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Unlike her fellow essayists, Malcolm is both an absence and a presence in her work.Yet the pieces of hers that delight the most often feature a moment of Malcolmian self-reflection—the instance when she realizes that although she’s been claiming that she brought her own work to Salle while interviewing him in order to simply illustrate the difference between that of an amateur and a professional, she had secretly been hoping for his praise; or, a year after the fact, when she realizes that something Sischy once said to her was in fact a “covert commentary” on their relationship.
The most recent, Forty-One False Starts, contains one of the best pieces of writing on the Bloomsbury Group I’ve ever read, “A House of One’s Own;” while other particular noteworthy inclusions are her 1986 profile of Artforum magazine’s editor Ingrid Sischy, “A Girl of the Zeitgeist,” as well as the stylistically innovative profile of the artist David Salle from which the collection takes its title.
Malcolm has the last word on any subject she writes about, from the marriage of poets Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath to the very art of biography.
Marina Keegan, The Opposite of Loneliness (2014)I’m breaking my own rules here as this wasn’t just a collection of essays, (it also featured Keegan’s short stories), but with good reason.
Published posthumously after Keegan was tragically killed in a car accident just five days after she graduated from Yale in 2012, The Opposite of Loneliness showcases the small but perfectly formed body of work Keegan left behind.
They’re referring predominantly, of course, to Gould’s prolific blogging (including the pieces she wrote for Gawker during the time she worked for the New York-based gossip blog site).
But Gould also authored her own book of essays-cum-memoir, And the Heart Says Whatever, a collection of elegantly written, melancholy-tinged accounts of her life in New York, which preceded Dunham’s adoption of the same structure for her book.Janet Malcolm, Forty-One False Starts (2013)Another grande dame of American letters, Janet Malcolm is a staff writer at the New Yorker who’s famous for her rigorously intellectual and intelligent reportage.As well as eight non-fiction books—the subjects of which range from biography, literary criticism, and psychoanalysis, to her infamous meditation on the ethics of her own profession, The Journalist and the Murderer (1990), which begins what must be one of the most incendiary, and most quoted opening lines in non-fiction: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible”—she’s the author of three collections of essays.I wanted to offer readers some fresh or provocative interpretations of those events.”Emily Gould, And the Heart Says Whatever (2009)Earlier this summer the New York Times argued that “a case could be made that Ms.Gould’s warts-and-all brand of self-exposure anticipated a wave of confessional writing that paved the way for Girls” (and thus by extension, Not That Kind of Girl).The act of choosing simply means we’ve committed ourselves to a state of behaviors greater than the sum of our individual inclinations: I will listen to his sadness, even when I’m deep in my own.To say going through the motions—this isn’t reduction so much as acknowledgement of the effort—the labor, the motions, the dance—of getting inside another person’s state of heart or mind.”Meghan Daum, The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion (2014)By comparison to Jamison, Daum has always been eager to point out that the pieces she writes are “not confessionals.” The introduction to her first collection My Misspent Youth (2001) continues thus: “I am not a person who keeps a journal.Hers is a particular brand of essay: writing at its most crystal clear, subject matter at its most slippery and interesting.Katie Roiphe, In Praise of Messy Lives (2012)The essays in Katie Roiphe’s In Praise of Messy Lives were described by Dwight Garner in his New York Times review as “lean and literate”, a description so good, I don’t see how I can improve on it.Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968)It would be impossible to talk about female essayists without beginning with Joan Didion, not least because she pioneered the emotional engagement we’ve come to expect from all essay writers today, male or female.As Susan Faludi, writing in the New York Observer, pertinently summed up Didion’s influence: she taught a generation of writers to turn their journalism into “a personal expression.” Though, as fellow writer Katie Roiphe argues, the conversion of the masses to this “emotionally charged and coolly intellectual” way of writing, has rendered the original voice oddly derivative.