Here’s a reason I’m a fan of Twitter: without it I wouldn’t have found out about a one-day conference at Columbia called “Stalking the Essay.” (Many thanks to Michele Filgate for mentioning it.) It was too tempting to pass up, so although I couldn’t get away for an entire day, I made it to the two afternoon sessions. They were fabulous. The entire day was organized by Phillip Lopate, one of my heroes as editor of the anthology The Art of the Personal Essay, so it was a delight to get to see him. And then I got to see three other writers I’m fond of: Vivian Gornick, whose The Situation and the Story I’ve read; Colm Toibin, author of The Master, which I loved, and of Brooklyn which I hope to read soon; and David Shields, whose book Reality Hunger I’ve enjoyed criticizing and arguing with but from which I’ve gotten a ton of wonderful book recommendations. I also was introduced to some writers I haven’t read yet but hope to at some point: Patricia Hampl, Margo Jefferson, Daniel Mendelsohn, and Geoffrey O’Brien.
The first session was on “Criticism and the Essay,” and it dealt with boundaries among genres, for example, the book review versus the review essay, i.e., moving beyond the book itself to the broader context in which a book sits, or criticism, which implies an expert pronouncing judgment on a subject, versus the essay, which leaves room for not knowing, for lacking expertise. They talked about the challenge of writing what one wants to write while at the same time meeting the needs of a particular publication and a particular audience. They also talked about moving from writing polemically, i.e. letting a particular political point of view dominate one’s writing, toward writing essayistically, i.e. letting the subject rather than the point of view lead the piece.
The second session was on “The Personal and Impersonal Essay,” and the speakers in this part each gave a talk that was partly autobiographical, partly about how they negotiate the personal in their essay writing. Colm Toibin talked about how uncomfortable he is writing personally, but that he finds a way to write about himself indirectly, through the subjects that he chooses, which often end up (often unexpectedly) relating in some fashion to his personal experiences. Patricia Hampl spoke about what it is like to write autobiographically when, as she put it, nothing has ever happened to her. That turned out not to be true, of course. David Shields did a lot of what he does best: recommending great books and arguing for their greatness.
Perhaps the best part of the day came at the end when I got Shields and Lopate to sign books for me. There wasn’t a formal book signing, but all the speakers were milling around at the front of the lecture hall and looked approachable, so I got over my reluctance to talk to intimidating and famous (to me) strangers, and got their signatures. I did it without, I think, saying anything stupid.
So yay to Columbia for organizing an awesome event, and yay to Twitter for making it easier to publicize awesome events. I don’t know if I’ll be able to make it to this one, but the next event (discovered on Twitter) that I’ve got my eye on is at Housing Works bookstore: “A Discussion of Women and Criticism” with Laura Miller and others.
I’ll go to this event if I can manage to tear myself away from this charming little guy: