Writers in Person: Stalking the Essay

Unspeakable Sometimes it seems a little silly to get so excited about seeing authors I love in person. They are just people, right? They are just people who put words on a page. But whatever, I get excited about it. And today was a particularly great day. My husband agreed to watch our toddler so I could head into New York City to Columbia University, which hosted a conference called Stalking the Essay. They had a similar conference two years ago, which I got to go to and which was amazing. This time around, it was even better. It started off with an all-women panel (which is something that makes me happy even though it shouldn’t be a big deal — but it is a big deal) including Leslie Jamison, of The Empathy Exams, and Meghan Daum of The Unspeakable, a book I fell in love with and am recommending to everyone I know. Also on the panel was a new-to-me writer Lia Purpura. Their topic was the “new essay,” a concept everyone seemed rightly skeptical of. Daum was the star of the panel; the other talks were very good, but Daum’s was very good plus very funny, which is always a plus when you’re at a conference on the essay. She made an argument against calling writers “brave” for revealing personal things in their writing or making controversial arguments. It’s the writer’s job to be honest and to write something worthy of the time the reader puts into it, and if that involves revealing personal things about oneself, well, then that’s just part of the job. If it involves saying something that might be unpopular, then so be it. Also part of the job.

The next panel included Geoff Dyer, which was, after seeing Daum, the highlight of the day. I’ve been wanting to see Dyer — who is one of my most important writers — for ages. Ages! He does events in NYC fairly regularly, but I’d never been able to make one before. This time, though, I wasn’t going to miss it. Also on the panel were Wayne Koestenbaum and Laura Kipnis, whose book Against Love is another favorite. All the speakers this time around were both smart and funny, and I didn’t want it to end. Their topic was the book-length essay, so they talked a lot about genre distinctions, which is something people always do when they get on panels about the essay. No one knows what it is exactly. Dyer’s definition was pretty good, though: what makes a book-length work an essay is that the writer can never be definitive on the subject and that his or her essay-book doesn’t replace previous books on the subject, nor does it rule out future books. Regular book-books, though, tend to be definitive, as in a definitive biography, which, if it’s good enough, replaces all previous biographies and remains the final word, until someone digs up new information and there is a need for a new definitive biography.

White Girls The last panel was kind of strange, although it was hard to tell if it really wasn’t as successful as the others or if I was just getting tired. It had some big names, though: Marilynne Robinson, Jonathan Lethem, and Hilton Als. I liked Als’s talk very much, although I was too tired to take notes so I could remember it. Lethem’s, though, was disjointed and wandering, and a little too long. Robinson’s was interesting, but not at all on the topic of the day. She talked at length about the disturbing habit that Americans have of forgetting their own history, and I fully agreed with her, but kept wondering when she was going to talk about the essay. It never really happened. Still, she’s a hugely important figure in American literature, so I guess she can talk about whatever she wants to. There was no formal book signing time, but during that period after the panels where everyone mills around talking to people they know, I worked up the courage to ask both Daum and Dyer if they would sign their books for me, which they did. And I’m so excited about it! The whole thing was free and open to the public; all I had to do was register beforehand. Really, does it get any better than that?

6 Comments

Filed under Books

6 responses to “Writers in Person: Stalking the Essay

  1. This sounds like a great event!

    I’ve seen Marilynne Robinson speak a couple of times, and I think she usually does just talk about whatever she wants, even sometimes in answer to questions. She’s a towering intellect and an amazing writer, but I find that I prefer writing to her speaking.

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    • It was amazing! Yeah, she didn’t really answer the questions either, and she resisted the moderator’s attempts to get her talk about the essay as a genre. Some of the speakers at the conference were truly excellent speakers, but she wasn’t one of them. Her writing, on the other hand…. !

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  2. I am so jealous! This sounds like an amazing event and I wish I could have been there. I loved Meghan Daum’s book, and can so imagine how funny and good she would have been. What a treat!

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  3. Wow, I am so very jealous right now! What a great day and a very lucky you that you were able to attend!

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