Literature’s Lavender-Scented Little Old Lady

Fall, 2016: First honorable mention in non-fiction category of Wiscosnin Writer’s Association Jade Ring Contest


The personal essay has long been one of the most misunderstood genres of the writing world. Everyone has an opinion and the discussion has reached over many decades. In our fiction dominant domain, writing that deals with thoughts and feelings rather than character, hooks and action is seen as lacking.   So it was wonderful to see Joey Franklin’s article, entitled The Critic as Artist that appeared in a recent issue of the Writer’s Chronicle.

It compares the essay to art. Citing the critical ideas of Oscar Wilde, it focuses on the importance of personal impression, contemplation and self-consciousness. But since the essayist critiques, most often about themselves, they are thought self-centered.

Franklin lists many examples of how non-fiction writing has been thought to be literature’s inadequate step child. Disparagement of the essay goes far, far back. In the 1870’s, Montaignen was considered by many as father of the genre. He called the essay a foolish attempt and warned readers not to waste their time “on so frivolous and vain a subject.”

Samuel Johnson called essays “loose”, “irregular” and “undigested.”  G. K. Chesterton referred to them as “a joke of literature.” And John Waters, in a disapproving tone, called the essay literature’s “lavender-scented little old lady.” A. C. Benson branded the essayist “a lesser kind of poet, working in simpler and humbler materials.”

But most recently, Carl Klaus a well-respected defender of the essay said: “the essay….is a highly complex and problematic kind of writing—-an enactment of thought and a projection of personality that uses language dramatically ……and that thereby calls for literary interpretation.”

Phillip Lopate, an ardent defender of the personal essay, can’t say enough about the segues and twists the essayist can employ as he winds his way around and through their own dramatic tale. Oscar Wilde would agree, judging the essay as the only civilized form of autobiography because “it deals not with events, but with the thoughts of one’s life; not with life’s physical accidents of deed or circumstance but with the spiritual moods and imaginative passions of the mind.”

Wilde calls it “the record of one’s own soul. It is more fascinating than history, as it is concerned simply with oneself. It is more delightful than philosophy, as its subject is concrete and not abstract, real and not vague.”

In this form of writing, it’s the essayist who is the main character and it’s their duty to tell their deeply personal story with as much interpretation as they can muster. When they’re true to themselves, the universal appeal shows through.

Maybe that’s why the essay is so controversial. In telling their most personal tales, the essayist bares their soul. They don’t hide behind the words or behavior of a fictional character. Instead, they come out as themselves. They say all the tough things and take  full responsibility for their thoughts and feelings. That’s hard. That’s risky.

Indeed, the personal essay deserves respect, Those who view it positively, and there are many, need to become more vocal in their praise. That seems to be changing as memoir has become a more accepted genre. Further proof is in looking at current movies. For each of the last two years, half of the Oscar-nominated movies have been based on a true story. Perhaps the personal essay is coming into its own. Once again.

Also, maybe it’s time for all readers to critically look again toward this genre and give the essay and all non-fiction writing its due. Then, perhaps more writers will show courage and reveal “the record of one’s own soul,” reaping the benefits of telling the rich and meaningful stories of their own lives.



1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Linda Dean
    Aug 26, 2016 @ 10:29:53

    Congrats, Karin…!



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