On Graywolf Press and the Lyric Essay

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Over at New York magazine, Boris Kachka has a piece looking at how the tiny, Minnesota-based Graywolf Press became a major player in book publishing. As the publisher of books like Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (read the first chapter here!) and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Graywolf Press has helped turn “the previously unprepossessing genre of the ‘lyric essay’ into a major cultural force.” But what exactly is a lyric essay?

The term lyric essay was popularized in the ’90s by the writer John D’Agata (a Graywolf author) to describe a hybrid form of nonfiction that accommodates verse, memoir, and criticism. But its origins go back at least as far as Susan Sontag and Joan Didion, journalist-critics whose work is magnetically personal. Its present-day progeny is more diverse and more direct, answering to a very modern hunger for well-worded social arguments rooted in identity and experience. It’s a rapidly expanding niche, where Ta-Nehisi Coates and Roxane Gay can turn painful confessions into powerful exhortations while — in a different mode — Karl Ove Knausgaard and Sheila Heti can make universal claims out of private stories. On this shifting ground, Graywolf’s poet-critics are punching above every weight class.

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