What Should An Essay Do?

A highly linked attempt to articulate what our essay editors are looking for.

A while back, essayist Leslie Jamison published a characteristically thoughtful and elegant article entitled “What Should An Essay Do?” in The New Republic. She began with an examination of new work by two other thoughtful and elegant essayists, Rebecca Solnit and Michelle Orange, and proceeded into consideration of a larger issue that their work posed:

As a genre grounded in productive uncertainty—collage rather than argument, exploration rather than assertion—the essay is constantly posing the conundrum of its own existence: What should an essay do? What should it offer? It finds its etymological roots in the old French essai: to attempt. It blends inquiry and confession into a hybrid weave that deepens each. It draws personal material into public mattering.

This deepening, this drawing together — exemplified by Jamison’s own work, from the philosophical musings of “The Devil’s Bait” to the achingly intimate “Rehearsals” to her acclaimed essay collection The Empathy Exams, as well as by Solnit’s work, and Orange’s — is what we hope to see, to support, to share with the world.

We seek essays that investigate the intersection of public and private; the traverse between asking and telling, between knowing and not-knowing, between looking outward and looking inward.

We long for the lyric and for the narrative, for meditation and for analysis; we want both brief and lengthy, both discursive and direct.

We revere the deft interweaving of personal and political that happens in the essays of Hilton Als and Justin CampbellToni Nealie and Kenzie Allen and Chanda Hsu Prescod-Weinstein.

We’re awed by the profound self-examination and self-revelation done by writers like David Ulin, Ariel LevyDurga Chew-Bose.

We get breathless about the language, the pushing of limits  in work by Maggie Nelson, T Fleischmann, Fady Joudah.

We love this impressionistic memoir by Brangien Davis, and this intellectual meander by Eula Bliss, and this beautiful interrogation by Alexander Chee, and this poetic consideration by Anna Della Subin, and this exquisite thing by Mary Ruefle, and and and —

And now we’d like to see what your essays do.

Won’t you please give us a try?


Epistle to the Readers

The muses laugh at a plan, so Dead Letter Office, which I had imagined as a nonfiction department, rapidly became a genre-defying free-for-all: truth and untruth, poetry and prose, email and fan mail, business memos and personal ads.

Face: Me

On Glenn Ligon’s Palindrome #1