“The Essay as Red-Headed Stepchild”

In the foreword to his Selected Essays, E. B. White wrote that he was “not fooled about the place of the essay in twentieth-century American letters—it stands a short distance down the line. The essayist, unlike the novelist, the poet, and the playwright, must be content in his self-imposed role of second-class citizen” and should not dream of “the Nobel Prize or other earthly triumphs.”

Perhaps, but I prefer to think that the self-pity White is adopting here is mostly ironic.  By 1977, when he wrote this passage, he was seventy-eight years old, fabulously successful and as comfortable as a man who had battled depression all his life could be.

Nevertheless, he was onto something. There is a hierarchy of genres.

Last Thursday, October 7, we found out that the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer won this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature. He is undoubtedly a wonderful writer and I’m happy to be introduced to him and his work. Perhaps he’s even written some essays. Fine essayists have been awarded the Nobel Prize – Mann, Hemingway, Sartre, Camus, Paz, Lessing – but like the first winner, the French poet-essayist Sully Prudhomme, they were all known first and mainly for their work in another genre, usually fiction or poetry.

This week, the finalists for this year’s National Book Awards were announced, five in each of four categories.  These twenty books were selected from the 1,223 books their publishers had nominated. All of the finalists (indeed, all of the nominees) should feel honored, all of these books are great books, and readers interested in literature and good writing should buy them and read them. Four different panels of five judges select the finalists, and eventually the winner, in each category. My problem is not with the judges or the prizewinners, but with the categories.

The four categories of the National Book Awards are currently Fiction, Poetry, Young People’s Literature, and Nonfiction. Nonfiction is a biiiiiiiiiig category. I suspect short story writers may feel the same way about the Fiction category, for they know novels will, as they did again this year, dominate the category. (Edith Pearlman’s story collection, Binocular Vision, is up against four novels.)

Similar imbalances occur in the Nonfiction category. This year all of the National Book Award finalists in Nonfiction were biographies. Last year, Patti Smith’s wonderful memoir of her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, Just Kids, won over a biography, two books of history, and Megan Stack’s memoir of reporting on the war on terror. Some great essay collections, such as The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher (1975) by Lewis Thomas and United States: Essays 1952-1992 (1993) by Gore Vidal, have won in past years, but they have been the exception and they were always up against works of history, biography, and studies of science and current events (The 9/11 Commission Report was nominated in 2004). In the last decade or so, hardly any essay collections have been nominated. The few creative nonfiction slots have gone to memoirs. Religion scholar Carlos Eire’s memoir of growing up in Havana in the Fifties, Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy, was nominated in 2003; Edwidge Danticat’s memoir of her father and uncle, Brother, I Am Dying, in 2007; and Joan Didion’s wrenching The Year of Magical Thinking won in 2005.

Pulitzer Prizes come in two main flavors: journalism and books. One would think that essayists might find an opening among the journalism awards, for they currently include thirteen different subcategories, but this hasn’t been the case. Even though essays appear first in general readership magazines, Sunday reviews, op-ed pages, and columns, essayists have not found a friendly subcategory among the Pulitzer awards for journalism. Russell Baker and Anna Quindlen did win Pulitzers for Commentary in 1979 and 1992 respectively, but that category has usually gone to political pundits or economic analysts such as Thomas Friedman (2002), Cynthia Tucker (2007), or David Leonhardt (2011). The Pulitzer journalism category of Criticism has been reserved almost exclusively for reviewers of books, television, music, and films, but not cultural critics whose work might also be considered to be personal essays. Finally, the category Feature Writing has really meant feature reporting—investigations of murders, disasters and neglected communities, but nothing along the lines of the literary profiles of Gay Talese or the personal history of Sarah Vowell. Howell Raines’ remembrance of his family’s black housekeeper in 1992 is the one exception of the last two decades.

Like the National Book Awards, the Pulitzer Prizes for books has a single all-encompassing category: General Nonfiction. Renowned books of creative nonfiction have won in this category in the past including Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night (1969), Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1975), and Tracy Kidder’s The Soul of A New Machine (1982), but in recent years it has been dominated by political history.

The National Book Critics Circle currently offers prizes in Biography, Autobiography, Nonfiction and Criticism, but this hasn’t always been the case. Over the years the NBCC has shuffled their categories almost continuously. Until 2002 they had a Biography/Autobiography category, but it morphed into just Biography during 2003 and 2004 before splitting into two categories Biography and Autobiography/Memoir in 2005, though the second category has sometimes been called just Autobiography. Of the major awards, it has been the NBCC that has most often listed collections of essay among its finalists, but it has done this in the category of Criticism, not Nonfiction, which has almost always meant history. In Criticism, NBCC finalists and occasionally winners have included William H. Gass, Eudora Welty, Gore Vidal, Guy Davenport, Mary McCarthy and Cynthia Ozick, and more recently Gerald Early, Wayne Koestenbaum, Ander Monson and Lia Purpura. When a personal essayists have won in the category of Criticism—as Eula Biss did with her beautiful and knotty Notes From No Man’s Land: American Essays in 2009—they have almost always done so against a field of traditional film, music, book or dance criticism.

The American Book Awards, established by the Before Columbus Foundation and administered by American Book Sellers Association, has named important memoirs unrecognized by the other more mainstream groups, including, among recent examples, Bich Minh Nguyen’s Short Girls and Neela Vaswani You Have Given Me a Country. Their selection process is unique. As they put it, “There are no categories, no nominees, and therefore no losers. The award winners range from well-known and established writers to under-recognized authors and first works.” This more open-ended approach has not, however, led them to recognize collections of personal essays any more regularly than the Pulitzer or National Book Award committees have.

E. B. White may have genuinely given up on the Nobel Prize, but I suspect, in his heart of hearts, he hoped to win a Pulitzer, National Book Award, or National Book Critics Circle Award. Ironically, he was a finalist only once, not for his Selected Essays, but for the Letters of E. B. White, edited by Dorothy Lobrano Guth, in 1976 for a National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism. Our personal essayists do indeed stand “down the line,” as White put it. They should not. The personal essay should be more than the “fourth genre.” It is literary, possessed of a rich tradition, and full of unique possibilities. It deserves to be studied in literature as well as writing classes. It deserves anthologies that emphasize historical and cultural context, and promote extensive critical interpretation.  It deserves a diverse and expansive canon full of challenging essays that are read by general readers and scholars alike. And it deserves its own category among the major literary awards.

This blog post appeared originally at the http://brevitymag.com/. Special thanks to Dinty Moore.