This essay, adapted for TriQuarterly Online, was originally presented at "Status Update: The Personal Essay in the Age of Facebook," a panel discussion at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Conference on February 3rd, 2011. It was hosted and moderated by Jen McClanaghan, resident scholar at The Southern Review. A podcast of the entire panel is available here.
We are nauseated by the sight of rival personalities decomposing in the eternity of print. As talk, no doubt, it was charming, and certainly the writer is a good fellow to meet over a bottle of beer. But literature is stern; it is no use being charming, virtuous, or even learned and brilliant into the bargain, unless . . . you fulfill her first condition—to know how to write.
Virginia Woolf, “The Modern Essay” (217)
Donna Brazile is one of the smartest political and social analysts of our time. I’m not here to criticize her or use Virginia Woolf against her. And much as I’d like to have a bottle of beer with her, she is most decidedly not the kind of “charming fellow” who can’t write that Virginia Woolf is criticizing here. In fact, when we put this panel together I expected to say at least a few things about Virginia Woolf, but never in a million years did I think I’d talk about Donna Brazile.
But less than a week after a guy with a gun in Tucson killed six people and shot Representative Gabrielle Giffords, I heard Brazile speak on my university campus. It was a long-scheduled talk, the topic, diversity in leadership. But Brazile had a few things to say about how we talk about politics, and more so, how we pretend—or script in a very limited and misleading fashion—how we talk to each other about things of national import.
“I love mudslinging” is what she said. And she talked about how she likes to talk to George Will when they’re on screen together, disagreeing over politics, slinging that mud, speaking a kind of hostile shorthand to emphasize their disagreements. The problem, she said, is that the public doesn’t see what happens in the Green Room. Off camera, they are civil to each other. She asks about his family. He asks about hers. She once bought him a tie celebrating her hometown football team. He sometimes walks into the makeup room to tell her she looks good. Absent the whole picture, viewers get the impression that all they do is fight, that they are caricatures, lacking complexity and nuance.
By now, anyone within earshot of a TV or radio has heard one commentator or another suggest that even if the uncivil discourse of politics as seen on TV didn’t directly incite the violence in Tucson, there’s a connection of some kind. A combative climate is bound to lead to combat. It’s not just images of crosshairs over faces that might incite a guy with a gun to pull the trigger. We’ve heard that we should talk nice, that we should walk across the aisle and sit with someone from “the other side.”
But Donna Brazile wasn’t talking about symbols or symbolic acts. She wasn’t saying that we should stop slinging mud. She wasn’t saying that we should move liberals and conservatives around like chess pieces, placing opposites together. It’s not how we talk or where we sit that matters to Brazile so much as what gets left out when two people are talking. Those two people may—to echo Woolf—be charming, virtuous, or even learned and brilliant into the bargain, but if they are depicted in a limited way, if they are filmed not as complex people who think beyond pithy lines and hostile comebacks, if they are shown only fighting and never chatting or checking on each other’s family, then we have a situation in which—again to echo Woolf—rival personalities are decomposing in the eternity of . . . in this case, film, not print.
It’s the absence of complexity. The shallowness of depiction. The lack of nuance that Donna Brazile identified as the problem. This AWP panel is called “The Essay in the Age of Facebook.” And what could be less complex and lacking in nuance than the pithy little blasts that go from Facebook friends’ profiles to the walls of their ever-expanding circle of “friends,” a group so large and unwieldy that it would be far more accurate, I think, to call it an audience? But there is that little illusion that every little sentence or tiny paragraph is going out to friends. Is a shout-out to friends.
I’d like to consider with you how far-flung this is from the roots of the essay. How difficult a time the essay and the essayist have in a world that loves pundits on TV as well as Facebook, Twitter, and text messaging.
I came to Facebook relatively late. About three years ago. A lifelong Luddite, I resist most things technical. I was late to e-mail and still can barely figure out what Twitter is. But when I got e-mail from someone I’d known at Bread Loaf and had fallen out of touch with, and she asked me to join Facebook, I did.
Now Facebook made sense. I’m not so good at keeping up with people. There was something compelling about hearing from Wendy after all those years—a decade or more. Or maybe it was just that it was late at night, when I’m apt to be more frivolous, spontaneous. I set up a profile. Wendy was my first friend. Now I have over two hundred. I’m an extrovert, but I don’t have two hundred friends in life. Some of my life friends are Facebook friends. But as with most people, I’ve never met and couldn’t tell you the names of over half of my Facebook friends. They’ll always be virtual.
Some of my friends from the “real world”—the physical dimension—still resist Facebook. It’s trivial, they say. Annoying. A waste of time. My partner is one of these, and he won’t even let me post a picture of him on my Facebook page (although, really, how would he know?).
I can’t deny that. Take those status reports, those automatic posts announcing that Sally is now friends with “Debbie and 3 others,” that Jack likes Bob’s status. My “friends” post about what they are watching on TV or cooking for dinner. I post about walking my dogs. It’s the idle chitchat of friends removed from the texture of real life.
And yet there is something engaging about Facebook. It’s for reaching out. For staying in touch, creating a sense of community, however false. The person who was my very best friend in college, whom I’ve seen maybe once every five years and no longer even exchange Xmas cards with, is on Facebook. Almost daily we “poke” each other. Is that meaningless? It says we are staying in—virtual—touch.
A resister friend of mine said to an early embracer: “Oh, Facebook, that’s where you tell people you don’t want to be friends.” To which she replied, “That’s what I like about it.” And so there is that anticommunity too.
I see both sides of it. And I do recognize that most of the things that get posted are not only short but slight, one-sided, completely lacking in complexity. Let me pick a day, January 25, and give you a status report of posts I found on Facebook:
- More than a few of my FB friends, who live in many varied states, are posting about vomiting kids today. Projectile vomiting down the stairs, missing the bowl...apparently there is a lot of misery in Kid and Mama Land today.
- A few things I'll be involved in at AWP next week: [a long list follows].
- Hey, listen up, we are all part of one of America's rudest cities. Got that?
- Happy birthday.
- Sorry I missed your birthday.
And here’s mine: “Eighteen mile ride on St Marks Trail, Tallassee.” You’ll be happy to know that Teg, Josh, and two others liked this.
It’s chatter among friends. Nothing wrong with that unless we mistake it for the real thing. Unless we think that, just because we are typing, we are also writing.
But I want to point out, too, that on Facebook there is more than idle chatter going on. There are people who use Facebook to make brief stabs at political commentary. Often—usually—that is done with links. Read this article. Have you seen this? Does anybody know more about that?
I do have one unusual Facebook friend, a bishop in the Greek Orthodox Church. He’s someone I went to college with, and it’s odd to log on and see people addressing my old pal “Savas” as “Your Grace.” When he posts, it’s a move toward a miniessay. Here’s a recent example:
I wonder what St Gregory the Theologian would say about our present-day manner of public discourse. I have a feeling he might simply repeat something he said over 1600 years ago . . .
And he goes on, offering a quotation from St. Gregory that he finds applicable to our current political situation.
So I’m not here to say that Facebook is completely shallow, Twitter-like, vapid. At its best, it addresses and reflects our love for community, for finding old friends, for hearing what others’ lives are about, what they are thinking about topical matters. But if they are making small announcements, not thinking. Blasting out an opinion, sharing a quotation without thinking or wondering, blast after blast after blast.
It is this kind of environment that the essay writer enters. This kind of reader we speak to. And it’s something that, without mentioning Facebook, David Foster Wallace addressed the year he was guest editor of The Best American Essays, 2007. He called it a culture of “Total Noise.” He was referring to contemporary US culture, which he described as “a culture and volume of info and spin and rhetoric and context that I know I’m not alone in finding too much to even absorb, much less to try to make sense of or organize into any kind of triage of saliency or value.” Such basic absorption, organization, and triage used to be what was required of an educated adult, aka an informed citizen—at least that’s what I was taught. Suffice it to say that the requirements now seem different.
Wallace was reading and selecting manuscripts for the BAE volume within that context and culture. He wrote that even though many of the contemporary nonfiction writers he selected for the volume seem remote from what Montaigne was up to, and might better be called “literary nonfiction” than essays, they nevertheless all stand out for the quality of the writing. After announcing that “your guest editor isn’t sure what an essay even is,” he proceeded to figure it out—essayistically—by comparing his own approaches to writing fiction and writing essays.
Note how he gives us a glimpse of his evolving thinking—or, one might say, “the story of his thinking”:
Writing-wise, fiction is scarier, but nonfiction is harder—because nonfiction’s based in reality, and today’s felt reality is overwhelmingly, circuit-blowingly huge and complex. Whereas fiction comes out of nothing. Actually, so wait: the truth is that both genres are scary; both feel like they’re executed on tightropes, over abysses—it’s the abysses that are different. Fiction’s abyss is silence, nada. Whereas nonfiction’s abyss is Total Noise, the seething static of every particular thing and experience, and one’s total freedom of infinite choice about what to choose to attend to and represent and connect, and how, and why, etc. (xiv)
There you have it, a mind at work, taking time to question his thinking, to track it, to reveal the nuance. Whether contemporary nonfiction writers are composing works that resemble Montaigne’s, when they stop to think, to wonder, to view many sides of the matter at hand, to find nuance, turning it over and over in the light, they are writing in the spirit of Montaigne.
Writing the essay is scary and difficult. So many people who do not write essays make the mistake of assuming that all nonfiction is about what we already know, that we set out merely to record or report what happened. As if the essay itself were merely a status report. But as Vivian Gornick notes: “Penetrating the familiar is by no means a given. On the contrary, it is hard, hard work” (9). The essayist must do the hard work of not only shaping writing but understanding the complexities of the mind at work, of oneself. Gornick considers such classic essayists as Hazlitt, Woolf, and James Baldwin and notes that they “might not ‘know’ themselves—that is, have no more self-knowledge than the rest of us—but in each case—and this is crucial—they know who they are at the moment of writing” (20).
John D’Agata, perhaps our most vocal contemporary advocate of the “lyric essay,” of embracing yet breaking with tradition, also notes the form’s capacity for capturing the mind at work. As he wrote in the introduction to his collection The Next American Essay, after a list of facts about the writers included in the volume—their nationalities, races, home states:
I’m telling you this now, at the start of our journey, because I know you are expecting such facts from nonfiction. But henceforth please do not consider these “nonfictions.” I want you preoccupied with art in this book, not with facts for the sake of facts. A fact comes from the Latin word factum—literally, “a thing done”—a neuter past participle construction that suggests a fact is merely something upon which action has happened. It’s not even a word that can do its own work. From the same Latin root for fact we get the words “artifice,” “counterfeit,” “deficient,” “façade,” “infect,” “misfeasance,” and “superficial.” “There are no facts,” Emerson once wrote, “only art.” Let’s call this a collection of essays then—a book about human wondering.
Wondering, questioning the self—these are characteristics of the essayist. But a far cry from Total Noise, from Donna Brazile and George Will challenging each other onscreen, from today’s Facebook posts.
As Louis Lapham points out in the November 2010 issue of Harper’s, the key question an essayist addresses is “What do I know?” (And to Lapham, that makes the essay “adventurous.”) But Lapham is aware too of the extra challenge in writing this way in our current state:
How do we know what we think we know? Why is it that the more information we collect the less likely we are to grasp what it means? Possibly because a montage is not a narrative, the ear is not the eye, a pattern recognition is not a figure or a form of speech. The surfeit of new and newer news comes so quickly to hand that without the wind tunnels of the “innovative delivery strategies” the data blow away and shed. The time is always now, and what gets lost is all thought of what happened yesterday, last week, three months or three years ago.
I have already told you that I came to Facebook late. Oddly, I came to the essay late, too, and through the back door. Through fiction. I was enamored of Virginia Woolf’s novels and couldn’t get enough of her work, that fusion of the poetic sensibility and love for language with the intricate and secret workings of characters’ minds. And yet she never left out the real world. Far from being “the aesthetic lady of Bloomsbury,” she was hyperconscious of the social and political environment of her time. She wrote and spoke out about war, sexism, and many kinds of repression. Here are a few of her ideas about the essay, as expressed in “The Modern Essay”: “The essayist’s learning may be profound, but in an essay it must be so fused by the magic of writing that not a fact juts out, not a dogma tears the surface of the texture. Literal truth telling and finding fault with a culprit for his good are out of place in an essay, where everything should be for our good and rather for eternity than for the March number of the Fortnightly Review.” Like John D’Agata, like David Foster Wallace, like Vivian Gornick, Woolf sees the essay as a form that embraces fine writing and a sense of the idea, but the idea in motion, not tearing the surface.
Think of the readers of Virginia Woolf’s time, and you are likely to imagine pretty much the opposite of “Total Noise.” Then, readers had time to sit down and think, to read a book, to ponder the essayist’s nuances, to enter a kind of conversation with the writer—an aspect of the essay embraced by both Woolf and Montaigne.
And yet even for Woolf, the reader’s attention span was a problem. She wrote: “However much they differ individually, the Victorian essayists yet had something in common. They wrote at greater length than is now usual, and they wrote for a public which had not only time to sit down to its magazine seriously, but a high, if peculiarly Victorian, standard of culture by which to judge it.”
Imagine what Woolf might think of the challenge of the essayist today. We are so short on time, rushing to work, talking on our cell phones and brushing our hair as we drive, eating a breakfast sandwich, doing our mascara at the next red light.
And think of our standard of culture. We have the media hosting pundits who scream at each other, and friends who blast each other with one-liners and single positions. So we as essayists have a tough task ahead of us.
What I love about the essay is that you get to set off into the unknown. You take a journey into that unknown and sometimes precarious territory to see what can be discovered, what connections can be made. Can Donna Brazile and the shootings in Tucson fit together in an essay on the essay? Can my old friend who is a bishop and quoting dense philosophical and spiritual passages be connected to Brazile and Montaigne?
It reminds me of that long-ago children’s show that featured an artist at his easel. Kids could send in slips of paper with odd markings—maybe a dash in the middle, a circle in the upper right-hand corner, a big squiggly line at the bottom left. The artist would have two minutes to fuse these random—and purposefully unconnected—marks into a single drawing that not only made sense but had a pleasing look.
But of course the essay is much more that an exercise in connecting the dots or finding the pattern. It is, as David Foster Wallace says, an opportunity to make something out of the abyss of total noise.
Like my old friend the bishop, Montaigne liked to toss in a lengthy passage from another writer’s work. But then he’d invite the reader in to see his mind at work meandering over those words, exploring their relationships, surprising himself and the reader.
So if the essayist in the twenty-first century has to do the scary and hard work of tackling the abyss of Total Noise, I think it is important work.
Maybe we can bring back the idea of wondering. Of surprise.