An Interview with John D’Agata

by Christina Thompson

The third and last volume in essayist John D’Agata’s A New History of the Essay series was published this month. Harvard Review editor Christina Thompson and John D’Agata discuss the now-complete trilogy, D’Agata’s approach to its editing, and the essay genre as a whole.

CT: Looking back over the New History of the Essay trilogy, how would you characterize the task you set yourself for each of the volumes: The Next American Essay; The Lost Origins of the Essay; and now The Making of the American Essay? How do you think of them in your own mind?

JD: This project was originally a single massive anthology, but when that proved impractical, I quickly started imagining a series of three volumes that would range across cultures and time and stay in communication with one another. But even in that original conception the motivation behind the project was always the same: to find a history.

I started these three books fifteen years ago, when I was a graduate student in two separate writing programs simultaneously, a poetry program and a nonfiction program. And I loved both, but for very different reasons.

My poetry classes were informed by a literary canon that hung over every discussion that we had, intimidatingly but also inspiringly, letting us know that we were engaged in a practice that was far older than we were. Most of us in the program came to grad school with a pretty good handle on that canon because we’d been English majors in college, and if you’re at a decent school as an English major in America you can get a pretty solid foundation in poetry. That’s because poetry has been a formal course of study for a couple of centuries. We know how to talk about it, and we know how to teach it. And when you’re engaged in that conversation you become a part of something that’s been going on since the dawn of literature. And as a young writer that’s a thrilling sensation.

On the other hand, in my nonfiction classes I often felt like I was walking into an organizational meeting for a new political party: “Who are we? What do we stand for? What should we call ourselves?” Our discussions were absolutely exhilarating, but they also sometimes felt like we were improvising in ways that weren’t necessarily productive. And that’s because the practice of studying nonfiction was relatively new to academia. In fact, mine was the first class to graduate from the University of Iowa with degrees in nonfiction. So I would go home pumped by the energy of our conversations, but ultimately still foggy about who I was as a nonfiction writer, or what I stood for, or what I should even call myself. In other words, I longed for the same kind of history that I felt in my poetry classes. So I went searching for it.

I’ve loved exploring the history of the essay because it feels like an invitation into an artistic heritage that I never experienced as a younger writer. Curating this series was an excuse to explore where I’d come from or where I wanted to come from, who my kin were or who I wanted them to be. It was a chance to feel like I was, or that I am, a part of something bigger.

CT: Most anthologists, having written an introduction, withdraw to a safe distance and remain present only in the selection and organization of the work. You have taken a different approach, appearing alongside your contributors as the author of essayistic introductions to each piece. Could you talk a little about why you wanted to do this and how you thought about these pieces of writing?

JD: I was in my early twenties when I first pitched the series, and while I obviously had the chutzpah to think I could take on such a project, I also had enough modesty to know that I didn’t really possess the authority to brashly say, “Hey, World! Here are the greatest essays of all time. Oh, and by the way, let’s redefine the genre while we’re at it!”

So instead of hiding behind the selections, I decided to draw attention to the sensibility behind them. I find it difficult to cozy up to big impersonal anthologies that feel like they were edited by a committee of robots. Or worse, the anthologies that try to pretend that the editors’ personal biases haven’t factored into the book’s selections—as if their tables of contents were handed down to the editors by God.

I wanted the reader of this series to know exactly who curated it, which is why the first volume is so personal. You learn about my family, my politics, my weird habits as a kid. My hope is that over the course of all three volumes, the reader might begin to feel like they know me and thus where I’m coming from, even if they don’t agree with my editorial choices. That way, if I make an unexpected move, like including poems or stories alongside essays, perhaps they’ll be more willing to go along for the ride rather than just dismiss those moves out of hand.

Also, I hope that this personal approach helps the reader feel like they’re in conversation with me. If I introduce an essay by explaining why I like it, the door has been opened for you to respond to that opinion. Do you agree? Do you read the essay differently? Is there something else you would have included instead? On the other hand, you have very little to respond to if the only thing I tell you about the text is that it was written in 1925 and that the author lived on a chicken farm. I think we need to have more conversations about essays, and one way to do that is by inviting people to share in the conversation.

CT: Your essay anthologies contain several works that most people would describe as poetry. I was struck by the question you asked in The Lost Origins of the Essay about “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” by William Blake: “Why do I want to think that Blake’s ‘Marriage’ is an essay?” you asked. “Is it because it’s good?” How would you answer that question now? What is—finally—the criterion for judging whether something is an essay? Is there anything that is not an essay?

JD: I don’t think there’s anything we couldn’t spend a little time considering as an essay, because I don’t think there’s anything that’s not worth reconsidering. That doesn’t mean that everything we place underneath the essay-microscope is an essay, just as it doesn’t mean that everything in these anthologies is an essay. When Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” appears in this series, it shows up in the midst of a bunch of essays that we’ve long celebrated and studied as essays. And so we’ve got “essay” on the brain at that point. Maybe we’ve started to notice certain patterns in those essays, certain sensibilities, a certain mode of thinking that we can recognize as “essayistic.” And then William Blake shows up, and maybe we’re thrown for a loop for a second. But my hope is that we’re still reading with an open mind at that point, and thus we’re willing to temporarily read Blake underneath that essay-microscope—to consider him for a moment as an essayist. In the midst of all those other essays, does “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” read differently? Do we happen to see the same essayistic movements in Blake that we’d been noticing in all the other essays around it? And if so, what does that mean? Does it change our perception of “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”? Does it change our perception of essays? What is an essay, after all, if we can see it working as propulsive force in fiction or poetry? Can we call the essay its own genre if it’s so promiscuously versatile? Can we call any genre a “genre” if, when read from different angles and under different lights, the differences between it and something else start becoming indistinguishable?

If our perception of a text can so easily change the moment that text is placed in a different context—an essay collection one day, a poetry collection the next—is it possible that the borders between genres are not the towering blockades that some people fiercely defend them as?

I like asking “what if,” in other words. I think it’s good practice for writers to challenge their ideas about the traditions they’re writing in and the genres they think they’re a part of. It’s also good practice for readers—especially for readers—because it gives us the opportunity to break out of our reading habits, discover new texts and authors that we might find fascinating, and be introduced to genres we hadn’t given much thought to before.

The Making of the American Essay, the third book in D’Agata’s A New History of the Essay trilogy, is on sale now.

Published on March 15, 2016