I put things out. I hope people want to talk with me.
Love all this. An essayist I can’t get enough of who does NOT play the clicks game is Tim Kreider: https://timkreider.substack.com/
Thanks John. Your framing of flamethrower, debater, and illuminator also resonates in my circles which are much more focused on technical writing as an engineer.
Unfortunately, most students seem to think that “technical” = “boring.” While there are certainly different norms, many of them approach the communication from a debater framework and intentionally craft the story to make their points and minimize any weaknesses. I find it hard to believe this isn’t correlated with the reproducibility crisis in science. And also know that the debater framing is at the root of a lot of the reports and presentations I see.
Looking forward to sharing this framework with my students to help them see the coherence between their various writing venues and audiences.
I think about the audience a lot concerning my letters too. I get almost no reaction, and I think I'm in the illuminator school of thought because most of my stuff is about the mental health aspects of writing and reading. I'm OK with this for the most part, but sometimes it does irk me that I get almost no reaction to letters I publish like this one on the Adirondack novelist Russell Banks who was a major influence on me when I was in college.
Thank you for the recommendation! I'm definitely looking forward to checking out all these books.
My recommendation for a writer is Sam Anderson (shamblanderson.com)
I’m on bookstagram, and I always try to spark conversation with my posts. The only ones that ever get a lot of comments are the very spicy negative reviews, or questions about personal preference. The ones that follow deeper reviews or require thinking, 🦗. But then the Substack I comment most on? The Unpublishable, about dismantling beauty culture - EXTREMELY personal!! Human nature I guess? 🙃
Joseph Epstein, Taking a Line Out For A Walk
Perhaps my greatest illuminator as an essayist remains C.S. Lewis--not for his Christian stuff but rather for a posthumous book of essays called On Stories. I picked up my copy from the remainder table at the Union Square B&N in college and it lives on my shelf and in my heart for passages like this one:
“Those who say that children must not be frightened may mean two things.
"They may mean (1) that we must not do anything likely to give the child those haunting, disabling, pathological fears against which ordinary courage is helpless: in fact, *phobias*. His mind must, if possible, be kept clear of things he cannot bear to think of. Or they may mean (2) that we must try to keep out of his mind the knowledge that he is born into a world of death, violence, wounds, adventure, heroism and cowardice, good and evil.
"If they mean the first I agree with them, but not if they mean the second. The second would indeed be to give children a false impression and feed them on escapism in the bad sense. There is something ludicrous in the idea of so educating a generation which is born to the Ogpu and the atomic bomb. Since it is so likely that they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker."
--CS Lewis, "On Three Ways of Writing for Children" in _On Stories, And Other Essays on Literature_ by CS Lewis, ed. Walter Hooper, split into paragraphs by me for easier internet digestion
I love that most of your "illuminator" picks are essay collections or nonfiction by essayists. Some of my go-to illuminators are: Zora Neale Hurston ("You Don't Know Us Negroes"), Robin Wall Kimmerer ("Braiding Sweetgrass"), Jamaica Kincaid ("A Small Place" and "Among Flowers"), Alberto Manguel ("A Reader on Reading" ), and every essay Zadie Smith and Virginia Woolf ever wrote (but especially "Changing My Mind" and "A Room of One's Own"). My favorite Substacks are written more like literary essays than op-eds, too. They capture that mind-thinking-on-the-page quality you and Saunders are getting at. It's been nice to see Substack slowly grow beyond its journalism roots into new forms and genres.
Also, for what it's worth, I started reading The Biblioracle because we have different tastes and approaches to books, and I value that. I appreciate getting outside of my own little echo chamber. I don't always agree with you either, but I'm always interested in what you have to say. (I also struggled with the Pamela Paul piece last week--and all the Pamela Paul pieces circulating last week. There are so many worthy conversations about Latinx literature and exclusion in publishing yet to be had, but what we got instead was a small (mostly white) publishing community arguing about a white editor and it felt like a missed opportunity for necessary dialogue (not to mention more exclusion). Not that this is your fault, but since you opened up the floor, that's my read. Thanks for listening to your readers and engaging a conversation!)
Thanks as always for the intelligent and humane writing you share with us (your own and others'). An essayist that comes to my mind, after reading your partial list, is Ursula Le Guin. Yes, her fame is quite rightly as a great science fiction and fantasy novelist, but she wrote several books of essays that I cherish. A modern American prophet, I daresay, not unlike Wendell Berry or Marilynne Robinson (but different). Indeed a literary master who should have won the Nobel Prize.