There is a genre of writing to which I am particularly devoted, but whose name I do not know. I can only give examples. I think it may have been invented by William Hazlitt, in “The Fight”. Another wonderful instance is Joan Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” — the essay, not the book that includes it. This nameless genre combines reporting, observation, social commentary, and deeply felt personal experience, though the experience is often subterranean, or refracted and indirect.
For some years now I have thought that the best current practitioner of this curious mode of narration is John Jeremiah Sullivan, to whom I was introduced when I stumbled on his moving account of attending a Christian rock festival. His “Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie” is a recent small masterpiece, though the mastery is not Sullivan’s own, since it is accompanied by photographs, recordings, and filmed interviews, and is presented beautifully. (It’s worth noting, perhaps, that this nameless genre is highly receptive to documentary supplementation.)
In any event, Sullivan is a fantastic writer, and I read everything of his I can find. But I think that in the last few years another writer has come onto the scene who works this territory as beautifully as Sullivan does, though in a different voice, a different register. His name is Brian Phillips, and you owe it to yourself to read his new essay on Sumo wresting, and several other things as soon as you can manage it. Take your time; read it slowly and with care.