In her groundbreaking 1999 article “The Essay Canon,” Lynn Z. Bloom argued that the essays most people know—the essays that, effectively, define the genre—are the ones that appear most frequently in freshman composition anthologies. As a result, the essay canon is fundamentally a teaching canon as opposed to a historical, critical or national canon, and the essay is too easily dismissed as a service genre, one that is used to write about other, more “literary” genres. It is a genre used to teach 19-year-olds how to write.
Such teaching is hard work. New teaching assistants are assigned multiple sections, in which they are expected to introduce the entire writing process, from brainstorming through proofreading. Editors select essays for first-year writing anthologies with the needs of these beginning teachers and their students in mind. Is the selection current and accessible? Can it be used to model this or that rhetorical mode? Is it short enough for use in a one-hour class? Is it in the public domain, and if not, how much will the permissions cost? Will it help diversify the anthology in terms of race, ethnicity and gender? Does it help establish a balance between classic and contemporary essays, and between emerging authors and established big names? These concerns are real and understandable, but they push toward the inclusion of shorter, simpler, more “teachable” essays.
Important anthologies, such as those edited by Gerald Early, Phillip Lopate, Robert Atwan, Joyce Carol Oates and John D’Agata, have sought to position the essay historically and argued for the genre’s centrality, but, as Bloom points out, “All anthologies (not just [first- year] readers) deracinate their material—old or new—from its original context and replant it in the anthologist’s soil.”
The essay is more than the “fourth genre.” It deserves to be studied in literature as well as writing classes. It deserves anthologies that emphasize historical and cultural contexts, and promote extensive critical interpretations. It deserves a diverse and expansive canon full of challenging essays that are read by general readers and scholars alike.