Why do writers write? For reasons much like anyone else enters the profession of their choice: for money, for security, for professional advancement, to prove their skill. But writers are also driven to write because, like everyone else, they are lonely, and aching to be heard.
Novelists and authors of literary non-fiction operate within tightly structured, rigorously policed formats, but other forms - the personal essay, the collection of letters - offer the possibility of bypassing what might be seen as the stodgy formality of literature. They tantalise with the promise of direct address to the reader.
Having edited the esteemed The Art of the Personal Essay, Phillip Lopate is back now with two new volumes: Portrait Inside My Head, a new collection, and To Show and To Tell, a how-to guide to the crafting of personal essays. Lopate is president of the booster club, his essays about, among other things, the power of the essay to transform. "I persist," he tells us in the introduction to Portrait Inside My Head, "because I know the truth, which is that, deep down, you love essays. You may be ashamed to admit it. But you love essays, you love essays, you are getting very sleepy, you lo-o-ove essays …"
Lopate is a film critic and urban historian in addition to a personal essayist, and Portrait, as its title promises, is a mélange of reflections on his Brooklyn childhood and sibling rivalry with his radio-host brother alongside musings on baseball and the mixed legacy of Robert Moses. Uniting these disparate efforts is Lopate's willingness - his unflinching desire - to uncover the hard truth, even at his own expense. Writing about his friend, the filmmaker Warren Sonbert, who died of an Aids-related condition in 1995, Lopate locates the source of his discomfort with Sonbert's romantic escapades: "I was repelled by that seemingly effortless promiscuity, which mocked the consequential difficulty of life as I understood it."
Lopate visits the Plaza Hotel for tea with his young daughter, and is shocked to find himself amused when she is inconsolable over the loss of a balloon. "I felt myself bonding with my daughter in our now-shared discovery that life was composed, at bottom, of loss, futility, and ineluctable sorrow. There was nothing you could do about it but laugh."
Given Lopate's own mastery, as amply evidenced once more with Portrait, it comes as a surprise that To Show and To Tell is marked by so flat a prose style. Lopate is simultaneously writing for adepts of the essay and for students only beginning their studies, and the disjunction makes for a book intended for everyone and no one in particular. To Show and To Tell is worth a look, though, if only for Lopate's carefully curated list of essay collections and memoirs worth reading, ranging from William Hazlitt to AJ Liebling to Jonathan Lethem.
Lopate is also responding, with a kind of bemused tolerance, to the rhetorical excesses of David Shields, whose Reality Hunger was an extended roar of displeasure at the sclerotic literary establishment, and a brief in favour of ambiguity and playfulness. "An irony of Shields's stimulating if willfully perplexing book," Lopate says of Reality Hunger, "is that he professes to be bored by novels and short stories and to prefer reality, while at the same time insisting that nonfiction is really a fiction, of sorts." Whatever their philosophical differences, Lopate and Shields share a passionate devotion to the personal essay, and a quasi-mystical belief in the act of writing as a hedge against loneliness and death.