“For the writer, an essay is a mirror,” Jonathan Franzen writes in the introductory essay to his newest nonfiction collection, “The End of the End of the Earth.” We seem to be living in an “essayist golden age,” where nearly everyone feels it’s their holy duty to publicly express their opinion. Yet while the spirit of the personal essay has permeated our culture, the form itself looks to be going extinct. As Franzen points out, “subjective tweets and hasty blog posts don’t seem so essayistic. They seem more like a means of avoiding what a real essay might force on us.”
For Franzen, a real essay is “a finished thing,” not a rambling rant; it must be focused, organized, not sloppy thinking. He goes further, clarifying that the essay differs from “superficially similar kinds of subjective speech” in that it “invites you to ask whether you might be somewhat wrong, maybe even entirely wrong, and to imagine why someone else might hate you.”
A lot of people hate Franzen — several of these essays have garnered online vitriol — and it’s interesting to see him wrestling with his haters here, coming to terms with their complaints; the collection even seems to bleed an open wound of apologetic self-consciousness that dulls the sharpness of his own critique. For instance, many misguided people criticized his novel “Freedom” for being about privileged white people, and elsewhere in “The Essay in Dark Times,” the essay quoted above, he writes, “Did I really care personally about biodiversity? Or was I just a privileged white guy who liked to go birding?”
About half of the 16 essays are about birding, and sometimes there’s the feeling, All right, enough with the birds! But his birding expeditions allow him to engage with much more than birds — environmental issues and climate change particularly. Often there’s a pleading, if not a preaching tone to these sections, and because we’ve become so inured to dire prophecies regarding the melting ice caps and rising sea levels, these bits come off as rather banal.
But then, bam, he hits with something profound. Like in the essay “Missing,” when he’s in Jamaica and questioning his birding devotion, and writes, “The thing about games is that you don’t want to look too closely at why you’re playing them. A great yawning emptiness underlies them, a close relative of the nothingness that lies beneath the surface of our busy lives.”
And here’s where Franzen is at his best. Not when he’s analyzing politics, defending himself against gratuitous attacks from the orthodox left, playing spokesman for environmental causes, or kvetching about social media, but when he causes us to call ourselves into question, and look more deeply at what we’re doing with our lives.
Randy Rosenthal teaches writing classes at Harvard University.