Eight Questions: Ander Monson on the Essay, David Foster Wallace, and Constructing Culture through Writing

Ander Monson and six contributors to his most recent publication, How We Speak to One Another, will appear at the Tucson Festival of Books on March 11-12, 2017, reading from their work and exploring the essay as a vibrant and multifaceted literary genre, as well as generating new ways to converse through writing in a workshop setting.

As a professor of English and the director of creative writing at the University of Arizona, Ander Monson has played a key role in guiding the program toward exciting and exponential growth. The UA Master in Fine Arts, “one of the nation’s oldest and best-regarded MFA programs,” will expand from a two-year to a three-year program in fall 2017 in order to continue taking a broad, liberal arts approach to creative writing. It encourages graduate students to blur the lines between genres and to produce cutting-edge literary work, as they will be “given a little more time to build and study and grow” in both their craft and their teaching. This innovative method, coupled with the rise in nonfiction’s recognition as a literary genre, has captured attention on a national level— the MFA program saw a record 495 applicants this year for just 12 fully-funded places, more than doubling its number of applicants since 2013.

In addition to his role as director, Monson is the editor and publisher of the journal DIAGRAM and the New Michigan Press, the founder of the website Essay Daily, and the author of six books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. He is also the co-founder of March Xness, a fun literary project riffing on the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament. This year’s iteration, March Fadness, will involve 70 writers and generate at least 150,000 words on musical one-hit wonders from the 1990s.

I caught up with Monson in his office to talk about the essay and its surge in popularity, David Foster Wallace, the pull of the Midwest, and how writing can be both a form of citizenship and a way to construct culture, among other things. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)


How would you define the essay for those who are not exceedingly familiar with the form? What makes it important or relevant today?
The essay is one of the most common forms, and one that most people have some experience with as an undergraduate, or perhaps in high school English classes. The essay is really just a way of modeling thinking and of creating an artificial intelligence on the page, whether that’s something as simple as an op-ed or a letter to the editor, or a Facebook post thinking through why you love Radiohead or 2Chainz. It’s an opportunity to manifest intelligence, in conversation with some part of the culture. Even Amazon reviews are opportunities for personality and a sense of voice and self to come out. Not all of those are good [essays], of course, but they are much more common than people think, and they are an opportunity for experimentation: to try out a version of yourself, maybe a funnier version or a snarkier version— as we all do, online in particular.

Are there more essays now with the advent of the internet, or has the essay always been ubiquitous as a form?
Provided that you accept the idea that Facebook posts are essays, then certainly. The New York Times called the age that we live in “The Age of the Essay,” in part because the essay as a literary form has always been a secondary form for most readers. People don’t seek out essayists, partially because they are surrounded by them, I suppose. But the essay has started, as a literary form, to undergo a kind of renaissance— in the last decade or so, especially.

Can you say more about this “renaissance”? How has the literary world’s relationship to the essay changed over time, particularly in academia?
Well, for instance, there weren’t nonfiction classes here at the University of Arizona until maybe 15 years ago. There were creative writing classes in fiction and poetry, but never in essay, because that’s the sort of thing that everyone has to do at one point or another, anyway. The MFA program was a fiction and poetry program until probably around 2000-2005, and we were one of the first creative nonfiction programs. I think it’s been the most successful, in terms of its growth, of the programs in this department.

The rise of [nonfiction] as an academic discipline, as a literary genre, has of course helped to contribute [to the program’s growth], but also to it getting more respect as a form. It’s still an under-respected form. There’s no Nobel in essay writing. There’s no Pulitzer in essay writing. It doesn’t have the kind of literary prestige that the others do because it doesn’t have a canon in the same way.  In the fiction program and in the poetry program, you would assume that they have read Dickinson, Raymond Carver, Faulkner, people that are clearly in the center of their canons. But that doesn’t exist for nonfiction, and those who are [canonical] are often people like David Foster Wallace, who is one of our alumni— he went to Arizona’s MFA.

Would David Foster Wallace have seen himself as an essayist?
Most people that are the best essayists of our age are just the best writers of our age— they do other things, whether that’s by preference or not, or because there’s more prestige in them. [David Foster Wallace] was best known as a fiction writer. His essays, though, are so much fun. They’re so funny and so interested in cultural detritus. I think it’s his best form by far, but not one that he believed was really worthwhile. He didn’t think about how his books of essays were made; he would be commissioned to write them. And sometimes he would work against the commission. For example, Gourmet Magazine tries to hire him to go to the Lobster Fest and then he writes “Consider the Lobster,” this really strange, swervy, philosophical Jeremiad against eating lobster. And that’s one of the great things about the essay: it’s an opportunity to allow yourself to figure out what you think about a thing by writing about it.

On a similar note, The New York Times asked me to give some advice about how to write college admissions essays. That’s a hard thing to write— the job is not to write about yourself, but to, in writing about something else, write yourself. You create and discover yourself by writing about how much you love Katamari Damacy or Doritos or Dickinson. You need to give the self something to chew on.

Is “writing yourself” critical to writing a good essay? In How We Speak to One Another you actually reference a collective “we” far more often. How do you see the interplay between the two?
This is a very liberal arts question and, I think, a crucial one—especially in this day and age—to think about how we talk to others. [Writing] is a way of being a citizen and thinking about what we’re part of, whether it’s a college class or a department or a program, [asking]: how do we interact with the world? So I started to move into the question of “where does ‘I’ become ‘we’?” and I started to read all these memoirs and take fragments from them and put them together. As you read more, people seem more and more the same. I guess it never occurred to me that that kind of thinking was what led me to Essay Daily and to How We Speak to One Another. But it’s that desire for connection, that’s why we go to literature. That’s why we go into the world— to seek others. And that’s what, to me, the essay is best at. It is of speaking to someone else. And, whether it’s public or private, it’s out there— you are trying to forge a connection. We are trying to manifest ourselves out there in the world in hopes that it will find someone. My third book of nonfiction, Letter to a Future Lover, was really about that, too, and it’s really important when we think about essays. We’re not just writing to the void or to an empty form, we’re trying to understand how to make other people feel or understand something.  And that’s how we get a culture.

I know you’re from the Midwest. Does place play a role in your sense of self, or in your writing? Or perhaps change of place, given your move from Michigan to Tucson?
It really used to. When I moved, when I was younger, it mattered a lot to me. Especially moving from Michigan to Arizona, which was just such a radical change in climate, and in flora and fauna. When I moved here, Jim Harrison told me that he loved Arizona because in Grand Rapids, Michigan (which is where I lived before) there was a fiction that the world was under control. And in Arizona there’s not. There’s that sense that it’s obviously wild. Right outside of the city, it’s wild. And I like that. I’m originally from upper Michigan, so that wildness of the Upper Peninsula and Arizona are similar.

I started to think about that, and I started to transpose bits of Michigan on top of Arizona. I’ve always found that it’s really hard to write about a place when you’re in it—for me, anyway. You take it with you [when you leave], this mythological version of it that you created in your mind (especially if you are a fiction writer or a poet), and it’s hard to do that when you’re actually in a place and subjected to the usual, the everyday— you know, going to Fry’s. Although you could make that beautiful and nostalgic, too, I suppose.

Speaking of reflection, how do you see yourself as a writer, particularly a writer of nonfiction?
I guess I have a specialty in taking ideas that no one else would pursue, but trying to pursue [them] and seeing where it takes us. I have a lot of these. DIAGRAM started that way, too; it started as a dumb little idea and took off. That’s one thing [I] try to model for students and also teach— all great books probably seemed like really bad ideas when they began. Your job as a writer is to get enough confidence and chops to follow the bad idea long enough to see if it can became a good idea.

Also, it’s my job as a writer, and as a nonfiction writer in particular, to pay attention to the world and to bring to the reader’s attention the things that I think are interesting, entertaining, or beautiful. David Foster Wallace has got a great quote that nonfiction starts from a position of [thinking] the whole world is what you have to deal with, and your job is to delete everything until the things that are remaining make sense. Versus the job of fiction, [where] you start with nothingness. So nonfiction starts with infinity and you edit down; fiction starts with zero and you build up. And I think that’s accurate. That’s what I usually hope my essays will do: grab things from [pop] culture and bring them in. Sometimes it’s just entertaining. I keep myself entertained. I’ve been moving more in that direction in the last few years. Why not write about the things I want to write about, rather than other things?

How do you see yourself as a teacher of creative writing, and how has the MFA program grown and changed under your direction?
The ethos of reaching out and connection is really important to me. It’s important to my teaching, to my writing, to this program, and it’s really important to Essay Daily. And it has some really obvious benefits— a lot of people in the [How We Speak to One Another] anthology are MFA students who have graduated and are now linked to us in obvious and interesting ways. It’s nice to see the Arizona diaspora out there a little bit more, and only hopefully to increase in the future.

The changes we’re making to the program have been things that are really central to my practice as a writer: interdisciplinarity, flexibility, and rigor. We’re a much different program [now], and I think a much better one, less bounded by genre, pigeonholing, and the overspecializing that academia asks you to do. Most writers, when they’re doing their best or most interesting work, are people that are messing with the boundaries between genres as people understand them.

Personally, I write fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, so it’s nice that this is a program that is friendly to [mixing genres]. I think that proves something about what a lot of us believe is important about MFA programs, and about creative writing in general. These are not programs that are well-served by people just staying in their silo. We want them to wander.

I went to a small liberal arts school in the Midwest, so these are the things that I believe are important. It’s hard to find or make that happen at big, state institutions, but the University has really tried to make more spaces for that. So I’m happy about that. And if we can get more Michigan people down here, all the better.


For more on Ander Monson’s upcoming appearance at the 2017 Tucson Festival of Books and a full list of programming sponsored by the College of SBS, please see the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences @ The Tucson Festival of Books' website.

Interview by Danielle Bishop, Outreach Coordinator, College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.

Published Date: 

02/14/2017 - 1:58pm