The personal essay has always been a stepchild of serious literature, seemingly formless, hard to classify. Lacking the tight construction of a short story or the narrative arc of a novel or memoir, such essays have given readers pleasure without winning cultural respect. Written in a minor key, they could be slight and superficial, but their drawbacks could also be strengths. The style of the first-person essay tends to be conversational, tentative — in tune with our postmodern skepticism about absolutes, the trust we place in multiple perspectives. Few writers have pursued this more resourcefully than Phillip Lopate, who started out as a novelist and poet but gained traction when he began writing lively first-person essays in the late 1970s, later editing a landmark anthology, “The Art of the Personal Essay” (1994). Lopate belongs to the generation — my own — that came of age in the ’60s, a dec­ade that gave a huge push to all sorts of self-expression, including the essay.

more from Morris Dickstein at the NY Times here.