On Ears Essayist

On Ears Essayist-42
It was Wednesday morning, not ‘the day after 9/11.’ ” That is exactly wrong.

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If Sedaris said he had an impatient French teacher, we would believe him, but not be very interested.

When he says that his teacher “singled me out, saying, ‘Every day spent with you is like having a Caesarean section,’ ” we recognize not so much an experience as a one-liner, and relax into the knowledge that we are watching not a reflection but a performance.

Books of essays regularly turn up on the best-seller lists; many of their authors are stars on the radio, especially on the cult program “This American Life.” In the HBO show “Girls,” the character portrayed by Lena Dunham declared her ambition to become a writer and “the voice of my generation,” but she did not hope to write the Great American Novel: she wanted to produce a book of essays.

Here as in so many of its details, “Girls” proves to be a faithful stenographer of its moment.

It is also the way he continually confesses to bad behavior and bad motives, which, if taken as literally true, would make him a despicable person.

In his essay “I Almost Saw This Girl Get Killed,” Sedaris writes about seeing a woman trapped in a Ferris wheel accident, and his immediate reaction is to congratulate himself on witnessing such an interesting event.

You do not have to read very far in the work of the new essayists to realize that the resurrection of the essay is in large measure a mirage.

For while the work of writers such as David Sedaris, Sloane Crosley, John Jeremiah Sullivan, and Davy Rothbart are described as essays—My Heart Is an Idiot: Essays", is the title of Rothbart’s new book—they have little in common with what was once meant by that term.

“The essay, as a literary form, is pretty well extinct,” Philip Larkin wrote gloomily in 1984.

Extinct was the right word, capturing the sense of an organism that could no longer survive in a changed environment.


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