Against the Contemporary American Essay

Jackson Arn in The Drift:

What the face mask is to American society, the essay is to American literature: deceptively slight, heroically versatile, centuries old but lately a subject of great interest — not because it’s doing anything new, but because everything else is falling apart.

The essay, James Wood wrote in The New Yorker, “has for some time now been gaining energy as an escape from, or rival to, the perceived conservatism of much mainstream fiction.” That was in 2011. How far back “some time” extends isn’t clear — to 1986, maybe, when someone at Houghton Mifflin decided that readers might be interested in a collection of The Best American Essays, not just The Best American Short Stories (an institution since World War I); or 1998, when the Library of America put out a long-overdue edition of James Baldwin’s collected essays; or some point in the early Obama years, when celebrities stopped slapping their names on memoirs and started slapping their names on essay collections instead.

More here.