Saturday, July 22, 2006

Ego and the Essayist

As far as word-of-mouth recommendations go, it seems that for me all it takes is two separate positive mentions from sources that I trust to prompt me to pick up a book. The first plants it in my consciousness, and the second propels me towards the bookstore or the library to seek out a copy. This makes me sound like an easy sell, but note that I didn’t simply say two positive mentions. I said two positive mentions from sources that I trust. A magazine advertisement combined with a lukewarm review in the Globe and Mail is not going to do the trick. But garner enthusiastic reviews from a few of the sites on my blog roll, and there’s a good chance that you’ve got yourself a sale.

The latest example of this phenomenon in action relates not to a hot new release but to E.B. White’s 1977 collection of essays. First I came across a passing mention of the book in Lewis Buzbee's The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop (a wonderful bookseller's memoir about which I promise a post soon) and noted it down. Then The Literate Kitten listed it in her response to Dorothy W.'s recent request for essay recommendations. That was enough for me; I went out and acquired a copy.

I’m thoroughly enjoying White’s essays. It’s too early in my reading for a post on the collection as a whole, but I wanted to share a couple of excerpts from the foreword given their connection to recent litblog discussions about the essay form.

Of the essayist White writes:

The essayist is a self-liberated man, sustained by the childish belief that everything he thinks about, everything that happens to him, is of general interest. He is a fellow who thoroughly enjoys his work, just as people who take bird walks enjoy theirs. Each new excursion of the essayist, each new “attempt,” differs from the last and takes him into new country. This delights him. Only a person who is congenitally self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays.

He’s having a bit of fun in the reference to self-centeredness but not entirely so. A few paragraphs on, he follows up on this point:

I think some people find the essay the last resort of the egoist, a much too self-conscious and self-serving form for their taste; they feel that it is presumptuous of a writer to assume that his little excursions or his small observations will interest the reader. There is some justice in their complaint. I have always been aware that I am by nature self-absorbed and egoistical; to write of myself to the extent I have done indicates a too great attention to my own life, not enough to the lives of others.

I haven’t yet read enough of White’s essays to judge whether that’s a fair statement about his work. But I don’t accept it as an accurate reflection of essayists in general. Some of my favourite essayists do indeed depict their own lives in minute detail and do so in very compelling fashion. But many turn their gaze not on themselves but outward. Very often it is precisely their keen attention to the lives of others that makes their work so interesting. Of course, that doesn’t mean the essayist is absent from the text. I agree with Dorothy W. and Danielle that an engaging voice is paramount in the essay form. But often what makes an essay work is not the reader’s interest in the essayist but rather the essayist’s interest in his or her topic. We don’t need to be convinced that the essayist is interesting so much as we need to be convinced that he or she is interested. A good essay has the capacity to infect the reader with the same curiosity that grips the writer.

What do you think? Must the essayist be an egoist?


Victoria said...

I think I agree with both White *and* with you. :-) I suppose I mean: yes, an essayist has to believe in the importance or interest of their own ways of thinking/feeling/being in order to sit down and set them to paper for others. But also, the essayist has to believe in the importance of the way others - their subjects, their readers - think and feel in order to sit down and write about and for them.

In another way I think the idea of the "ego" is always unfairly demonised. Don't we all have one after all, and isn't it important to our identity? As bloggers we are asking, someone, somewhere to listen to us. I wonder what White would have to say about the proliferation of "amateur essayists", us lit bloggers? Are we an army of the self-indulgent? ;-)

Kate S. said...


You're definitely on to something there with the balance that you describe. I've been thinking about what it takes to produce an engaging voice as an essayist and there's no question in my mind that it requires a strong sense of self, though not necessarily the inflated sense of self that we tend to associate with the word ego. Even if the essayist's subject is someone or something other than him or herself, as you say, they still have to believe that their perceptions of that someone or something else are important and interesting.

In that connection, I've been thinking about the distinction between egoist (the term White uses) and egotist (the term more often bandied about now). Initially I thought that they were just alternate spellings for the same concept. But then I checked my dictionary and while egotist is one of the meanings given for egoist, the latter term has more breadth than the former. It seems that it can denote a self-regard which is not necessarily associated with selfishness or conceit.

Perhaps there's room in White's term then to cover it all.

Is there anyone out there with a familiarity with the way the term egoism is used in ethical theory who can illuminate this point further?

Dorothy W. said...

I very much like your distinction between being interesting and interested; what it takes is passion for a subject that makes the subject interesting, and probably makes the writer interesting too, if only for a moment or in that context.

Somehow, writing about the self doesn't have to be self-indulgent; I think it CAN be, but people too quickly assume that "personal" means "of no interest to anyone else." But what happens, I think, is that in writing about the self, the writer is mixing inner and outer worlds in a way that readers recognize. They might recognize their own experience in the writer's, or they might enjoy imagining the experience, if they don't share it, or they might come to some understanding about the outer world based on the writer's description of her inner one. We separate inner and outer worlds, self and other, when we talk about life writing in ways that don't quite ring true to me. Something about a strong sense of self in writing (in the sense of "egoist" not "egotist," if I've got the terms right) can evoke a strong sense of self in the reader. It's not like writing about myself would preclude any interest in anybody else; perhaps the opposite.

Kate S. said...


You put it beautifully when you say that "in writing about the self, the writer is mixing inner and outer worlds in a way that readers recognize." It's as if in inserting him or herself into the text, the writer offers the reader an entry point.

litlove said...

It is interesting that the term 'ego' should have taken on such perjorative meanings. The ego is essential to mental health and continually under attack from the demands of desire and the impulses of the drives (on one hand) and the harsh strictures of the superego on the other. It's like a little space of reason and room for manoeuvre, wrested from the bullying forces of negativity. In that respect an essayist might be admirable for speaking from the ego - it might indicate a rational, balanced, harmonious perspective that is often lost in the more general self-interested causality of others.