I’m wary of anyone who suggests that there are only “two paths” forward for a particular genre or form of art, so I cast a jaundiced eye over the thesis of Merve Emre’s assessment of the future of the personal essay in the Boston Review. But Emre is a lively, impassioned writer who makes a lot of sharp points about the books she turns to. She takes down Durga Chew-Bose’s new book with acerbic glee — she finds “nothing unique about [author’s] pose,” a shallow pose that the author adopts by way of “pretty phrases that mean nothing and teach nothing” and serve only to “‘clinch’… the author’s status as a beacon of complex selfhood” — and, better, she pinpoints the animating force behind the pose that Mary Gaitskill adopts in her less egocentric, more ambivalent new collection:
Part of growing up… is learning what objects in the world are worthy of our sustained attention. People are less original than they would like to think, and living is both less transcendent and less abject than most acts of narration would lead us to believe. Many of us move through life according to a relatively predictable set of rules and social codes that shape not only human behavior but also the kinds of art human beings produce to reflect their moral universe — the Bible, for instance, but also nineteenth-century novels, romantic comedies, and memoirs. This is a phenomenon that Gaitskill describes time and again as “mechanicalness,” and it grinds all manner of human interactions down into dirty shards of reality: rigid debates about sexual propriety and dating; the preoccupation with being cool; the idle chirping of social media. Since all this further alienates us from anything like a knowable or authentic self, the essayist’s ethical prerogative is to pay close and direct attention to this mechanicalness — to note its predictability, its self-absorption, its avoidance of painful reality: how it “cannot tolerate anything that is not happy and winning,” Gaitskill observes.