Dealing in uncertainty, the essay may be the perfect form for our time

Sharks were swimming in the New York Stock Exchange. On the night of Monday, Oct. 29, 2012, as Hurricane Sandy brought chaos and destruction to New York, Twitter had the news. First, a tweet headed BREAKING (all caps) went out saying that the exchange had been flooded with more than three feet of water. It hardly mattered that the origin of this report had the anonymous handle @comfortablysmug; it went viral, and within hours it had been retweeted hundreds of times. Before the night was over, others were claiming that the water had brought with it unexpected guests: sharks. There were now sharks swimming on the floor of the exchange. None of this was true, of course, and news organizations and government officials spent the night and the following morning trying to dispel the rumor.

Pervasive misinformation has been with the Internet since its inception, and is a core constituent of our online lives. In the early days of email we forwarded anything, no matter how incredible, breathing life into untold urban legends, from the HIV-tipped syringes hiding everywhere to Bill Gates’ never-ending Beta-testing email forwards. At some point we got wise, realizing that any joker could edit a Wikipedia page, and learned to distrust anything that didn’t come from something that at least appeared to be a reputable source.

Like those stock exchange sharks, we’re still swimming in a morass of misinformation — the latest nuisance being the plague of faux-satire “news” sites, such as the Daily Currant and the National Report. These outfits offer fake news stories that seem plausible enough, playing to confirmation bias for the purpose of generating outrage clicks. Unlike the Onion, there is little attempt to appear satirical; sites often mimic legitimate news sources, such as abc.com.co (beware that last .co), or iflscience.org (which is nearly indistinguishable from the already dubious iflscience.com). Our credulity has become a moving target, with scammers, fear mongers and clickbaiters always trying to stay one step ahead of our skepticism, making sifting through social media endlessly exhausting: Either you outright assume half the things you click on will be false, or you buy into a landscape into which your fear and anxieties are constantly being catered to.

This is not the first time a revolution in information technology has resulted in a crisis of veracity. In his book “The Origins of the English Novel,” scholar Michael McKeon described how the birth of the printing press led to an initial burst of what he calls “naïve empiricism” — a belief that anything printed must be true, followed rapidly by a period of extreme skepticism, when it became clear that this was very much not the case. In 1625, Ben Jonson’s play “The Staple of Newes” set out to provide a mirror “wherein the age may see her owne folly, or hunger and thirst after publish’d pamphlets of ‘Newes,’ set out every Saturday, but made all at home, & no syllable of truth in them.”

What we now know of as the novel arises out of this complex moment: The realist novel, which McKeon argues arises “from the ruins of the claim to historicity,” replaces a need for truth with probability. The story of Robinson Crusoe shipwrecked on an island, or Clarissa Harlowe’s thwarted romantic life represents, not true stories per se, but stories “true enough” that they accommodate a reasonable suspension of disbelief. As an elegant truce to an intractable problem, the realist novel offered a way out, and unsurprisingly caught on like wildfire.

The novel has lost some of its novelty in the 300 years since “Robinson Crusoe,” and doesn’t offer as much perspective on this blurring of fact and fiction on the Internet. But maybe, John D’Agata suggests, the essay can help instead.

D’Agata, director of the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa, has spent the last 15 years trying to use the essay as Defoe used the novel: to get out of the impasse over what’s real and what’s not, and to solve the anxiety over the veracity of the media we consume, this time by foregrounding that anxiety itself, and asking us to confront it head on.

Beginning with 2003’s “The Next American Essay,” and then with 2009’s “The Lost Origins of the Essay” and now with the third and final volume, “The Making of the American Essay,” D’Agata has sought to provide a thoughtful alternative road map to how we might think of the essay and its role in the current moment.

In a series of prefatory essays that eventually merge into one continuous discussion, he presents the nonfiction essay not as its own separate genre alongside poetry or fiction, but a means of navigating a world where it’s increasingly difficult to sort fact and fiction.

D’Agata’s conception of the essay responds directly to a post-Google age. “With so much raw data now available to us,” he writes, “we no longer need writers to hunt down our information. What we need is someone to help select what matters from what we have. Not to accumulate but to shape; not to report but to make.” What makes the essay hum, for D’Agata, is its ability to go beyond mere reportage, to exist “between chance and contrivance, between the given and the made.”

It does this by foregrounding questioning rather than certainty, experiment and mistake rather than polish and self-satisfaction. There ought to be a genre, he suggests, “that’s reserved for our unknowing — that gorgeous messy practice of perpetual pursuit, the attempts that are as much about apprenticeships with knowing, as they are with failure too.” If the novel’s answer in the 18th century was to sidestep the question of veracity with plausibility, the essay responds to that same question by plunging us head-on into unknowing, foregrounding our confusion and engaging directly with how we know a thing to be true, and why it matters.

Certainly interest in the essay form has exploded in recent years: The popularity of Eula Biss’ “On Immunity”  and Leslie Jamison’s “The Empathy Exams shows a renewed focus on the essay, a form that used to be all but unsellable.

What many of these essay writers focus explicitly on are questions of truth and facticity. Jamison writes about sufferers of Morgellon’s disease, which the medical community has unilaterally dismissed as a delusion, despite the conviction with which its sufferers maintain it to be a physical ailment. Biss works through the anxieties surrounding vaccines; she is concerned not with doubting their impact but with trying to understand anti-vaccine activists' fears).

Maggie Nelson’s recently reissued “The Red Parts” retells the trial of her aunt’s murderer, focusing on questions of doubt and certainty in the criminal justice system, particularly decades after the crime. These essayists all return to a fundamental problem again and again: How do you know a thing is true? How do you judge a fact, how do you sift through evidence, and how do you pronounce someone else wrong?

The essay (or the essay-affect) at its best interrogates these questions of truth and verification, bringing the reader directly into the process of evaluating fact and fiction, and providing the reader with some kind of navigation for our current state in which truthfulness is such a fraught concept. In a contemporary landscape in which fact is so regularly and systematically disregarded, the essay responds not just by demanding its own truth, but by turning our attention to the means by which we evaluate the information around us. Biss, Nelson, Jamison and other modern essayists all work, as D’Agata says of Joe Brainard’s essay, “I Remember,” to “engineer significance out of doubt.”

D’Agata is perhaps best known for his 2010 book “Lifespan of a Fact,” a somewhat botched attempt to deal with the problem of doubt in which he seemed to be saying that exact details don’t really matter. This was definitely not the right answer to the question, and readers have since tended to view his approach with deep skepticism. But his larger project, the one he inaugurated with “The Next American Essay” (along with the first collection of his own essays, 2001’s “Halls of Fame”), is far more thoughtful.

At a time when writers are profitably testing the boundaries between “literary fiction” and “genre” — science fiction, fantasy, etc. — D’Agata wants to similarly test the boundaries between “nonfiction” and other forms of writing. The first quarter of “The Making of the American Essay” is a solid greatest hits of American literature, from the Puritans to the American Renaissance, with Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Poe and Dickinson coming in rapid succession. Their names are unsurprising for an anthology about America, perhaps, and for an anthology that’s designed in part for classrooms. But by folding in a novelist, short story writer, and two poets alongside recognized essayists, D’Agata enlarges the scope and purpose of the essay as a genre. Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick,” he reminds us, is at its core a book that “wanders, that muses, that uses facts and information to help expand its curiosity rather than to dictate the limits of ours,” and thus offers a model for (or at least perspective on) the kind of essay D’Agata is searching for.

The selections in “The Making of the American Essay” aren’t always successful (I could do with never again seeing Kenneth Goldsmith or Norman Mailer anthologized in anything), but the book is upfront about its aim: less to be a canonical record of a form and more a series of experiments, with each piece testing the boundaries in a different direction. And the book is upfront about its refusal to remain just another treasury of beloved chestnuts: “Conventional essays tend to privilege expositional clarity — that arrowy delineation of thought that promises the logical development of ideas toward uncluttered and easily digestible meanings. What we don’t tend to value in essays, in other words, is what the essay actually is: an attempt, a trial, an experiment that does not guarantee a result. After all, to genuinely ‘attempt’ something, doesn’t there need to be the genuine risk that we might fail?”

This question of failure, I submit patriotically, is where the anthology is most American. Of the three volumes of essays D’Agata has edited, this is the second to incorporate the word “American,” and it is by far the most focused on this country’s history and literature: “The Making of the American Essay” focuses not just on the form of the essay, but explicitly its relationship to the American tradition of literature, and this country’s influence on the development of the genre. “If there’s one thing American history can teach us about the essay,” he writes early on, “it’s that sometimes the best intentions are undermined by better experiments.” The true project of America, after all, is never in perfectly tailored monuments to success and certainty, but rather the endlessly roiling and turmoiling quest for reinvention. So it’s fitting that “The Making of the American Essay” is less a perfectly formed collection of masterpieces, than a messy laboratory, one that fails as often as it succeeds, composed of far more questions than answers.

Therein, after all, lies the magic. As Emily Dickinson put it: “Wonder — is not precisely Knowing and not precisely Knowing not — ”

Dickey is the author of three books of nonfiction, including the forthcoming "Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places." He teaches creative writing at National University.

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“The Making of the American Essay” (2016)

Edited by John D’Agata

Graywolf Press: 656 pp., $25 paper

“The Lost Origins of the Essay” (2009)

Edited by John D’Agata

Graywolf Press: 656 pp., $23 paper

“The Next American Essay” (2003)

Edited by John D’Agata

Graywolf Press: 475 pp., $20 paper

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