A week or two ago, the New York Times’ “Bookends” section asked Rivka Galchen and Benjamin Moser to write short essays on the question, “Is there an unforgivable literary sin?” (Whether or not this has anything to do with The New Republic’s publishing a complaint by the notoriously William Giraldi’s against false memoirs and novels, titled “The Unforgivable Half Truths of Memoir,” is unknown.) As happens fairly often, the writers both punt on the question that seems to have been asked, but come up with something worth reading, anyway. In this case, both write disquisitions on sin and forgiveness.
I really liked Galchen’s essay, which explores her discomfort with the whole concept of something being “unforgivable.” She relates a bunch of episodes from her own life, and her experience with other people’s religions, to illustrate what the word actually means to her. You don’t really find an essay like this much anymore. It reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s way of working. Woolf is an essayist who uses an almost novelistic or fiction-based form to explore her own ideas and to explore the way the world feels to her. What Woolf does in her essays is interweave speculation with very precisely imagined descriptions of scenes, so that the whole creates a very clear argument in the reader’s mind. Galchen does something like the same thing, inviting the reader to follow along with her thought processes and come to her own conclusions.
Moser, on the other hand, takes a more academic approach. He begins by describing Confucius’ understanding of what the writer should do, and develops some ideas about this, arguing that the writer really does have to be honest, to represent the world truly. But he doesn’t proceed in a strictly logical manner, rather in a way that remains “essayistic.” The connections between his ideas are not always obvious. He builds the piece in somewhat the same way Galchen does, but using facts from history and scholarship as his “data points,” instead of personal experience and observed narrative. He works in terms of generalizations or abstractions, and historical accounts of what past writers have taught. He draws a kind of gravitas from his form and from his sources, which Galchen can’t match. But for my tastes, this gravitas feels a little forced, by comparison with what I’d expect to find in more formally logically developed piece.