A conversation with the essayist and editor Joseph Epstein

epsteinpicHere is a brief excerpt from Katie Bolick’s superb interview of Joseph Epstein for The Atlantic, dated June 30, 1999.

It happened once that GQ magazine was to photograph the editor and writer Joseph Epstein in his classroom at Northwestern University.

Minutes before the photographer arrived, Epstein wrote on the blackboard a quotation from Baudelaire, covertly hoping it would turn up in the background of the published photograph. “Plus un homme cultive les arts, moins il bande,” he scrawled in chalk. (Roughly translated, “The more a man immerses himself in the arts, the poorer his sex life.”) Sure enough, the quotation made it into print. Epstein couldn’t have been happier.

This anecdote — half erudition, half prank — is far more illustrative of who Joseph Epstein is than any photograph could ever be. This is a writer, after all, who expounds as confidently on Michael Jordan as on Evelyn Waugh, who has been known to describe W. H. Auden as a “mangy old coot,” and who is somehow able to imbue such topics as name-dropping and nap-taking with literary and social significance.

During the course of a career that has seen more than 1,700 essays into print (his writing has prompted comparisons to Michel de Montaigne and Charles Lamb), Epstein has managed to have serious fun with a serious form.

Born and raised in Chicago, Epstein has been a lecturer in English and writing at Northwestern University since 1974. In addition to ten essay collections, he has written two full-length books, Divorced in America (1974) and Ambition (1989), and a collection of short stories, The Goldin Boys (1991). In 1997 he stepped down from his post as editor of The American Scholar, a position he had held for twenty-two years.

Narcissus Leaves the Pool (1999), his most recent effort, is the sixth and final collection of the “familiar essays” he originally wrote for that journal. “The time has come for an end to preening, to thinking oneself still youthful,” he writes in the book’s introduction. “It is time to enter upon a new stage in life, time — my God! — to get serious.”

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Narcissus Leaves the Pool is one of a handful of literary essay collections — such as Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris and Wendy Loesser’s The Amateur — to be published of late. Would you care to comment on the current state of the essay?

The essay seems to be thriving at the moment. This may just be because there are a number of people right now who are fairly good at writing this strange form. Then again, it may have something to do with the fact that fiction is losing some of its prestige, which is not something that pleases me. I read a vast amount of contemporary fiction; I go to it to find out about how we live now, which is something that becomes less accessible as one grows older. Then again, the relative success of the essay may also have something to do with the diminishing national attention span. These days one sees a novel of four hundred pages, sighs, and says, “There goes a week of my reading life.”

I’m surprised to hear you feel there’s something to be gained from contemporary literature. You’ve written that literature today is second-rate.

I find myself buying lots of contemporary books, but somehow — and this just may be a sign I’m getting older — the earlier ones seem to have more quality. I think literature used to be taken more seriously, and was written out of greater seriousness, than it is now. When I was nineteen years old Robert Frost and Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner and Wallace Stevens and Marianne Moore were still alive and operating. There aren’t figures like that today.

But it may be natural to think that one has always arrived on the scene too late. You just get there, and you say, “What? The party’s over?” I was recently asked to be a subject of a Paris Review interview. I remember reading the early Paris Review interviews with E. M. Forester and Faulkner and others, and so I thought, God. Now they’re doing one with me. See how the world has slipped. It’s worse than I thought.

You’ve written that the inclusion of contemporary writers in teaching curricula has not done much for literature. Could you explain why?

I think it’s lowered the standard. In the old days of Oxford they used to teach nothing beyond Wordsworth. The assumption was that you didn’t have to teach the good contemporary novelists and critics, because if you were interested in literature you were going to read them on your own. I’m not sure that assumption holds up anymore; it may be that there are too many competing forms of intellectual entertainment — movies and television and all of that.

But university education is so finite that it seems to me a mistake to spend a lot of the four years reading living writers. You should really try to cram yourself with the most serious stuff. Mine are clearly reactionary views, though, that aren’t going to have any effect at all. The fascination with the contemporary is going to go on and on until students are studying writers who haven’t even written anything yet.

Your essays are erudite but are also accessible and instructive. Could it be that you’re a born teacher?

I don’t think so. When I write an essay I don’t set out to teach. I set out, usually, on a mission of self-discovery — to find out what I really think about a subject. I don’t have fixed opinions or views when I start to write; it’s writing that forces them out of me. I suppose there’s a certain element of showing off, too — that’s the erudition. But for the most part I’m really trying to figure out what I think of certain things.

There are two kinds of writers. (Robert Benchley once said there are two kinds of people: those who divide the world into two kinds of people and those who don’t.) One is a writer who’s always telling you things you never thought of, or didn’t know before. The other is a writer who’s telling you things that you do know but that you’ve never quite formulated for yourself. I’m the latter kind of writer. People are often saying to me, “You know, I’ve always felt that, but I never really thought to put it that way.” It’s pleasing when that happens. Simply to give pleasure at a fairly high intellectual level makes my day.

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Here is a direct link to the complete interview.

Essays in Biography 2012) and A Literary Education and Other Essays are his most recent collections of essays. I highly recommend both.

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