I was reading last Sunday’s (March 3) New York Times book review section and there were two reviews that reminded me of the problems we were having with talking about Dust. First, from Morris Dickstein’s review of two volumes of Phillip Lopate’s essays:
The personal essay has always been a stepchild of serious literature seemingly formless, hard to classify. Lacking the tight construction of a short story, or the narrative arc of a novel or memoir, such essays have given readers pleasure without winning cultural respect. Written in a minor key, they could be slight and superficial, but their drawbacks could also be strengths. The style of the first-person essay tends to be conversational, tentative–in tune with our postmodern skepticism about absolutes, the trust we place in multiple perspectives.
And from Christopher R. Beha’s review of Cynthia Zarin’s An Enlarged Heart:
“An Enlarged Heart” is a collection of personal essays written mostly over the past decade by the poet Cynthia Zarin. I assume the book is labeled a “personal history” for the same reason that collections of short stories are sometimes calld “linked stories” or even “novels in stories,” which is that the reading public apparently prefers unified, book-length narratives to such hodge-podge. This is a superficial point, and the packaging decision was almost certainly out of Zarin’s hands, but I mention it up front for a couple of reasons.
To begin with, the book isn’t uniform in quality or even–seemingly–in intent. A few of the essays clearly show their beginnings as magazine assignments. Others have an occasional slightness that sits awkwardly beside, say, the fierce urgency of the title essay … Such internal consistencies might mar a book-length project, but they’re entirely forgivable in a collection whose high points are so good.
Do some of these statements also ring true for Dust? If these essays had been couched more as “personal” rather than presented as scholarly, would they have been more successful? Is this collection of essays, written as individual assignments not successful because of these origins? Or does it have high points that are so good it makes these origins forgivable?