"The hallmark of the personal essay is its intimacy. The writer seems to be speaking directly into your ear, confiding everything from gossip to wisdom."
That's Phillip Lopate, in the introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay, reminding us that the best essays are like conversations. Personal essays can be about anything, from programming a VCR to coping with the death of a loved one, but they all reflect "how the world comes at another person, the irritations, jubilations, aches and pains, humorous flashes." Lopate also discusses the current state of the essay, concluding that we are undergoing a "cautious revival of the genre."
Judging by the books that have passed through the Booklist office recently, that may be an understatement. Below are a few examples, all of which display the personal essay in fine fettle.
Alford, Henry. Municipal Bondage. Random, 1994, $18 (0-679-41509-2).
"Life, it often appears, is more and more a reassertion of old and somewhat tired themes; new topics of potential inquiry are lost amidst a regimen of seeing current movies, patronizing ethnic restaurants, and making uncharitable comments about those not immediately present." Sometimes the point of a personal essay is to make the reader see how much his or her life is like that of the author and how vapid those lives are. Afford does it as well as anyone since Fran Lebowitz.
Dorris, Michael. Paper Trail: Essays.
HarperCollins, 1994, $22 (0-06-016971-0).
Along with novels like A Yellow Raft in Blue Water and topical non fiction like The Broken Cord, Michael Dorris has been writing delightful personal essays for years and publishing them in a wide variety of magazines and newspapers including the New York Times, Ladies Home Journal, and, I'm proud to say, Booklist. Whatever his subject--from assisting his mother and aunt in their neverending quest to find a really good piece of pie to reassessing the novels of Laura Ingalls Wilder from a very personal perspective, Don-is the essayist always finds the just-right voice. He is a witty, graceful, and perceptive writer in whatever genre he chooses to work. …