I am a fan of the small but slowly growing sub-sub-genre of exam/question essays, having taught Desirae Matherly's "Final: Comprehensive, Roughly" and Brian Doyle's "Your Final Exam," so I was excited by the prospect of reading responses to Robin Hemley's "Study Questions for the Essay at Hand: A Speculative Essay," which was to be published as a prompt for further elaboration-in-responses. The project would make a yoked pair (or many pairs, really) of essays mimetic of the everyday process readers enact as they read essays, which are by their very nature dialectic, conversational. Or, the project would speed up and make fast the centuries-old tradition of new essays written in response to (and quoting from) previous essays. In the typical model, readers rarely write their responses to essays, and when they do, the results are only tangentially traceable to the original inspiration(s). This, then, would create several binary systems of essays, each sharing traits as well as differing from one another.
Maybe that's why the essays I chose as winners called my attention so strongly. There were many entries that engaged in a more-or-less direct conversation with Hemley's questions, answering them head on or sideways, earnestly or ironically. Sometimes they treated the original essay as an interview prompt, something to be answered. Sometimes they strayed into interesting digressions, inspired by the original, and sometimes they showed great understanding of the essay tradition and the playfulness of experimentation. Many of the responses were clever and creative enough to make me wish I had written them. I need not say, though I will say, that it was difficult to choose one winner.
So I chose two. One hews closely to Hemley's questions, even satisfying our curiosity about Bernarr MacFadden, and the other comes at the prompts indirectly, surprising with asymptotic relationships, sometimes making us wonder, or search for, the thread tying the derivative work to the original. But maybe that's the shining characteristic that convinced me that these essays were the winners: that they do not seem derivative at all. They seem strong enough to stand on their own, to be read even without "Study Questions for the Essay at Hand." Is this a betrayal of the whole purpose of the contest? Perhaps, but I hope not. If so, then the winners have succeeded at that age-old essay characteristic: subversion.
What's certain is that I was enchanted by them both, the one for its centrifugal force out of narrative and the other for its erudition in answering the fundamental meta-questions arrived at through Hemley's particulars. "A Response to Hemley in Eighteen Parts" seems, from the get-go, to have its own agenda, but one can sense the sideways conversation it makes with the questions, at times approaching quite closely, at other times keeping its distance. In all, it's a confession of callousness in the face of a grandmother's death, but even that explanation oversimplifies the emotional trajectory of the piece. "Nineteen Ways of Looking at an Essay," though, has no central narrative of its own. Instead, it spins away from Hemley by taking on Xavier de Maistre and Jorge Luis Borges, playing its own linguistic and organizational games, one-upping the original by an additional question followed by a prompt for new writing. The energetic reader is thus invited to continue the experiment yet further, to respond to the response. I hope someone takes that challenge.
Read the original essay, Robin Hemley's "Study Questions for the Essay at Hand: A Speculative Essay"
Patrick Madden is the author of Quotidiana(Nebraska, 2010). His personal and travel essays have appeared in Fourth Genre, Hotel Amerika, the Iowa Review, Portland Magazine, River Teeth, and other journals, as well as in the Best Creative Nonfiction and Best American Spiritual Writing anthologies. He teaches at Brigham Young University in Utah and edits an anthology of classical essays and essay resources at quotidiana.org.