Critic and essayist Phillip Lopate joins Zibby to discuss his latest anthology, The Contemporary American Essay, and how it fits into his trilogy of American essay collections. Also discussed is Phillip’s large body of work (including The Art of the Personal Essay, which has been a part of every personal library Zibby has had), why anthologies require a certain headspace to assemble, and just how powerful an essay can be.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Phillip. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” We’re going to discuss your whole body of work, which is astounding in its breadth and scope and everything. Your most recent is The Golden Age of the American Essay: 1945-1970. Welcome.

Phillip Lopate: Thank you. This is part of a three-set anthology of the American essay. It’s a crazy project. It’s taken me about the last four or five years to do. The first one was The Glorious American Essay, which was a whole arc of the American essay. This one, The Golden Age, is really concentrating on the post-war period, 1945 to 1970. The third one will be The Contemporary American Essay, which is the twenty-first century essay. I know that moms are very busy. I’m not a mom. I have certain genetic limitations in that regard. I think that even though these books are very fat, the individual selections are fairly short, so a mom on the run could read one at a time and then go back to all the many things that she’s doing.

Zibby: I like the marketing pitch. Very good. I agree. I’ve published an anthology and have another one coming out. That’s what I keep saying to people. I’m like, you only have to read one essay at a time. You could check your Instagram instead. It takes no time. I agree.

Phillip: The other thing about anthologies is that nobody reads them from cover to cover, from start to finish. You can jump around. Anything that you think would be enjoyable to you, you just latch onto that. I wanted to do a real offering, a smörgåsbord of all these different voices and make it as inclusive as possible.

Zibby: I still get such a thrill. I feel like essays give you a peak into someone’s consciousness that it’s very hard to get somewhere else. Even in this with Joan Didion and Mary McCarthy and all these legends, Susan Sontag, just to see even what they were doing at their desk, I finished writing this, this is how I felt about — I just think it’s amazing. It’s like you get to peak into someone’s diary. Even the more literary or intellectual essays, whatever, there’s something just so personal, obviously, about them that over time — I don’t know. It gives me chills. I just love this as a form.

Phillip: Yes, me too. I think what you said is so right. There’s something intimate about the essay. It’s a conversation between the writer and the reader as though the writer is leaning forward and whispering into the reader’s ear and meanwhile, tracking his or her own thoughts. There is something like a diary about it, actually, yes.

Zibby: Like a personal letter or something. They just didn’t know me.

Phillip: That’s so true. One of the things that I did, especially in the first volume, The Glorious American Essay, I tried to show how essays could appear in the form of a letter or even in the form of a speech or even in the form of a newspaper column. They’re all letters, in a sense, from the writer to reader. Emily Dickinson, “I wrote a letter to the world that did not write to me.”

Zibby: Exactly. I have had your book, The Art of the Personal Essay. I feel like it was required in some class I took. I’ve moved eight million times, and it’s come with me from place to place. You’ve been a part of the fabric of whatever library I’ve had.

Phillip: It’s been my most popular and best-selling book. It became a standard text in colleges and universities and even high schools. One of the reasons that I did this new three-volume project was that for years, I’ve been so identified with The Art of the Personal Essay. Publishers have said, “Do you want to update it? Do you want to revise it?” I said, “No, no, let’s leave it the way it is. It is what it is.” Then I began to get the itch to do another anthology. Originally, it was supposed to be one anthology. Then it grew like into three because I found so many interesting essays that it couldn’t just be one. I know you probably feel this when you edited your anthologies. There’s something about doing an anthology that’s very pleasurable because you’re falling in love with other writers. It’s not all about you. I’ve done plenty of books that are just Phillip Lopate from beginning to end. In this case, I’m the maître d’ seating these various different writers. The main test for why I put an essay into one of these books was that I really liked it. I couldn’t put in something that I thought was important but I disliked. In a way, it’s very personal because it’s about personal taste. In another way, it’s not about my ego. It’s about celebrating this beautiful work by other writers.

Zibby: I couldn’t agree more. I felt like I’m a hostess, like it’s a party that I’m having, but I’m letting everybody in. They’re all sitting around my living room sharing their stories, but we can’t really broadcast that to the world, so anthology is the next-best way.

Phillip: I think I have a different personality when I’m just reading or writing than I do when I’m doing an anthology. When I’m reading for pleasure, if I don’t like something, I can be very critical. That said, I don’t have to finish every book. That’s it for that book. Then when I put on my hat that’s the anthologist, I’m trying to see it from the writer’s point of view more. I’m not so picky and scornful. I’m much more tolerant. A different side of me is brought out.

Zibby: The nice side, I guess.

Phillip: The sweeter side, you could say.

Zibby: The sweeter side. I was really interested, in this volume of it, in the way you analyzed the rise and fall of the essay in American history and how you linked essayism and liberalism and how some historical moments were more ripe for this form and why, even linking it to overcoming the Nazis and the position versus Europe and the US and how this art form has sort of shifted over time. I’m curious now where you see the essay in relation to the greater macro-nationalistic vibe of today.

Phillip: I definitely began to see volume two, The Golden Age of the American Essay, as both a celebration of a time when essays were very welcome and also as a debate about liberalism. It seemed to me in 1945, there was this golden moment of tolerance because America had triumphed over totalitarian governments. There was a spirit of — the African American soldiers were returning from the war. There were all of these books and movies that basically were — the message was, we’re all part of one family. Anti-Semitism is bad. Racism is bad. Sexism is bad. Let’s just welcome everybody as part of one family. Then there were cracks in liberalism. People started attacking liberalism from the left and the right. It went from this moment of all-inclusiveness to something that was much more crisis mode. Now, of course, we’re going through a lot of crises and a lot of polarity and a lot of division. I think one of the reasons that the essay, at this particular moment, is a key form is that people are confused. We’re getting too much information and too little wisdom or understanding. Experts are no longer trusted.

Therefore, what Virginia Woolf called the common reader goes to essayists who are trying to figure it out without being experts, trying to figure out what to make of this very confusing moment. One of the things about good essays is that the essayist is not just trying to write what his or her peer groups thinks, but are trying to write individually, what you really think, not what you’re supposed to think. It becomes a forum for freedom to assess things that are problematic. Even if you are essentially a progressive and subscribe to the notion of political correctness, you still are allowed in the essay, which is a form identified with doubt, self-doubt, skepticism, and thinking against oneself, you’re allowed to play out all the different possibilities, variations, and uncertainties. That’s the key word, if I could say, uncertainties. We’re living through a time of real uncertainty. I’m on the side of immigrants, of diversity, and so on. I am not on the side of white supremacy. That doesn’t make me so unique. It just means that I’m aware that not everybody thinks .

Zibby: Interesting. I liked how even in the introduction you had a whole thing about the black essay and all these different ways in which different voices were represented over time and what that does for the communities at large.

Phillip: Yes, because I think one of the things that the essay can do, I think even more than the novel, is that minorities and different groups are drawn to it in order to articulate what it means to be in this minority. To some degree, it becomes a kind of pursuit of identity through this minority. Richard Rodriguez has an essay called “Hispanic” in which he doubts some of the clichés about the Hispanic. You both have the right to talk about how you are part of a group and how you’re not part of a group, how you can’t go along with the tribe, which I think is very refreshing.

Zibby: I feel like, just personally — I know you’re the biggest writer ever, so I can’t even share my personal experience without feeling ridiculous about it, but I have been writing essays. That’s how I process my thoughts. I’ve been writing and publishing essays since I was fourteen. I feel like it’s my way of finding people in the world who might understand, making me less alone, but also the other people. I feel like the essay format is such a — it’s just a way to process that so many people use, especially, honestly, in the motherhood space. There are so many essay sites. I know we have Moms Don’t Have Time to Write as a Medium publication now too. There are so many sites devoted to many moms, and maybe, perhaps, as one of the groups that you discussed, dealing with a lot of stuff and trying to figure it all out. That’s how they do it.

Phillip: Absolutely. As you know, during the 1970s, one of the aspects of feminism was women writing essays questioning the maternal instinct, let’s say. Mothers unconditionally love their kids and also sometimes really want to kill their kids, or at least smack them.

Zibby: I don’t know what you’re talking about.

Phillip: You don’t know what I’m talking about? Okay, all right.

Zibby: Not me.

Phillip: I do think that some notion like the maternal instinct has a piece of reality, but it also has a piece of propaganda in it. It needs to be deconstructed somehow. That’s one of the things that’s happened in the last few decades, is questioning what it means to be at the beck and call of another human being.

Zibby: Interesting. What is your typical day like? Do you wake up and write? Do you wake up and read? Do you research the essays? Are you always on the hunt for amazing essays to include in something? Do you just read the newspapers all day? What is your day like?

Phillip: I usually wake up, have a cup of coffee and some version of breakfast, and read the newspaper. When I was doing the research for these few books, which went on for about four years, I would gather books together. Sometimes I would read three collections of essays a day, one in the morning. I’d take a break for lunch. Then one in the afternoon. Then early evening, third one. By that time, I was ready for a nap. What can I tell you? On a good day, I would find, let’s say, one or two essays that I thought, okay, this could really work. A glorious day would be if I found three essays. Sometimes I found no essays. It was a little bit like cruising. I was ready to fall in love, and it wasn’t happening sometimes. There was a resistance between me and the writer. So a lot of reading. I will say that even after the project was completed, I still need to read every day. I just need that time to process somebody else’s thoughts. Charles Lamb, the great essayist, said, “I cannot think. Books think for me.” It’s very hard just to sit down and try to think. Sometimes I need a text to bounce off of in order to think. For instance, in volume two, I was reading The Liberal Imagination by Lionel Trilling. He says in the introduction that the moment there’s a liberal consensus, that basically, everybody’s agreed on certain things, that this has a good side and that has a bad side. The phrase “the liberal consensus” was lodged in my brain. About three thirty in the morning, I woke up and said, yes, the liberal consensus, that’s one of the ways I can construct this book. If there’s a liberal consensus, what does that tell me? I didn’t just think of it. I needed Lionel Trilling. I needed something to bounce off. Moms may not always have time to read, but I somehow always find time . Sometimes it irritates my wife and daughter. It’s a form of withdrawal.

Zibby: I sometimes irritate my husband too. I’m always reading, especially at night once I finish all the emails and work and interviews. For me, it’s the most relaxing thing. I can’t go to bed without it. I look forward to it all day, but that’s also the time to catch up. How was your day? I’m like, well, now I’m going to read another — .

Phillip: I’ll tell you after I finish reading. Yes, exactly.

Zibby: Yes, I am familiar with that feeling. I don’t mean to leave him out. It was interesting because he was like, “When you read –” It takes me completely away. He’s like, “You might as well not even be in the room. You’re not paying attention.” Honestly, here I am, and I’m reading whatever. Actually, I’m in the middle of Venice right now in my head.

Phillip: Exactly. I think I started reading as a survival tactic because I came from a family of two parents and four kids, all pretty loud and articulate. The only way that I could at all escape was to put a book in front of my face, which was allowed in that family. You were allowed to not participate or shout or argue if you were reading, so I started reading a lot.

Zibby: I have four kids myself. My fourth kid is a boy. He started reading at four and a half, five. He reads a lot. He reads better than anybody in the whole family, probably. I think he’s just looking for peace and quiet.

Phillip: Exactly, a survival mechanism.

Zibby: Interesting. Very interesting. After this heroic project, what are you going to do next?

Phillip: I think what I’m going to do next is — I’ve written a lot of essays since my last collection, which was called Portrait Inside My Head. I had done these four collections: Bachelorhood, Against Joie de Vivre, Portrait of My Body, and Portrait Inside My Head. I’d also done other collections like a book of my film writings called Totally, Tenderly, Tragically. I’ve written a lot of personal essays. I’ve written a lot of literary criticism. I’ve written a lot of movie criticism. Now I’m going to go through this pile and see if I can put together, we’ll say, two collections. One will be personal essays and memoir pieces. The other will be books and movies. That’s what I’m thinking of now.

Zibby: I love that.

Phillip: It’s an interesting project. Sometimes you have an assignment and you write something like, let’s say, a book review. It’s perfectly fine for the occasion, but is it good enough to put inside a book? Sometimes it is. Sometimes it isn’t. I’m reading all this stuff with, I hope, a measure of detachment saying, this is really good, this is just okay, and seeing what will survive and what won’t. I’ve got all the material. I’m sure I’m going to be writing new essays along the way. I’ve got the material. I’ve just got to see what deserves to live and what’s going to be buried. That’s my next project.

Zibby: You could even do a third. It’s just called The Reject Pile.

Phillip: Oh, my god, that’s so funny because I once had this fantasy of starting a magazine called Killfie. This would be a magazine that would be a magazine for writers. My wife is a graphic designer. It would be artists as well, and architects. It would get projects that were rejected. I’m sure there’d be a lot of fascinating stuff in that. I certainly have had my share of killfies.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I love that. If you want to do it, call me up. I love that idea.

Phillip: We could co-edit it, but it needs a banker or some patron to give us some money to do that.

Zibby: Put a pin in that idea. I think that could be fun. It could even be just an anthology instead of a magazine, right?

Phillip: Exactly. It could be a one-shot something or other.

Zibby: I love that. Killfie: An Anthology. So funny.

Phillip: A lot of times, we do things that are commissioned that we care about. For whatever reason, it just doesn’t work out. Screenwriters know this all the time. They write screenplay after screenplay. It doesn’t get the green light. Sometimes you read them and think, well, this was a good screenplay. What was the problem with it?

Zibby: Exactly. That’s exciting. That could be fun. Great, get right to work. Now when you’re going through all of your work, you have to put some in the killfie pile.

Phillip: Yes, I have to kill it myself.

Zibby: My killfie pile is probably a lot bigger than yours because I bet a lot more of yours got accepted.

Phillip: I’m not so sure about — I know you’re being modest. All writers go through the same thing. All writers go through uncertainty and this feeling of, am I bluffing? Am I really a writer? Ultimately, the world says, yes, you’re a writer, so shut up about that. Just do your work. For the longest time, there is this kind of anxiety.

Zibby: This whole imposter syndrome. Most authors on the podcast are like, oh, I don’t have any advice. I’m not a real author. I’m like, I just read your book. I’m pretty sure you are.

Phillip: No, I have advice.

Zibby: Tell me your advice.

Phillip: My advice is to read deeply , not just contemporary, but older work by dead authors as well so that you don’t have to reinvent a wheel that’s already been there. All of these moves, you can really learn from. Read, read, read. The other one is, sit, sit, sit. There’s a Yiddish word called zitsfleysh. You’ve got to be able to apply your buttocks to the chair and put in the hours, which means, in a way, to accept a certain kind of — I don’t know if the word is loneliness or isolation. I have known students who were very talented who did not become writers because they couldn’t do this act of sitting and being alone with themselves. I have known other students who were somewhat less talented, but they could put in the hours. You put in a million hours, and it gets better. You do revisions, and you get smarter.

Zibby: Yes. Also, I feel like if you’re sitting all day writing, you’re not really alone. I don’t feel like you’re alone.

Phillip: You’re not alone. You’re with your prospective, understanding reader. You may have no one in your life who you feel understands you as well as this reader.

Zibby: The reader, the characters, it’s a party.

Phillip: It is a party, yes. You’re not alone. That’s very well put.

Zibby: Excellent. Thank you so much for coming on this show. This was so — I wanted to say entertaining, but that seems like a flippant thing to say.

Phillip: I like entertaining. That’s another thing that I discovered as a writer. At first when I was writing, I said, why should I entertain this self-satisfied bourgeois reader? Then I realized I myself wanted to be entertained as a reader. That was not an insult. We need to entertain our readers. We need to engage them. It doesn’t mean we need to flatter them. Sometimes we need to provoke them. That’s another kind of stimulation. We need to be entertaining.

Zibby: Okay, so then I’ll keep my word. I won’t edit it out. Great. Thank you so much. We’ll get back in touch about the anthology.

Phillip: Thank you so much. Great talking to you.

Zibby: Bye, Phillip.



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