Why is the writing in literary essays so turgid?

I wrote a really silly essay. It’s called “Is it possible to write a great novel about cats?” It’s a swirling meditation on parenthood, cuteness, narrative stakes, and KITTIES. In the manner of all good literary essays, it references Edmund Burke, Proust, Garfield the Cat, Mari, Elmyra from Looney Tunes, Natsume Soeseki, and probably a bunch of other crap too.

Having written a literary essay, I went looking for places to which I can sell a literary essay…and I feel like I must be missing something. Why is the writing in literary essays so turgid? I mean the literary reviews are fine: LARB and NYRB and LRB rarely make me cringe. But even in those venues, I usually avoid the personal or lyric essays. In other magazines, it feels like that’s all there is! Does anyone really want to read this stuff?

Of course that is a criticism that can be leveled at most modern literary output. But what gets me is that what people usually say about literary fiction (and, I assume, non-fiction) is that it is well-written but lacks narrative momentum. The problem is that it’s usually not even well-written! Oh my god, it’s so frustrating. So much of this stuff is just meaningless detail.

Recently I was reading a Palestinian novel called, apropriately enough, MINOR DETAIL, and it was such a relief to read a book that practiced some sort of selectiviy when it came to visual description. There is no need to throw in a dozen details for the sake of verisimilitude. Just use one! In my ideal paragraph, there’s one sentence of visual description, two sentences of narrative summary, and one sentence of reported thought or emotional reaction. Then a brief exchange of dialogue, followed by a longer paragraph, again mostly narrative summary, and so on! What need is there to describe the jacaranda trees that weep blooming petals like the tears of a ghost–the ghost of my past, and of all my ancestors–the ghost of Mario, who sat in the rocking chair in the corner, whittling on sticks that piled up beneath his feet. It’s so frustrating.

All the description also really chokes the fun out of the writing. Not everything needs to be SO SERIOUS. Like, even Proust, who can spend ten pages discussing a hawthorne bush, spent most of his time describing parties where people gossipped and made fun of each other. Some of these books and stories and essays are just hawthorn bushes all the way down.

But, long story short, I have an essay about whether it’s possible to write about cats without coming off twee and pathetic.

Leave a Reply