Because no one has ever made a barrel of money from one, the essay remains one of the few forms offering true literary freedom. Novelists

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From Old-School Treatise to Wiseass Rant

Surveying the range of the contemporary essay.

Because no one has ever made a barrel of money from one, the essay remains one of the few forms offering true literary freedom. Novelists can strike it rich, and because they can, the possibility exerts a kind of gravitational force. Few novelists can simply write what they want without feeling that insidious drag of commercial possibility: Will this sell? The essayist doesn't have that hope, and remains free to chase whatever whim comes along. At its best, the essay leaves complicated matters no less complicated, but also leaves the reader with a hint of having grasped something tangible in the midst of confusion. This small pleasure has a small market, so the essayist can write about pretty much anything—and make that subject, by sheer dint of the writer's mind and words, as compelling as anything in the world. A Ved Mehta Reader: The Craft of the Essay

by Ved Mehta (Yale University Press, $18) Suck

edited by Joey Anuff & Ana Marie Cox

(Hardwired Books, $17.95) Shiny Adidas Tracksuits and the Death of Camp

by Might magazine (Boulevard, $14) The primary venues for essays nowadays are magazines and Web pages. I still haven't gotten comfortable reading anything of length off a computer screen, and apparently others feel the same way, because the online magazine Suck (www.suck.com) last year published—in book form—a collection of previously digital essays. The book is titled, ingeniously, Suck. Subtitled "Worst-Case Scenarios in Media, Culture, Advertising, and the Internet," Suck aspires to be a home for satirical gadflies, puncturing pomposity and pointing up the dreck our society creates. Most of the writers use cute pseudonyms like Duke of URL, Johnny Cache, and Seymour Cranium, apparently protecting their civilian identities from the corporate wrath their essays might stir up. Topics include OK Cola's marketing campaign, speed-reading instructional videos, Andy Warhol, and of course the Internet itself. But since few of these pieces are more than two or three pages long, Suck's real topic is the writer's ability to coin hip phrases. Examples range from the annoyingly clever: "It's no longer a matter of whether or not the revolution will be televised.... What remains most salient is that the television will not be revolutionized" to the cleverly meaningless: "As sure as a level playing field suggests a nice site for an office building, the Web will continue to be pushed toward the flatline." Since movie gossip and free smut are only a click away, Suck writers feel the need to compress every frantic thought into dense little nuggets of attitude. As a result, all the essays sound the same; I'm tempted to believe that "Polly Esther" and "Screed Racer" are actually a single wiseass, spewing out quips so fast even he or she doesn't know what they mean. The essays aren't stupid, just too concerned with being punchy to actually say anything. Seeking relief from Suck's relentless aphorisms, I turned to the writing of Ved Mehta, who was a staff writer at The New Yorker from 1961 to 1994. The Craft of the Essay contains selections from throughout his career, but all of Mehta's essays display the same gentle, unflashy style—a style so leisurely and discreet as to be almost unrecognizable as journalism. Early in the collection I began to fear that Mehta's writing required a degree of patience I didn't have; I almost felt embarrassed, as if I was proof of all the warnings about television corrupting our attention spans. But soon I fell into his rhythm and was able to enjoy and admire the unassuming clarity of Mehta's intelligence. Mehta himself is present in all of the essays, even those that aren't autobiographical. Most describe the author going from interview to interview, gathering information about his topic, be it Christian theology or the questionable personal practices of Mahatma Gandhi. Here's a passage from his pursuit of the state of modern philosophy at Oxford, following a conversation about Wittgenstein and Plato: "Both of us more or less stopped thinking at the same time, very much as one puts down an intellectual work when thinking suddenly becomes impossible. 'How about some claret?' both of us said. The decanter was empty. We vigorously stirred some more claret, sugar, and spices in a caldron and put the brew on the gas ring, and while we were waiting for a drink, we listened to a portion of 'The Magic Flute.'" That's from the beginning of his New Yorker career, but Mehta's later essays continue to linger on quotidian moments. This off-point wandering may drive some readers nuts, but often these pauses provide a needed human context in which to consider Mehta's heady subjects. Shiny Adidas Tracksuits and the Death of Camp, a collection of essays from the now-defunct Might magazine, fulfilled my urge for a combination of substance and pop. If you've heard about Might at all, it's probably because of the fake article it printed about the death of Eight Is Enough's Adam Rich. The article was a satire on celebrity eulogies, and not a particularly subtle one—which didn't stop many people from thinking it was true. At its worst, Might succumbed to the kind of snide one-note sarcasm pioneered by Spy, but at its best the magazine published intelligent investigations of the small and large things that make up modern life. Topics like MTV's Rock the Vote campaign are explored with cool irony, but several essays are passionately serious (cartoonist Ted Rall's bilious "College Is for Suckers," for example). Most of the essays are sharply funny—Martha McPartlin's description of touring with David Hasselhoff is a comic high point. "I... admit to his assistant that I've really only seen one Baywatch all the way through," she writes, "and it had to do with a midget. Interestingly, I have to clarify further because, as he informs me, 'We do a lot of work with midgets.'" Unfortunately, McPartlin and her colleagues weren't funny to enough readers to keep Might alive. The magazine folded in 1997 after four years and 17 issues, and its death was accompanied by more attention than it ever received in life. Shiny Adidas Tracksuits is a strong sampling of what the fuss was about.

 
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