What Makes a Good Essay?
Michele Filgate interviews Leslie Jaminson and Roxanne Gay on their two recent essay collections. Both agree that a good essay needs to look both inward and outward, combining personal experience and larger cultural ideas, all grounded upon a creativity and intellectual rigor.
Well, going along with what both of you said, I wanted to ask what each of you think makes a good essay. You kind of hit on it already a little bit but … I feel like the essay can be so different, much like a novel. There are different kinds of novels, and there are different kinds of essays. But for both of you, when you’re writing them and when you’re reading them, what do you want to see in an essay?
Gay: I definitely want to see writing that looks both inward and outward. I love the exposure, the way in which people reveal themselves, but I also want an essayist to connect to something beyond themselves, something bigger … that kind of inquiry that’s both personal and beyond personal is what makes a really good essay. I also love attention to the sentence. I love a really well-crafted sentence, and a well-crafted essay. Someone who is putting as much time into the writing as they are into the revelation.
Jamison: Yeah, I would definitely echo both of those. I think that when I write, and when I read, I like that whole gaze inward and outward, I also love to be surprised, and I love to be surprised on the level of the sentence certainly, the level of cadences and rhythms and how those can kind of lull me into a certain trance, a certain set of expectations and then jolt me out of it again, that sensation is pleasurable to me. But I also love surprise, I love the kind of surprise that testifies to ways that the writer was surprised in the act of writing the essay … I love coming back to the essay as an attempt or as an inquiry, and that certainly resonates in my experience as a writer. Like, almost every essay that I’ve written that I feel is successful is partially successful because it surprised me at some point because it ended up being about something very different than what I thought it was going to be about when I started writing it. And I love as a reader when I’m granted some version of that experience in an essay as well. It thwarts where I thought it was headed, or another kind of floor opens up beneath the floor I thought I was standing on.
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