of her postulations.” Gabbert’s response to this reasonable assertion is: “I don’t fucking care if you agree.”

I bring this up because, aside from being churlish, her response is patently untrue. Gabbert clearly does care what people think about her writing. She consistently posts and reposts any accolades on her Twitter account. Earlier this year, lamenting that there was only one review of The Word Pretty on Amazon, she issued a plea to her followers for more: “This is still the only Amazon review of my book even though there is a Kindle edition now, in case anyone feels like doing a good deed today.” (Update: There are now seven reviews.)

In the mid-2000s, a type of first-person essay began to dominate the blogs and ezines. More intimate than the lyrical essay, it was characterized by sensational personal revelations à la “I Slept with My Husband’s Brother to Save My Marriage.” In an article in The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino called this type of writing the “commodification of personal experience.” Used as clickbait, it generated ad revenue for the websites that published it. So widespread had this genre become that Laura Bennett, writing in Slate, referred to it as “the first-person industrial complex.” Echoes of this (for the most part defunct) genre reverberate throughout Gabbert’s writing: she has retained much of the structure and style of the personal/confessional essay, substituting for its lurid subject matter pseudophilosophical aphorisms designed to capture the reader’s attention.

One of the things one looks for in a personal or lyrical essay is a reflection of the complexity of the author’s inner world as they cover topics outside themselves. A good example is Zadie Smith’s new collection of essays Feel Free (2018). The last section, which bears the same title as the book, contains what might be considered lyrical essays. In “Man vs. Corpse,” Smith — under the guise of examining what it’s like to be dead — deftly moves through art history, providing insightful commentary on artists ranging from Luca Signorelli to Mark Rothko to Andy Warhol; she then moves on, by association of ideas, to Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose novel series My Struggle she ties into her thematic discussion, beautifully summing up his oeuvre in a sentence:

It’s a book that recognizes the tedious struggle of our daily lives and yet considers it nothing less than a tragedy that these lives, filled as they are not only with boredom but with fjords and cigarettes and works by Dürer, must all end in total annihilation.

The essay is a beautiful, sustained piece of thinking from beginning to end.

Gabbert has a gift for producing all-embracing, pseudoaphoristic statements, but her aesthetic sophistry detracts from and undermines her work. She falls prey to the pitfalls of sacrificing reason to lyricism and drawing invalid conclusions from ill-formed propositions. She is sufficiently talented to weave together her clever statements in a way that sounds pretty when you skim lightly over the surface, but it all falls apart when analysis is applied. The Word Pretty leaves one with a lingering feeling of disappointment. There is so much less here when there should be so much more.


GD Dess is the author of the novels His Vision of Her and Harold Hardscrabble.

LARB Contributor

GD Dess is an author (His Vision of Her and Harold Hardscrabble), essayist, and critic whose work appears in LARB and elsewhere. He has just finished a new novel, Here for Love. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @gdess.


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