I've been waiting for Carl Klaus and Ned Stuckey-French's book, Essayists on the Essay: Montaigne to Our Time, since I found out it was coming out (and I will write a more detailed review when I've finished it, rather than flipping through it as I've done so far). I've spent a lot of time trying to figure out why essayists--and nonfiction writers in general--spend so much time trying to define the genre, rather than spending any time talking about anything else. Nonfiction is still the genre used to write about other genres, the mode of criticism for other genres--and this, I posit, is part of the reason that nonfiction still feels like the redheaded stepchild. Also, I'm beginning to be able to articulate another reason why nonfiction isn't taken as seriously: the first few essayists I read in the Essayists book describe the essay as playful, as an experiment, as a loose thing, a meandering of the mind--and no wonder it's not taken seriously. Or why it feels like we're not taken seriously.
Here's the point I want to make, the questions I would like to pose: Why isn't there more criticism on nonfiction? Why isn't there an outlet for it? Why are we, as nonfiction writers, not encouraged to write it?
And here's my reasoning. I'm in a PhD program where most of my writing time has been devoted to critical writing. I've spent as much time honing my critical craft as I have with my own creative work--and the unfortunate reality is that I haven't written anything creative since classes started last August, being so wrapped up in my classes and preparing for my comps (which involve two critical papers, based on my lists). Why do we spend so much time in a program concentrating on the criticism and then not value it outside of classes? I've heard too many times how much of a waste of time it is to write these seminar papers that we're never going to do anything with.
As the MFA becomes more ubiquitous and most job postings are now requiring a PhD in addition to a published book, it's clear that the standards for those seeking academic positions are changing. I would venture to guess that most of us in PhD programs--even those that offer creative dissertations--are writing a lot of critical work. At the moment, I'm putting together both my Field paper (on the contemporary Essay) and my project for my Women's Rhetoric class (I think I'm looking at how women write the Plains--specifically looking at Gretel Ehrlich, Kathleen Norris, and Deb Marquart...I think)--and so far, I've found one solid critical article on Gretel Ehrlich, I haven't done much looking for Kathleen Norris, but I'm fairly certain that I won't find any on Deb Marquart. We're being asked, as students, to write these critical papers on topics that fit with our educational path, but we don't have the critical resources to support them. This is what I found while trying to put together my Field list--and what happens every time I try to write a critical paper on a writer who's not Didion, Mailer, Dillard, or the like.
Following this PhD student angle (and the angle of the increasing number of creative writing teachers with PhDs), how many editors of literary journals have PhDs? And editors of nonfiction journals, specifically? Since this is the direction that academia is going, and these editors having critical experience, is it time that the nonfiction genre starts valuing criticism? Or do we feel like it's selling out to The Dark Side (as a friend put it recently). Is it time that we, as nonfiction writers, start proposing panels to AWP on nonfiction scholarship, delivering papers that do the work of articulating this wonderful thing that is our chosen genre? How many creative writing teachers require craft and criticism of their creative writing classes?
There is so much value in complicating our genre, bringing various writers (new and old) into the larger conversations of the genre. As has been obvious with the pre-AWP kerfuffle over John D'Agata's latest exploits, we only seem to come together to talk critically about what's going on in the genre when there's something large to argue about--and, unfortunately, usually those argument boil down to old, tired back-and-forth over the continuum of truth and fact. Why aren't we considering our nonfiction in terms of the genre itself, the craft of the work, nonfiction and rhetoric, nonfiction and ecocriticism, nonfiction and gender studies, and more? It feels like one can find isolated articles here and there that do this--but why are such articles so isolated?
Possibly a better question is if this kind of criticism is being published, have I missed it, where is it and where can I find it? It's entirely possible I'm looking in the wrong places and I would be eternally grateful if someone would enlighten me--I'm not afraid to be wrong here.
It seems like the great majority of the books on nonfiction are craft, closer to textbooks for beginning writers than they are geared to higher levels of nonfiction writers. I don't mean to say that these books aren't wonderful and valuable, because they are and I love them. I'm saying that there's a hole in our genre for critical work, written by the writers who also write in the creative sphere, because this is the next step in a full exploration of the genre.
But I hope we can start talking about the future of our genre, not just in terms of what constitutes and defines nonfiction, the essay, the memoir, persona, truth and fact, the lyric essay, and whatever else we seem to gravitate back to--towards considering the intricacies of what those nonfiction works and writers are doing.