Susan Orlean wrangles with the nature of the essay in her introduction to Best American Essays 2005:
Anytime I read an essay, write an essay, or, as is the case here, sort through and select the very best of a year’s essays, I find myself wondering what an essay is —what makes up the essential parts and structures of the form. . . .Is an essay a written inquiry? A meditation? A memoir? Does it concern the outside world or just probe the writer’s interior world? Can it be funny? Does it have answers or does it just raise questions? Does it argue a point or is it a cool, impartial view of the world? Does it have a prescribed tone or is it absolutely individual — a conversation between the writer and reader, as idiosyncratic as any conversation might ever be?
The essays selected for the collection seem slotted in to answer the questions Orlean has about the essay. Some like Michael Martone’s “Contributor’s Note” and David Sedaris’ “Old Faithful” are funny. (Humor, especially if it’s classified as nonfiction, gets spanked because of exaggeration to the point people claim it and perhaps its writers should be lashed for the lack of truthfulness; Sedaris has recently been washboarded by the press. These interrogators seem justified because many recent memoirists and journalists have exaggerated or just plain damn lied. Exaggeration or even fictionalization, though, make the humor work; it’s intentional to that form of writing, and not outright lying, except for the effect of laughing. The whole of one of my favorite essays, or series of essays, Mark Twain’s “Letters From the Earth, Satan’s Letter,” is fiction, or written in the voice of Satan; and yet it’s not a short story — it’s Satan making an argument from evil: why is there evil in the world if God is wholly good? Such an essay leads to this question, I suppose: do essays have to be nonfiction?)
Now to steer away from my aside and back to the topic of essays, specifically the essays in Best American Essays 2005. Other than humor pieces, the collection also contains traditional argumentative essays such as Mark Greif’s “Against Exercise,” though its form is much more sophisticated than the classical rhetorical form we’re taught or teach in freshman comp classes; it relies heavily, as many of the essays in the collection do, on inductive structure, saving the argument for the conclusion. Greif’s thesis, for instance, to sum up, is this: the way we exercise now makes us closer to regulated automatons, shutting down our spirits, rather than helping us maintain health and biological processes. My favorite essay in the collection, Edward Hoagland’s “Small Silences” follows a similar inductive structure, arguing for an immersion in nature rather than lording over it, but Hoagland steps into the essay, making the argument personal, and bolstering that argument with traditional elements of an essay — narrative, description, exposition. His experience of the natural world becomes evidence for the argument.
Unlike Hoagland, other personal essays that I’ve been reading rely almost solely on narrative and description to tell stories, brief whiffs of autobiographical experience. They do what good fiction does: they open the reader, as William Faulkner said, to the verities of the human heart. But these stories: what makes them essays, other than the nonfiction, the autobiography? I’m not sure I can answer that, any more than I can answer the question “What is an essay?” in the first place, other than the cop-out “I know it when I see it.” The problem it seems is that essays are chameleons, or better yet, shapeshifters: they sometimes have classical shapes — introduction, main body, conclusion — they may appear as journalism, or autobiography, they may be complex ruminations, the ponderings about “how the beating of a moth’s wings on a window pane mirrors the eternal strivings of the human soul,” or simple, an editorial arguing for a new school. The best of them will have something in common: they will be attempts, or essays, to connect with the verities of the human heart.