Nicole B. Wallack, Director of the Undergraduate Writing Program at Columbia University, knows her way around the essay. Her new book, Crafting Presence, not only shows instructors how to teach writing via the literary essay, but illuminates the ways in which essays can develop our thinking whether or not we’re in a writing classroom.

We caught up with Nicole to chat about qualifying essays, writerly presence, and the fantastic essayists of 100 years ago that we should all be reading today.

How do you define “the literary essay”?

When essayists and theorists of the genre call essays “literary,” we do so to emphasize their aesthetic and cultural value. In the second chapter of Crafting Presence, I talk about how we understand essays within the larger category of nonfiction. As Robert Root and Michael Steinberg have suggested, among others, literary essays reward readings that rely on methods of critical analysis that formerly were reserved for fiction, poetry, and dramatic texts. “Literary” essays are meant to provide rich readerly experiences in content and form.

I’m less inclined to categorize the essays I value this way, because we might not think of an essay as sufficiently literary if we encounter in it rhetorical and generic elements typically associated with academic discourse: explicit claims, warrants, and citations. Ultimately, I’d encourage us to talk about the central features of essays, and then use those insights to help us consider the work specific essays do and don’t accomplish in the world. In an essay, the writer devises a form not only to communicate their idea, but to create the conditions in which readers learn to care about that idea, too. When we see in an essay signs that the writer has constructed an experience to fulfill their purposes and to entice the reader to engage with it—that’s literary activity. So for me, essays are by definition literary. At the same time, all short pieces of literary nonfiction do not necessarily produce essays; for instance, one might write a journal entry that relies on detailed images—a literary quality—but it won’t be an essay. Part of my aim with this book is to help all of us who teach and write in this genre to think more fully about how we qualify (and disqualify) essays.

Your book is about the “presence” of the writer. When I hear that I immediately think of powerhouses like Joan Didion (who apparently didn’t have much of a presence in the room, at least early in her career, right?) or Tom Wolfe, whose hyperactive personality explodes out of his essays. What are some lesser-known writerly presences that nonetheless offer valuable lessons to students and writers? And why does an essay need a writerly presence, anyway?

The essay is the genre of presence; no presence, no essay. This is why my book about the American essay is called Crafting Presence: I find it fascinating to study the many strategies writers devise to show up as the organizing consciousness in essays beyond using the first person or offering narrative accounts from their lived experiences. For example, I write about how Jamaica Kincaid’s presence relies on an audacious audacious act of citation, of all things; Susan Sontag, by contrast, creates a presence that moves between different times in her writing life to correct a significant error she had made in the past when looking at war photographs.

If you like an essay, if it sticks with you for some reason, then nowadays we might say it is because you found it “relatable.” Or not. Maybe the essay was wonderfully strange, and you had to do some work to stay with it, to understand it or enjoy it. Maybe it was just plain, garden-variety strange.  In any case, the presence of the writer likely was a major factor in your sense of both what the essay was about and whether or not you would find it interesting and relevant. We students of the essay, and teachers of the form, have much to learn from our favorite writers about how they signal and change their presences. It’s an important lesson and a fun one, too.

We’ve seen the literary essay pass through many different forms and styles and trends—what sort of essays do you see being written today? Is it possible to define the contemporary literary essay by any sort of stylistic yardstick?

It’s more common to see essayists doing some mixture of criticism and experiential work. That is, the boundaries are ever-more-porous between what we sometimes call “critical essays” and “personal essays” and all for the good. Although some essay scholars have expressed concern that younger writers are reluctant or unable to reflect and make meaning of their own stories, it’s not for want of splendid textual mentors. Contemporary essayists who come to my mind include Ta-Nehisi Coates, Carley Moore, Hilton Als, Phillip Lopate, Wayne Koestenbaum, Brian Doyle, Roxanne Gay, Leslie Jamison, Ander Monson, Emily Bernard, Rebecca Solnit, John Jeremiah Sullivan, and Zadie Smith. I’d also want to include Maggie Nelson in this group, although she’s tending to write books than essays per se, because the sections of her books operate as a collection of essays, each part with its own integrity; also she exemplifies some of the most exciting formal hybridity out there. Essay theorists also have been doing much-needed work on craft. For example, in journals such as Creative Nonfiction, Assay, Essay Daily, Brevity, and Fourth Genre there are a wealth of resources to identify new essay forms and how to teach them.

Finally, can you recommend a great and underrated essay to Hippo readers?

Here is something I learned from Robert Atwan, the founder and series editor of The Best American Essays. Bob reads work each year from an essayist who was prominent 100 years ago. Following his lead, I’d suggest in 2017 we read Randolph Bourne, who could offer us some resonant ideas in “The Handicapped” (1911), “Transnational America” (1916), and “The War and the Intellectuals” (1917). Bourne’s work is not so much underrated as underread, nowadays. But we get even more from reading Bourne if we paired his work with June Jordan’s collection of essays from 1992, Technical Difficulties: African-American Notes on the State of the Union. And if anyone loves the essay but has missed reading Brian Doyle, well, it’s time to get that corrected; I’d start with “Joyas Voladorus.”  On my new blog, “In the Space Provided,” among other things, I offer a list of ideas for a few ways to develop a great library of essays of our own.

Thank you, Nicole! Order Nicole’s book, Crafting Presence, here. Featured image courtesy of Library of Congress.

About The Author

Nicole B. Wallack, PhD, is the Director of Columbia University's Undergraduate Writing Program. Her fields of interest are essay studies, writing studies, rhetoric and composition, history of the essay, creative nonfiction, teacher education, and American studies. She is also an associate of the Institute for Writing and Thinking (IWT) at Bard College. At Bard, she designs and conducts workshops for educators on the essay, assessment, writing-to-learn practices, writing across the curriculum, and listening as a pedagogical praxis. She works as a Writing Across the Curriculum consultant in high schools and colleges around the country and abroad.