After centuries of suffering the cold shoulder from scholars and critics (Michel de Montaigne’s blockbuster collections were, after all, released in 1580) the essay’s stylistic strategies are finally given their due in Understanding the Essay, a scholastic cri de ceour edited by Patricia Foster and Jeff Porter.
Understanding the Essay’s contributors are writers who have made their own mark on the form, including Eula Biss (writing on Ann Carson), Sven Birkerts (writing on Cynthia Ozick), Honor Moore (writing on James Baldwin), and the editors themselves. In line with the book’s central premise that “close reading is inextricably tied to the art of writing,” and that reading in and of itself, “is nothing more nor less than an exchange of wits,” the collection features nineteen critical essays written in response to exemplars of the form, from William Hazlitt’s “On the Pleasures of Hating” to David Foster Wallace’s “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.”
“Teachers, students, and essayists will be bending back pages and marking the margins for years to come,” says Dinty W. Moore, editor of Brevity Magazine.
Patricia Foster is the author of All the Lost Girls (2002) and Just Beneath My Skin (2004). A recipient of the PEN/Jerard Fund Award for nonfiction and the Fred Bonnie Award for a first novel, she is a Professor of English at the University of Iowa where she teaches in the MFA Program in Nonfiction.
Jeff Porter is the author of Oppenhiemer is Watching Me (2007). His essays have appeared in Missouri Review, Isotope, Hotel Amerika, and Antioch Review, among other journals. He is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Iowa where he also teaches in the MFA Program in Nonfiction.