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“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.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.
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.
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.
“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?
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.
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 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.