Robert Dessaix's 'Letters to an Unknown Friend' was the keynote address at Essaying: The Calibre Prizes, a symposium held at the National Library of Australia. This is my review of a transcript of it, written for my Writing Creative Non-Fiction class back in May.
Even from the first paragraph of Letters to an Unknown Friend, Dessaix demonstrates himself to be a self-important bore. “What a hymn to the human mind” he says, referring to his own art. What “chutzpah”, what “courage” to celebrate this under-appreciated genre. What courage, I ask? It's not an award for white supremacists or “best murderer”. No one is crying for the suppression of personal essays. Most of us just don't care at all. Give one award or ten awards or a hundred awards, it's not courageous to do something if no one's trying to stop you or even paying attention.
But to Dessaix, the personal essay is not merely courageous but an essential, dying art that the kids these days with their mobile telephones and their LinkedIn Twitter Facebooks just can't understand. You see, communicating by these modern methods, whether with one's friends, family or complete strangers is “to live out life's banality, not redeem it, as the essayist seeks to do.” Rather than telling us the value of the essay, Dessaix gives us only empty comparisons with things he clearly doesn't use and doesn't understand.
“The … art of intimate conversation” is “rapidly disappearing … in this blogging, texting world of ours” he says before relating a story of how he rudely refused to read a friend's blog, and won't read it even at the risk of losing that friendship. Personal essays are only worthwhile, I suppose, if they're printed on paper. This followed by the tired and meaningless complaint that people have tablets and smart-phones with them in cafés these days; He longs for the days when those people would have had newspapers instead, as though there were some meaningful difference.
He talks of studying the works of Charles Lamb in school, and conjectures that school children these days probably study “ads for Harvey Norman” instead. Is that supposed to be a joke? In context I would say not. He literally thinks that English classes have done away with literature in favour of marketing materials – and seems completely oblivious to the possibility that there could be anything worth studying in marketing materials.
“In Australia in the twenty-first century, we do not … [value] idleness. We value industry” he says. When exactly was this supposed not to have been the case? He criticises the modern era, contrasting it with some imaginary golden age constructed of his own personal tastes and desires.
But it doesn't end there. It's not just the young and the modern that Dessaix insults for no reason. “You talk about things that matter to an equal, not to your wife” he says. He later compares women to “children and dogs”. Maybe women are “better at idleness” he suggests. Perhaps he meant that as a compliment, but it's hard to read it as such, particularly when he goes on to speculate that perhaps women just aren't suited to writing personal essays (which, remember, he considers very important and valuable). So women are just suited to writing less worthy things, then? Recipe books, perhaps.
I think the tone that Dessaix was aiming for was self-deprecation, but he can't do it. His own over-inflated sense of self-worth (and contempt for those different from him) just shines through too strongly. Though his words may be self-deprecating, the irony is too thick. “I'm uncertain” he says, but the meaning behind it is clear: “Listen, children, for this is wisdom.” Or should that be “women and children”?
At first glance, Letters to an Unknown Friend appears to a very poor attempt at singing the praises of the author's pet genre, but that may be doing Dessaix a disservice; After all, he is relatively successful as a writer, so presumably he isn't terrible at it. There is another possibility. Maybe the reason this piece makes me want to stay as far away from personal essay as possible is because it's supposed to.
Dessaix's sense of elitism, that he is more cultured and worthy than the rest of us, rests on the premise that we don't appreciate personal essays and he does. Were he truly to advocate for them, then the unthinkable might occur. He might succeed. How could he consider himself special if his area of interest becomes – the very word makes one shudder to think it – popular.
He speaks of a publisher's face falling when approached with a book of essays. Dessaix has clearly struggled to get his favourite writing published. What if the form became popular and others were not only able to get their books into the shops but get them sold? Then Dessaix would no longer be one of the accepted elite, he'd just be someone with appallingly bad timing. Better to keep the rest of us out of the game. If you never have to compete, no one can say you lost.