Thursday, March 25, 2010

On the Lyric Essay as Form or Genre or What?

The term "Lyric Essay," gets a lot of serious attention in David Shields' new book, Reality Hunger, where it is held up as an example of the kind of writing that Shields loves. Read David's book if you can; or at the very least check out the Reality Hunger mini-conference-thing over at the Brevity Blog. In David's book the lyric essay is presented as the form or genre (or ????) where (to oversimplify it) books that are hard to categorize can find a home. I don't know for sure where the term comes from, but I know that I first heard about it in graduate school about 10 years ago from John D'Agata. He had just come out with his first book, Halls of Fame (a book that seriously messed with my head and my preconceptions about books, literature, genre, form, etc.) and was the nonfiction editor at Seneca Review, which had just done a special issue on lyric essays, an issue that has now become a kind of classic text in nonfiction. Of course D'Agata's new book, About a Mountain, has received a lot of attention lately. He recently visited Fresno and talked with my students about his book and about the term "lyric essay." He admitted that he had grown tired of the term and said that he thought he was best understood as a pedagogical tool, as a way of understanding and teaching people about a kind of essay, rather than as a form or sub-genre. This makes a lot of sense to me. But what then do we make of magazines, or perhaps more striking, entire presses that specify a preference for lyric essays? What then do we make of Shields's preference for the lyric essay form? And does the term as a pedagogical tool accomplish any more clarity or precision than the term "nonfiction"? One of the things I love about nonfiction is the shared project of definition--a project I personally hope we never finish.

2 comments:

  1. A definition is an attempt at staking out territory, not in an ownership-sense, but in an epistemological sense. "I understand this better now that I've named it/it's been named for me." I first encountered D'Agata's definition in Seneca Review around the time you did, and what struck me then was the feeling that what I'd felt was now articulated (smartly). (Perhaps I feel that lyric essays are closer to prose poems than some do, but then again....) Publishers name what they're interested in in order to get results, maybe?

    Georges Braque: "To define a thing is to substitute the definition for the thing itself." I know that I love the place between song and declaration, whatever we're calling it.

    Joe Bonomo

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