The PCJ Essay
Clifford Thompson | August 2019
For many years, I have been reading and writing what is now called creative nonfiction. Several years ago I began teaching nonfiction writing at the college level. As part of the coursework, I have had students read published essays, which has allowed me to share much of the work that I have come to love. As I was designing the courses I would teach, it occurred to me that many of the published essays I truly admire—which are the only kind I assign—fall into at least one of three categories. I have students write essays in each of the three, and for each category we look to the published essays as models.
I made up the categories myself. Two are fairly obvious. The first, called “People You Know,” comprises essays about exactly that—real people who figure prominently in the writers’ lives. The second category, called “Trouble,” includes essays about troubles writers have faced, from immediate crises—such as spending eight nights in a French jail for allegedly stealing a hotel bedsheet, an experience James Baldwin describes in his masterful essay “Equal in Paris”—to ongoing difficulties, such as suffering prejudice against Puerto Ricans, of which Martín Espada gives a moving account in a piece called “The Puerto Rican Dummy and the Merciful Son.”
And then there is the third category, the subject of this essay. I call it the Personal in the Critical-slash-Journalistic essay, or PCJ essay. PCJ essays generally contain three elements. One is a well-known subject; the subject might be an event, such as 9/11, or the music of a particular group, or a book, painting, film, or television show—hence the term “critical-slash-journalistic.” A second element is the writer’s personal experience, especially as it intersects with that event, work, or thing. On the page, we watch those two elements interact with each other; the writer gives us his or her or their take on that well-known subject, as well as a description of its impact on the writer’s life. Together, much like a married couple having a child, the two elements—the personal on the one hand and the critical/journalistic on the other—yield a third. That is an insight, one that would not be possible without the first two elements. What is important is that the personal and the critical-slash-journalistic have equal or near-equal weight and, just as importantly if not more so, that there is interplay between them. Not only does the well-known element have an effect on the life of the writer; the writer’s personal experiences set the stage for that impact, making for an unusual, possibly unique take on that well-known subject. I use the term “unique” advisedly; what I find wonderful about PCJ essays is that, because each writer is unique, his or her experience with an outside subject will be unique as well, as will the insight that results from it. Thus the master class I taught at Columbia University in the fall of 2014 was titled “Unique by Definition: The Personal in the Critical/Journalistic.” (I have also taught classes or lectured on this concept at New York University, the Bennington Writing Seminars, and elsewhere.)
What are the origins, and the history, of the PCJ essay? I feel comfortable saying that they are uncertain because of two exchanges I had with the American dean of the personal essay, Phillip Lopate. A while back, I emailed Phillip to get his take on this origin question. His initial response was that the mix of the personal with journalism goes at least as far back as George Orwell. When I mentioned the critical element, he first offered his opinion that criticism is not journalism, then noted that for as long as writers have been writing about the world, which includes topical events and popular culture, the personal and critical-slash-journalistic elements have been mixed. When I explained further that I was interested specifically in essays in which the personal and the critical-slash-journalistic elements do not merely coexist on the page but interact with each other meaningfully, he suggested that the PCJ essay didn’t go back further than about seventy-five or eighty years. Again, we discussed Orwell, whose 1938 work Homage to Catalonia, an account of Orwell’s service in the Spanish Civil War, perfectly fits the PCJ form. We agreed, too, that New Journalism had certainly contributed to, if not created, the PCJ genre. And yet, while New Journalism and PCJ are closely aligned, they are not quite the same thing.
New Journalism, which began in the early 1960s, has so influenced and infused modern nonfiction writing that it is easy to forget, while reading a typical magazine piece, how untypical such a piece would once have been. The figure most often associated with New Journalism is Tom Wolfe, in part because he edited the 1973 anthology by that name; Wolfe famously declared in his introduction to the book that since novelists had apparently abdicated the task of grappling with what was happening in the country, it had fallen to journalists to bring opinion, insight, and vision to a definition of America in the late 20th century. As for the origins of New Journalism, however, Wolfe was quick to point to the work of his fellow writer
Gay Talese. In his seminal profiles of figures including Frank Sinatra and Joe Louis, Talese had injected fiction techniques such as dialogue and inner monologue into the previously dry, just-the-facts-ma’am profile form, and New Journalism was born. As the genre flourished, names such as Hunter S. Thompson, Joan Didion, Truman Capote, and Norman Mailer came to be associated with it.
A common feature of New Journalism is the insertion of the writer into the news story. Rather than being hidden behind an omniscient voice, the writer was now part of the action, not simply observing it or hearing about it secondhand. For example, in his 1968 book The Armies of the Night, Norman Mailer achieved something similar to Orwell’s feat in Homage to Catalonia, telling the story of his own participation in Vietnam War protests of the era. While this might seem synonymous with the PCJ form, the presence of the writer in works of New Journalism does not necessarily result in an interaction on the page between the writer’s experience and the outside subject the writer covers. That interaction, however, is a defining feature of what I call the PCJ form.
It is certainly possible, of course, that some essay or essays, published decades or centuries before the work of Orwell or the New Journalists began to appear, would fit the form I am describing. A good deal of reading and investigating would need to be done before one could point with absolute assurance to the start of what I am calling the PCJ genre, if such a determination is possible at all.
In the meantime, let’s take an in-depth look at one work in the genre to try to give an understanding of how the PCJ essay functions.
One of the essays in Jonathan Lethem’s 2005 collection The Disappointment Artist is titled “Defending The Searchers.” Some background: in John Ford’s classic 1956 Western The Searchers, John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a Confederate Civil War veteran who visits his brother, Aaron, and Aaron’s family in Texas. When a neighbor’s cattle are stolen, Ethan rides off with other men to try to catch the rustlers. They soon discover that the theft was a trick by Comanches to lure the men away from their homes; when they return, they find that Aaron and most of his family have been murdered, some of them apparently raped, and that Aaron’s eight-year-old daughter, Ethan’s niece, has been kidnapped. Ethan and the niece’s adopted brother spend the rest of the film searching for the niece; it emerges later that Ethan wants to find her only so that he can kill her, because he would rather see her dead than living as an “Injun.” He changes his mind in the end; upon rescuing her, he takes her home rather than killing her. The Searchers has been hailed since its release as one of the finest films ever made, due to its richly colorful landscapes, John Wayne’s dark performance as the bitter, vengeful, and violent Ethan, and the film’s investigation of the racism that has historically fueled America’s treatment of its Native peoples.
Fast-forward twenty-six years to 1982, the year that finds Jonathan Lethem, at the beginning of his essay, as a freshman at Bennington College. Lethem has been raised in a sketchy neighborhood of Brooklyn by artsy parents without much money. He has aspirations to be a writer, and he favors the science fiction genre; he is also a passionate if somewhat haphazardly educated student of film. The word insecure is not adequate to the task of describing the nineteen-year-old Lethem. Surrounded by rich kids, he is self-conscious about his socioeconomic status, and he is also, in this crowd of sophisticates, defensive about the literary genre in which he wants to write. Masking his insecurity with what he calls “a hectic show of confidence,” Lethem becomes the first freshman to run the college’s film society. In that role, on campus one evening, he screens a movie that he has never seen but that he knows is an important part of his film education and to which, for that reason, he already feels attached: The Searchers. In the dog years separating 1956 from 1982, The Searchers has gone from groundbreaking film to corny old Western, at least in the view of the young cynics in Lethem’s audience, who are not necessarily aware of The Searchers’ reputation and probably wouldn’t care even if they were. And so, in the first of the essay’s four parts, Lethem has set the stage for a confrontation that is both cringe-inducing and comic: between a painfully earnest, painfully underconfident Lethem and a roomful of jaded, disdainful students merely seeking to pass the time at the movies. The screening of The Searchers has barely begun before the jeers commence. To make matters worse, the film reel breaks, and there is a pause while it is fixed; Lethem vows silently that if the reel breaks again, he will rise before this gathering of the hip and superior and defend the film for all he is worth. It does, and he does, in a scene that is both acutely uncomfortable and hilarious.
The other students’ responses to the film upset Lethem because, though he stops just short of saying so, he feels that in laughing at The Searchers, the crowd is laughing at him. In this passage the personal and the critical-slash-journalistic do not merely interact: they become one. Lethem has hinted at this earlier, in his description of John Wayne’s character, Ethan, who, in Lethem’s words, is “tormented and tormenting. His fury is righteous and ugly—resentment worn as a fetish. It isolates him in every scene. It isolates him from you…” Lethem is ostensibly describing John Wayne’s character here, but of course, he is also—he is really—describing himself. This makes “Defending The Searchers” a quintessential PCJ essay, because the journalistic element, the film The Searchers, is not merely the writer’s subject but also his surrogate.
As a character in his own essay, Lethem is indeed the way he describes John Wayne. He feels “fury”; that fury is “righteous,” which we might amend to “self-righteous”; and like the Wayne character, he wears resentment—resentment born of insecurity—as a fetish, his fetish being for The Searchers. What saves the essay from being the unreadable scribblings of an obsessive, what makes it instead funny and engaging, is the distance between Lethem the narrator and Lethem the character. In writing this essay, Lethem has sufficient perspective on past events to see them, and himself, for what they were. He has the emotional distance to present his younger self as a comic character. This, too, is crucial for the PCJ essay, since the third element of that form—the insight born of the marriage of the personal and the journalistic— depends on getting far enough away from both subjects to see them clearly.
The scene at Bennington is the first of three set pieces that involve viewings of the film gone awry. The second takes place seven years later, in San Francisco. By this time Lethem has dropped out of college; he has continued his intellectual pursuits, however, and has read a great deal about The Searchers, which he is now preparing to watch on VHS at the apartment of his girlfriend, whom he plans to lecture about the film’s merits. “I was plotting to remake my scene in [Bennington’s] Tishman Hall,” he writes, “only this time the audience would be completely under my guiding hand. We would enter the temple of The Searchers together. Her awe would confirm and justify my own.”
Enter one of the girlfriend’s roommates, a good friend of Lethem’s, a young man referred to in the essay as D. To Lethem’s dismay, D. wanders in as he and his girlfriend turn on The Searchers and proceeds to watch it with them. The talented, promising D. is rapidly succumbing to drug addiction, from which Lethem and D.’s roommates have failed to save him; that, along with Lethem’s having dropped out of college, has contributed to Lethem’s sense of personal failure, making D. both a symbol of that failure and, for that reason, a target of Lethem’s resentment. As the three begin to watch The Searchers, D. fills the role played years earlier by the Bennington students, making fun of the film to the point where Lethem feels forced to defend it. Lethem and D. argue until D. walks away. “I wouldn’t speak with him for five years from that day,” Lethem writes. Discussing his friend D. and The Searchers, he adds, “As in a priest-and-doctor-in-a-lifeboat puzzle, two things cried out for saving and I could save just one. Seeing a friend spiral into desolation I reserved my protective sympathy instead for a work of art, for John Ford and John Wayne, remote, dead, indifferent though they might be.” In this passage, the young Lethem may seem on the surface to be the king of the jerks, preferring to defend an old movie rather than try to relate to, and try to save, his friend. But again, the old movie is a stand-in for Lethem himself; in defending it, he feels he is defending his own tastes, aspirations, and worth. In other words, it was him or D. The Searchers is, again, a surrogate for Lethem. Two PCJ elements are again fused into one.
The essay’s third set piece is a screening of The Searchers that Lethem attends, or rather crashes, at Berkeley, which is followed by a lecture—part of an undergraduate course on film Westerns whose professor is said to have written about the movie. By this time, two years have passed since the disastrous viewing with D. and the girlfriend, and Lethem has seen the film several more times, so familiar with it by now that he is “ready to respond to every frame of The Searchers, to meet it completely.” Like the first two set pieces, this one contains dry humor at Lethem’s own expense: “As the light came up,” he writes, “I wept discreetly.”
In this scene, Lethem manages to do what he feared earlier he never would: get through the film “without yelling at someone.” What’s troubling about this viewing is not what happens during it but, rather, what takes place afterward. The next day Lethem appears at the professor’s office, hoping to get a look at an article the professor has written about The Searchers. In this one section, the stand-in for Lethem is perhaps not the film but the professor. As in a scene from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, Lethem catches a glimpse of his potential future self in the person of this professor, who brightens at the mention of his article before his briefly visible enthusiasm disappears from sight, sinking under the mental weight of his teaching load and his legions of indifferent students. Though Lethem does not say so, his fear is that this fate awaits Lethem himself, should he continue pontificating on the object of his obsession.
The essay’s fourth and final section contains not a scene but reflection. By now Lethem has ceased to defend The Searchers. The film’s detractors, he writes, “are casual snipers, not dedicated enemies… they take a potshot and wander off, interest evaporated. Those who care like I do cherish their own interpretations, and don’t need mine.” And here, once again, The Searchers is a surrogate for Lethem. Feeling that he no longer needs to defend the film is a sign of no longer needing to defend, or justify, himself. In the end, “Defending The Searchers” is a PCJ essay whose third element is a discovery of the importance of self-acceptance.
The PCJ essay represents a particular approach to looking, with a clear eye, at oneself and the world. The danger of writing a personal essay can be that since the writer constitutes so much of what is observed, there can be little or nothing to put the writer in relief. But an outside subject, a critical or journalistic element, can provide that relief. In “Defending The Searchers,” rather than being self-indulgent or self-flattering, Lethem uses the film, and John Wayne, to reflect on the troubling qualities in himself. PCJ essays can also be a means of meeting the reader halfway. An essay about Jonathan Lethem’s youthful insecurities might not, on its face, appeal to a given person, but if that person is a fan of movies in general or The Searchers in particular, she or he is given a handle by which to grab onto Lethem’s tale of self-acceptance. And if the critical/journalistic can make the personal more palatable, sometimes the reverse is true. Many people may be reluctant to read about Westerns—until one writer’s personal experience serves as an introduction to, and lets them enjoy thinking about, that film genre.
As that might suggest, works in the PCJ genre can function as a subcategory not only of the personal essay but of criticism as well. Accounts of personal experiences that led to insights into particular works of art can serve as welcome complements to the Olympian tone that characterizes the traditional movie, book, or art review. While I won’t go so far as to say that there are not objective standards for evaluating works of art, all judgments are at least partly subjective, and understanding something of a given critic’s subjectivity might aid in weighing the value of that particular critic’s opinion—and in deciding whether to read or view that particular work of art ourselves. This is not to say that PCJ essays as criticism serve a purely utilitarian function; it is my contention that the best essays that mix the personal and the critical are themselves works of art.
Clifford Thompson is the author of Love for Sale and Other Essays, for which he won a Whiting Writers’ Award, as well as the memoir Twin of Blackness. His essay “The Moon, the World, the Dream,” originally published in The Threepenny Review in 2017, is included in The Best American Essays 2018. He has taught creative nonfiction writing at the Bennington Writing Seminars, New York University, Sarah Lawrence College, and Columbia University.