Read Published Essays Online
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In a classic essay of Joan Didion’s, “Goodbye to All That,” the novelist and writer breaks into her narrative—not for the first or last time—to prod her reader. She rhetorically asks and answers: “…was anyone ever so young? I am here to tell you that someone was.” The wry little moment is perfectly indicative of Didion’s unsparingly ironic critical voice. Didion is a consummate critic, from Greek kritēs, “a judge." But she is always foremost a judge of herself. An account of Didion’s eight years in New York City, where she wrote her first novel while working for Vogue, “Goodbye to All That” frequently shifts point of view as Didion examines the truth of each statement, her prose moving seamlessly from deliberation to commentary, annotation, aside, and aphorism, like the below:
I want to explain to you, and in the process perhaps to myself, why I no longer live in New York. It is often said that New York is a city for only the very rich and the very poor. It is less often said that New York is also, at least for those of us who came there from somewhere else, a city only for the very young.
Anyone who has ever loved and left New York—or any life-altering city—will know the pangs of resignation Didion captures. These economic times and every other produce many such stories. But Didion made something entirely new of familiar sentiments. Although her essay has inspired a sub-genre, and a collection of breakup letters to New York with the same title, the unsentimental precision and compactness of Didion’s prose is all her own.
The essay appears in 1967’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem, a representative text of the literary nonfiction of the sixties alongside the work of John McPhee, Terry Southern, Tom Wolfe, and Hunter S. Thompson. In Didion’s case, the emphasis must be decidedly on the literary—her essays are as skillfully and imaginatively written as her fiction and in close conversation with their authorial forebears. “Goodbye to All That” takes its title from an earlier memoir, poet and critic Robert Graves’ 1929 account of leaving his hometown in England to fight in World War I. Didion’s appropriation of the title shows in part an ironic undercutting of the memoir as a serious piece of writing.
And yet she is perhaps best known for her work in the genre. Published almost fifty years after Slouching Toward Bethlehem, her 2005 memoir The Year of Magical Thinking is, in poet Robert Pinsky’s words, a “traveler’s faithful account” of the stunningly sudden and crushing personal calamities that claimed the lives of her husband and daughter separately. “Though the material is literally terrible,” Pinsky writes, “the writing is exhilarating and what unfolds resembles an adventure narrative: a forced expedition into those ‘cliffs of fall’ identified by Hopkins.” He refers to lines by the gifted Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins that Didion quotes in the book: "O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall / Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap / May who ne'er hung there."
The nearly unimpeachably authoritative ethos of Didion’s voice convinces us that she can fearlessly traverse a wild inner landscape most of us trivialize, “hold cheap,” or cannot fathom. And yet, in a 1978 Paris Review interview, Didion—with that technical sleight of hand that is her casual mastery---called herself “a kind of apprentice plumber of fiction, a Cluny Brown at the writer’s trade.” Here she invokes a kind of archetype of literary modesty (John Locke, for example, called himself an “underlabourer” of knowledge) while also figuring herself as the winsome heroine of a 1946 Ernst Lubitsch comedy about a social climber plumber’s niece played by Jennifer Jones, a character who learns to thumb her nose at power and privilege.
A twist of fate—interviewer Linda Kuehl’s death—meant that Didion wrote her own introduction to the Paris Review interview, a very unusual occurrence that allows her to assume the role of her own interpreter, offering ironic prefatory remarks on her self-understanding. After the introduction, it’s difficult not to read the interview as a self-interrogation. Asked about her characterization of writing as a “hostile act” against readers, Didion says, “Obviously I listen to a reader, but the only reader I hear is me. I am always writing to myself. So very possibly I’m committing an aggressive and hostile act toward myself.”
It’s a curious statement. Didion’s cutting wit and fearless vulnerability take in seemingly all—the expanses of her inner world and political scandals and geopolitical intrigues of the outer, which she has dissected for the better part of half a century. Below, we have assembled a selection of Didion’s best essays online. We begin with one from Vogue:
"On Self Respect" (1961)
Didion’s 1979 essay collection The White Album brought together some of her most trenchant and searching essays about her immersion in the counterculture, and the ideological fault lines of the late sixties and seventies. The title essay begins with a gemlike sentence that became the title of a collection of her first seven volumes of nonfiction: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Read two essays from that collection below:
“The Women’s Movement” (1972)
“Holy Water” (1977)
Didion has maintained a vigorous presence at the New York Review of Books since the late seventies, writing primarily on politics. Below are a few of her best known pieces for them:
“Insider Baseball” (1988)
“Eye on the Prize” (1992)
“The Teachings of Speaker Gingrich” (1995)
“Fixed Opinions, or the Hinge of History” (2003)
“Politics in the New Normal America” (2004)
“The Case of Theresa Schiavo” (2005)
“The Deferential Spirit” (2013)
"California Notes" (2016)
Didion continues to write with as much style and sensitivity as she did in her first collection, her voice refined by a lifetime of experience in self-examination and piercing critical appraisal. She got her start at Vogue in the late fifties, and in 2011, she published an autobiographical essay there that returns to the theme of “yearning for a glamorous, grown up life” that she explored in “Goodbye to All That.” In “Sable and Dark Glasses,” Didion’s gaze is steadier, her focus this time not on the naïve young woman tempered and hardened by New York, but on herself as a child “determined to bypass childhood” and emerge as a poised, self-confident 24-year old sophisticate—the perfect New Yorker she never became.
Joan Didion Reads From New Memoir, Blue Nights, in Short Film Directed by Griffin Dunne
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
There has been a lot of discussion in writing circles recently about the fate of the personal essay. I say recently, but in fact this is a debate that has been going on for a long time. Virgina Woolf, always ahead of her time, was grumbling about personal essays as long ago as 1905.
Anyway, back in May, Jia Tolentino wrote a piece in the New Yorker arguing that The Personal-Essay Boom is Over (and then, ironically enough, sold a collection of her personal essays to Random House). It spawned many thoughtful and interesting responses, including this feminist defence of the form by New School Professor Susan Shapiro, this wonderful piece about parenting essays by Lauren Apfel at Motherwell, and this piece by Kath Kenny in The Conversation.
If you’ve grown up online, as I have, you will likely have read hundreds, if not thousands of personal essays. It’s true that many of them – the poorly written, exploitative clickbait articles that were the focus of Laura Bennet’s excellent Slate piece back in 2015 – should never have been published.
But it’s also true that a well written personal essay can be a truly beautiful thing. I have a folder on my desktop of saved pieces that I return to again and again: astonishing, illuminating essays about what it means to find your home, to be a mother, to love and laugh and live.
With that in mind, I thought I’d put together a list of my favourite sites for reading personal essays, along with a link to one of my favourite essays on each site. I hope you enjoy exploring them: there’s no clickbait here.
1. Vela: Creative nonfiction written by women, with a focus (although not exclusively) on travel. As well as longform essays, Vela publishes a number of shorter columns on body and identity, books, motherhood and place.
2. Motherwell: A digital publication that tells all sides of the parenting story. Motherwell was only launched in May 2016 but has already established a great reputation for publishing excellent writing on family life.
3. Catapult: Catapult is a book publisher and a provider of online writing classes, but their team also produces an online daily magazine of narrative fiction and nonfiction. It’s the kind of site where you can lose hours to reading.
4. New York Times: From Lives to Modern Love to Ties, the NYT has long been home to some of the very best personal essays out there. Modern Love is pretty much the holy grail for every essay writer out there – it’s the one that we all want – because as Andrea Jarrell recently wrote in a piece for Lit Hub, it can be a life changer.
5. Narratively: Launched in 2012, Narratively is a storytelling studio that focuses on ordinary people with extraordinary stories.
6. The Manifest-Station: Describing it as ‘personal essays on being human’, founder Jennifer Pastiloff and editor Angela Giles Patel have created a site packed with inspiring, emotional writing.
7. Buzzfeed: You may know Buzzfeed best for its listicles and memes, but they also publish a surprising number of really good essays and longreads.
8. The Rumpus: Interviews, book reviews, comics, cultural critique… and some truly excellent essays.
9. Electric Literature: Fiction and creative nonfiction about the intersection of literature and other artforms.
10. Literary Mama: Not only does Literary Mama feature stunning writing, they also publish a comprehensive roundup of submission opportunities at other sites. A great place to spend some time whether you’re a reader, a writer, or both!
11. Brain, Child: ‘the magazine for thinking mothers’ is how Brain, Child Magazine describes itself, and in the world of parenting websites their pieces are certainly some of the best.
12. Full Grown People: Subtitled ‘The Other Awkward Age’, Full Grown People is about romance, family, health, career, dealing with aging loved ones, and more. It’s a place for those of us who feel like we’re just stumbling along, doing the best we can. They publish a new essay twice a week.
13. The Establishment: Funded and run by women, the Establishment publishes new content every day. With an intersectional feminist slant, they have featured some of the very best Trump-era writing about politics becoming personal.
14. Tin House: Literary magazine and book publisher Tin House publishes fiction, essays and poetry, as well as a Lost and Found section dedicated to exceptional but overlooked books, and Readable Feast, which is dedicated to food writing.
15. Dame: Another site with a major focus on current affairs and politics, but also an excellent First Person section which is worth exploring.
16. Aeon: An online magazine of ideas and culture, Aeon publishes essays, articles and videos, many with a philosophical or scientific slant.
17. Refinery 29: Fancy-pants lifestyle site Refinery 29 has a strong focus on beauty, fashion and entertainment, but dig into it a little and you’ll also find some well written personal essays on everything from politics to motherhood.
18. Mothers Always Write: Poetry and essays written by mothers. MAW run regular essay writing classes online and many of the pieces published on the site are the result of those efforts.
19. Overland: Australian literary journal Overland has been publishing progressive writing on culture since the 1950s. The quarterly mag is supplemented by regular content on their website, and if you’re looking for smart, engaging personal essays with an Aussie slant, this is the place to go.
20. Purple Clover: Targeted at over 50s who are ‘young at heart’ this is a fab site, packed with essays and articles by writers who are comfortable in their own skin.
Do you have any sites that you love?
Let me know what I’ve missed by leaving a comment below.
Photo by Dana Marin on Unsplash