Phillip Lopate Celebrates the Personal Essay

(and recommends six great essayists he really thinks you should read)

by Lorraine Glennon Published Spring 2016
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Lopate embraces such eclecticism and is not the least bit doctrinaire in his tastes. In evaluating an essay — whether he’s reading it for work or pleasure — his only yardsticks are his own enthusiasm and the sparkle of the prose. As it happens, his enthusiasms run both deep and broad, accommodating writers as different as Friedrich Nietzsche and Nora Ephron. He asks only that a writer be entertaining and honest. As for sparkling prose, it’s easy to recognize but difficult to define. Nonetheless, Lopate believes it can be broken down into three key components: 1) an element of surprise, in that each sentence ends in a different place than you thought it would; 2) textured language, with buzzes and quirks created by the placement of interesting words next to other interesting words; and 3) a density of thought, with no dumbing down and an implicit awareness of the essay’s long literary tradition.

Still, as catholic as his tastes are, Lopate, like every passionate reader, has certain predilections that lead him to favor some writers and types of writing over others. “We all bring our own backgrounds to our reading,” he says, “and we tend to respond more to work that resonates with our own experience.” Lopate admits, for example, that he cannot fully appreciate even as highly influential and gifted an essayist as David Foster Wallace, partly because he is made uncomfortable and slightly anxious by Wallace’s “confusion and neurosis.” (“There was a lot of nuttiness in my family,” Lopate says.) Although his students look up to Wallace as “this brilliant eccentric, a sort of Kurt Cobain of literature,” Lopate says, “I can’t have that same relationship to him because I’m older than Wallace, and in my own reading I’m drawn to authors who seem wiser than I am. I don’t want the experience of reading somebody who’s tormented. That sounds very narrow of me, but on some level I’m still looking for wisdom when I read.”

He’s also partial to contrarians, and can rattle off a list of favorite works with “against” in their titles: Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation; Joyce Carol Oates’s “Against Nature”; the Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz’s “Against Poets”; Laura Kipnis’s Against Love (“She says love is a kind of bully”); Lopate’s own Against Joie de Vivre. “These are perverse positions,” he says. “How can someone be against such things? But I like these paradoxes because they’re a way of introducing doubt. In a period where there’s a lot of orthodoxy around political correctness, it becomes risky but enticing to interrogate your own prejudices, your own lack of sympathy — to try to tell some truth instead of pretending that you’re universally sympathetic.”

“I don’t want the experience of reading somebody who’s tormented. That sounds very narrow of me, but on some level I’m still looking for wisdom when I read.”

Ultimately, the all-encompassing nature of the essay may hold the key to its staying power. Lopate points to two main traditions in essay writing. “There are the essayists like Charles Lamb, who are always dilating over something daily and minor,” he says, “and then there are those like George Orwell and James Baldwin, who are grappling with the major themes of the day.” Like the novel, the essay can engage with any topic imaginable. “Nothing is off-limits — the essay can absorb theology and science and philosophy, as well as experience. It’s a very capacious literary form, and I believe absolutely that it will endure.”

But who and what, amid a multitude of options, should an eager reader tackle first? Columbia Magazine put the question to Lopate: which six essayists do you recommend that everyone read? Given the wealth of material, limiting Lopate to such a small number seemed almost sadistic. So to narrow the field, we added parameters: stick to modern-day essayists (twentieth and twenty-first century) writing in English, and choose distinct voices that in no way duplicate one another.

Lopate’s final list is a lot like a terrific essay — quirky, unpredictable, and highly individual.

Max Beerbohm

British, 1872–1956

Illustration by P. Sillos

Lopate’s take: For me, wisdom is often found in humor, so I naturally gravitate toward a comic writer like Beerbohm, an essayist who was also a brilliant caricaturist. From my first reading of Beerbohm — whom I discovered after I came across Virginia Woolf’s mention of him as the only true inheritor of the tradition of Hazlitt and Lamb — I found him hilarious, especially in his willingness to portray himself as disreputable or dimwitted (he was anything but) and to push the boundaries of convention, deflate pretension, and expose hypocrisy. And how could I, the author of a book called Against Joie de Vivre, not relate to the curmudgeonly, contrarian persona that Beerbohm often adopts? I’m a big fan, and my hope that he’ll be discovered by a wider audience led me to edit and write the introduction to The Prince of Minor Writers: The Selected Essays of Max Beerbohm, published last year.

If you read just one: “Laughter”

Memorable lines: “A public crowd, because of a lack of broad impersonal humanity in me, rather insulates than absorbs me. Amidst the guffaws of a thousand strangers I become unnaturally grave. If these people were the entertainment, and I the audience, I should be sympathetic enough. But to be one of them is a position that drives me spiritually aloof.”

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