3 instances of writers writing against their own genre:
1. There's a long tradition -- going back at least to 1936 -- of law review articles attacking law review articles. Judge Richard Posner's from a few years ago, for instance. My mom also wrote one much earlier -- it's excerpted in the block quote in this post.
2. This blog post attacking blog posts stirred up the blogosphere a few weeks ago.
3. Now there's an essay called "Why Essays Are So Damned Boring," by Cristina Nehring.
This essay helped me stop feeling guilty about not reading more "essay" essays -- the kinds of things that appear in the New Yorker, Harper's, and those annual Best American Essays books, as opposed to reporting or opinion pieces of the sort that are more common in my periodicals of choice, like the Washington Post and The New Republic.
I generally prefer straightforward analysis if I'm going to read about the world. If I'm not going to get tons of concrete information or rigorous arguments about how things work, then I'd rather just forget about the serious stuff altogether and listen to music or watch a movie. (And not a protest song or an ideological movie!) I'm less interested in some squishy grey area between the analytical/political and the creative/autobiographical.
Back to the essay... Nehring has some inspiring words:
We have grown terribly—if somewhat hypocritically—weary of larger truths. The smarter and more intellectual we count ourselves, the more adamantly we insist that there is no such thing as truth, no such thing as general human experience, that everything is plural and relative and therefore undiscussable.
Of course, everything is plural, everything is arguable, and there are limits to what we can know about other persons, other cultures, other genders. But there is also a limit to such humility; there is a point at which it becomes narcissism of a most myopic sort, a simple excuse to talk only about one’s own case, only about one’s own small area of specialization. Montaigne thought it the essayist’s duty to cross boundaries, to write not as a specialist (even in himself) but as a generalist, to speak out of turn, to assume, to presume, to provoke.
“Where I have least knowledge,” said the blithe Montaigne, “there do I use my judgment most readily.” ...
“The next best thing to a good sermon is a bad sermon,” said Montaigne’s follower and admirer Ralph Waldo Emerson, the first American essayist. In a good sermon we hear our own discarded thoughts brought “back to us by the trumpets of the last judgment,” in the words of Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance.” In a bad sermon we formulate those thoughts ourselves—through the practice of creative disagreement. If an author tells us “love is nothing but jealousy” and we disagree, it is far more likely that we will come up with our own theory of love than if we hear a simple autobiographical account of the author’s life. It is hard to argue with someone’s childhood memory—and probably inadvisable. It is with ideas that we can argue, with ideas that we can engage. ...
Today’s essayists need to be emboldened, and to embolden one another, to move away from timid autobiographical anecdote and to embrace—as their predecessors did—big theories, useful verities, daring pronouncements. We need to destigmatize generalization, aphorism, and what used to be called wisdom. We must rehabilitate the notion of truth—however provisional it might be.
The last sentence in that block quote is a "good sermon" to me, since it echoes this post.
And the Montaigne quote ("Where I have least knowledge...") could serve as a powerful rebuke to the anti-blog blog post linked above. More about that later...
UPDATE: This post is making my mom nervous!