On Ears Essayist

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If Sedaris said he had an impatient French teacher, we would believe him, but not be very interested.

When he says that his teacher “singled me out, saying, ‘Every day spent with you is like having a Caesarean section,’ ” we recognize not so much an experience as a one-liner, and relax into the knowledge that we are watching not a reflection but a performance.

Books of essays regularly turn up on the best-seller lists; many of their authors are stars on the radio, especially on the cult program “This American Life.” In the HBO show “Girls,” the character portrayed by Lena Dunham declared her ambition to become a writer and “the voice of my generation,” but she did not hope to write the Great American Novel: she wanted to produce a book of essays.

Here as in so many of its details, “Girls” proves to be a faithful stenographer of its moment.

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.

On Ears Essayist

What we now call an essayist used to be called a humorist.This device allows the essayist to claim the authenticity of non-fiction while indulging, with the reader’s tacit permission, in the invention and shaping of fiction.Consider David Sedaris, the master of the new essay and its most popular practitioner.Sedaris says as much when he admits to appropriating the life stories of his partner, Hugh: “His stories have, over time, become my own. There is no spiritual symbiosis; I’m just a petty thief who lifts his memories the same way I’ll take a handful of change left on his dresser.When my own experiences fall short of the mark, I just go out and spend some of his.”Reading Sloane Crosley, who is a generation younger than Sedaris and often compared to him, one comes to appreciate how much control and skill goes into the creation of Sedaris’s persona, and how difficult it is to remain likable while admitting to all kinds of bad behavior.The new essay, like the old essay, is a prose composition of medium length; but beyond that the differences are more salient than the resemblances. The essay, traditionally, was defined by its freedom and its empiricism—qualities that it inherited from its modern inventor, Montaigne. ” Montaigne asked, and the essay is the form that allows both the “I” and the thing it knows equal prominence.For this reason, the essay could address any subject, exalted or trivial, as long as it displayed the mind of the writer engaged with the world.“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.In Me Talk Pretty One Day", which appeared in 2000, Sedaris writes about taking an IQ test and finding that he is “really stupid, practically an idiot. Were my number translated into dollars, it would buy you about three buckets of fried chicken.” Of course, the reader does not believe this for a minute: the cleverness of the prose refutes its own premise.The effect is to call the whole story into question.


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