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Dear Friends: Here’s my prospectus for “The Art of the Essay,” a course I’ll run, at a location T/B/D in New York City, in the summer or fall of 2017. Enrollment is capped at 12; the cost is $250 for four three-hour sessions. If you’re interested, please contact me A.S.A.P.—first come, first served—at (Feel free to SHARE or re-post.)

The Art of the Essay

What is it?

A brief but intensive master class in deep reading and essay writing, modeled on the small, intimate seminar courses that are the mainstay of M.F.A. programs. The Art of the Essay will draw on that discussion-driven format, but will also incorporate lectures on the art and craft of the essay by the instructor, drawing on his extensive experience in the genre. As well, we’ll workshop brief excerpts from your essays in progress.

(See below for details. Please feel free to contact me with any questions you might have, after reading this FAQ, at

I’m not a professional writer, and don’t have an M.F.A. Do I qualify?

This course offers no certificate or credits of any kind, nor is there any guarantee that it will result in your byline, in bright lights, in The New Yorker. There are no prerequisites, academic or professional, beyond a devotion to the art and craft of writing; a serious interest in the essay form; a commitment to coming to class well prepared; and a passion for the spirited exchange of ideas.

When will the class run? Summer or fall 2017.

What’s the format? Four sessions of three hours each, on Saturdays or Sundays (depending on everyone’s schedules), stretching over four weeks.

What’s it cost? $250.

What’s the class size? Class size is capped at 12. Note: The class will only run if the class fills and all registrants have paid, via PayPal, before our first session.

What’s the location? TBD. If all parties are agreeable, each participant will host one session. Alternatively, we’ll meet in the quiet back room of one of Manhattan’s few remaining bars or cafes that are TV-free and affordable. The Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, an adult-learning initiative with no brick-and-mortar space, has employed this strategy with notable success.

I’m sold! How do I register?

Send an e-mail to, asking that your name be added to the list of prospective registrants. Once 12 class members have signed up, I’ll notify you that the class is on, and you’ll pay, that same day, via PayPal or electronic transfer.

I’m intrigued, but I need more information. Can you give me some more details about the course?

The Art of the Essay ranges over the personal essay, the most common form in American popular media; the polemical essay (think H.L. Mencken, Gore Vidal, Christopher Hitchens, Rebecca Solnit, Bell Hooks, Roxane Gay); the narrative-nonfiction essay (Oliver Sacks, Lawrence Weschler), and even the experimental/avant-garde essay, which draws on the innovations of Surrealism, Oulipo, postmodernism, punk, and hip-hop to push the envelope of the form. The class will be reading-intensive, quickly overflying a variety of genres and styles, ancient and up-to-the-minute, while offering a crash course in the art of Deep Reading. “Great writers are great readers,” the saying goes; The Art of the Essay emphasizes the importance of stealing from the best—understanding not only the intellectual and aesthetic approaches that make great essayists great but also the mechanics of literary technique at the granular level of syntax, vocabulary, and overall structure, and how to use those techniques to unlock your creativity, free your literary voice, and take your work to the next level.

About the instructor: I’m an established a cultural critic and essayist whose work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Daily Beast, Elle, Wired, Rolling Stone, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, Cabinet, Bookforum, and The Washington Post Book Review, among other publications. I’ve been a professor of journalism at NYU, a Chancellor’s Distinguished Fellow at UC Irvine, a Hertog author in Columbia University’s Hertog Fellowship program, and a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome. My books include The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink and Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century (both Grove/Atlantic) My latest book is the University of Minnesota essay collection I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-by Essays on American Dread, American Dreams. My biography of the author, illustrator, and legendary eccentric Edward Gorey will be published by Little, Brown in 2017.

More about me here.

Links to some of my essays:

Skin in the Game: An American Gothic, in Black and White,” an essay on race hate, the history of lynching, and the murder of Trayvon Martin. Thought Catalog, July 22, 2013.

Strunk and White’s Macho Grammar Club: The sleek, no-frills esthetic of Modernism and the gray-flannel ’50s both influenced the utilitarian mindset that dictates the rules of usage in The Elements of Style.” Essay. The Daily Beast, July 12, 2015.

A Season in Hell,” lengthy essay on My Cancer Year, the psychology of being a patient, the “overlit purgatory” of the hospital, and how being a writer kept me sane in the face of a near-fatal disease, Boing Boing, April 12, 2012.

Let’s put the guilt back in guilty pleasures. Guilty pleasures aren’t always merely self-loathing elitism or ironic tastelessness. They can also be a sign of genuine ambivalence—a feeling to cherish.” Essay. Boing Boing, February 2, 2015.

Pipe Dreams: The Curious Case of Rene Magritte,” longform essay on the Surrealist artist Rene Magritte, his interest in philosophers such as Hegel and Foucault, and his role as a philosophical detective, sleuthing out what he called “the mystery” inherent in reality. Thought Catalog, May 19, 2014.

The Importance Of Being Ernest: Hemingway Meets The Gay Gothic,” essay on Hemingway’s anxious masculinity—his homophobia, latent homosexuality, transvestic fantasies, hair fetishism, and overall “genderqueerness,” pegged on the “restored edition” of A Moveable Feast, Thought Catalog, December 9, 2011.

A list of selected publications here.

In Search of Lost Time: J.G. Ballard’s Magical Objects


Live, now, at Thought Catalog: “Memory Palace: Fay Ballard’s ‘House Clearance,” a review-cum-essay-cum-interview inspired by J.G. Ballard’s daughter’s exhibition of drawings of objects, magically charged by memory, which she found while clearing out her father’s Shepperton home.


Copyright Fay Ballard; all rights reserved. Image courtesy Eleven Spitalfields Gallery, London.


“House Clearance,” Fay Ballard’s exhibition of pencil sketches and watercolors at the London gallery Eleven Spitalfields (May 2, 2014—June 27, 2014), was inspired by the daunting chore of cleaning out her father’s house after his death, a rite of passage for more and more baby boomers. Ballard, who studied fine art at Central Saint Martin’s and botanical painting at the Chelsea Physic Garden, is known for her delicately limned “plant portraits,” as she calls them, which have been exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts and are included in the collections of The Queen and The Prince of Wales. Her father, who died of prostate cancer in 2009, was J.G. Ballard, a writer of drily perverse science fictions written in the present tense, in the world brought to you by Charlie Manson, Madison Avenue, My Lai, Cape Canaveral, Zapruder frame 313, Bikini Atoll, Ronald Reagan, gated  communities, self-help, S&M, augmentation mammoplasty, ubiquitous surveillance, reality TV, and terrorist “franchises” with media strategies.

The Rat King

Live, now, at Boing Boing, “The Rat King: On the Fascinations (and Repulsions) of Rattus.” Click here to read.


Salvador Dali, Bulgarian Child Eating a Rat (1939).


In what he calls “an Experiment in Controlled Digression,” Mark Dery touches on xenogastronomy, ortolan, Edible Dormouse, Victor Hugo’s fondness for rat pâté, rat-baiting as a betting sport in Victorian times, the rat as New York’s unofficial mascot, Luis Buñuel’s pet rat, scientific research into such pressing questions as whether rats laugh, and whether rats will inherit the Earth as a result of climate change, Dracula’s dominion over rats, and of course the (cryptozoological myth? well-documented phenomenon?) of the Rat King.


Inspector Magritte is on the Case

Pipe Dreams: The Curious Case of Rene Magritte,” the latest in my ongoing series, “Self-Help for Surrealists,” is live at Thought Catalog.


The method Magritte used to solve his philosophical “problems,” as he called them, is a Surrealist’s idea of CSI, a combination of free association, semiotic codebreaking, and Hegelian dialectic. Bridging dream logic and what might be called visual reasoning, Magritte’s approach crosses Hegel with Lautréamont with automatic drawing, resolving thesis and antithesis in a startling, poetic synthesis of images.

The Unexpected Answer

Rene Magritte, The Unexpected Answer (1933).

Case in point: The Problem of The Door. Solution:Unexpected Answer (1933), a door with an irregular shape cut out of it. Roughly the size of a hunched figure, the hole reveals a darkened room. We feel a prickling on the back of our necks, possibly because its undulating outline reminds us of the shrouded ghosts of gothic horror, or maybe because there’s just enough light falling across the threshold to pique our curiosity, tempting us to step into the unknown. It’s the door that makes the mystery, and Magritte’s door, with its peep-show view of a room full of shadow, is even more mysterious than a closed door. Which is spookier, the closed door to Room 237, the chamber of nightmares in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, or the same door ajar, key dangling jauntily, daring us to step inside for a little visit? In fact, Magritte’s door is more uncanny than either, since it combines the enigma of a closed door with the eeriness of one that opens into darkness, ominously beckoning.

“Permission To Laugh: Isa Genzken’s Exceedingly Unsmiling Art”


So I was at MoMA, having just seen Magritte and, at the Morgan, Poe, when I stumbled on the Isa Genzken retrospective, a reeking midden of craptastic art-school self-indulgence. My thoughts turned to that quote from Poe’s contemporary, the critic James Russell Lowell, who called EAP “the most discriminating, philosophical, and fearless critic upon imaginative works who has written in America,” though he did allow that Poe’s pen was so corrosive it might as well have been dipped prussic acid. And I thought, “Right, then; fish, barrel, smoking gun.”


Isa Genzken, Mein Gehirn (My Brain), 1984, synthetic polymer paint on plaster, metal.


Oddly, the New York Times critic Roberta Smith sees “raw, unapologetic beauty” in Genzken’s Weltempfänger [World Receiver] (1987–89), concrete blocks fitted with radio antennas. Why cinderblock accessorized with antennas? None but the brick-thick dare ask. If you must, the press kit is here to help: they “imbue forms with narrative content through a minimum of means.” Over there, those blown-up ads for high-end stereo systems? They’re appropriations, of course — 65 years after Duchamp called a bottle rack art, but who’s counting? — at once “a celebration of the increasing perfection of commodity objects and a comment on their fetishization by the popular media” because why take a stand when you can split the difference between celebration and critique, revelry and irony, leaving no flank exposed? This is Adorno for undergrads; Frankfurt Marxism Lite.


Permission To Laugh: Isa Genzken’s Exceedingly Unsmiling Art.”


This just in: the revised, final cover for the paperback edition of I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts, due out from the University of Minnesota Press, February 2014.


“An absolute treasure trove of the disturbing and enlightening.” – Warren Ellis.

“Brilliant.” – William Gibson.


WIN FREE SWAG! File Under: Ironic Exploitation of the Creative Class…By a Fellow Impecunious Hack.

Dear Friends: The University of Minnesota Press is bringing out a PAPERBACK EDITION of my latest essay collection, I MUST NOT THINK BAD THOUGHTS.

BUT: I must send them a list of ALL typos and errors of fact (of which, I say with some heat, there assuredly are NONE) by this coming Friday, Nov 8.

Here’s my Faustian bargain with you, dear reader: There’s only one of me, and a time-starved me, at that, but many of you. Make a list of all the typos and/or factual inaccuracies you’ve spotted in BAD THOUGHTS. Whoever spots the most errors will receive: a credit in the book’s acknowledgments IF U of Minn can squeeze one in, and a SIGNED copy of the paperback edition, inscribed to you with fond regards from Constant Writer.

Send all lists to me via markdery AT Verizon DOT net.




File under COSMIC WHIMSY: Late Thursday night, an Inbox ping alerted me to a mail from my friend Blake Leyh (@EarlOfEdgecombe), composer, sound designer, music supervisor for the HBO series Treme, and live Foley (radio play-style sound effects) artist. Would I join him onstage with THOMAS DOLBY (!), in Albany, New York, in a theater housed in a mammoth, ovoid art center, a Brutalist architect’s idea of a  sight gag called, unsurprisingly, The Egg? (They Might Be Giants wrote a song about it.)


All that was asked of me was that I interview Thomas and Blake about Dolby’s short film, THE INVISIBLE LIGHTHOUSE (, a moody, Proustian exercise in autobiographical time travel accompanied by the duo’s live music and Blake’s sound effects (coaxed from a tiny deer skull used as a wind instrument by an Amazonian tribe, a hand-held air-raid siren, and a box of rocks and leaves, which Blake tromped in—while playing guitar!—to create the sound of walking). In affecting narration that switched seamlessly from movie voiceover to live storytelling, Dolby recounted memories of his childhood in Suffolk, conjuring dreamlike images of the nearby lighthouse’s spot sweeping his bedroom at night, a Fortean tale of an alleged UFO landing in a forest not far from Dolby’s childhood home, and an impressionistic portrait of his uncle, a World War II submariner whose death at sea inspired “One of Our Submarines is Missing.”


Dolby and Leyh live in Albany. Photo: Laura Weyl.

Our onstage conversation was lively, funny, and mind-tickling: Dolby is one sharp tack, quick with the witty rejoinder yet self-effacing, deeply thoughtful about the role of memory and landscape in the creative process.

Screen Shot 2013-10-26 at 4.00.50 PM

Dolby and Dery in conversation. Photo: Laura Weyl.

After the show, he, Blake, and I stayed up late in the tour bus, tippling and talking: about the cultural politics and buried ideologies of the TED talks, about the “pornography of presence” in a virtual age, about Amanda Palmer and musicians’ changing relationship to fan culture, about musicians born and bred near the ocean and whether the sound of rollers echoes in their work, about the parallels between Britain and Japan and whether the British creative genius is fundamentally one of imitation, appropriation, recontextualization…or not. I came away from our conversation with an unabashed respect for the way Dolby has skipped nimbly across a cultural (and economic) landscape that has undergone plate-tectonic shifts since he first blew up huge in the ’80s, reinventing himself as inventor, CEO, music director (of TED Talks), DIY filmmaker, “transmedia” storyteller. Oh, and it’s true: “You don’t do ‘eavy metal in Doubly.”



Europa and the Pirate Twins: Blake Leyh, M. Dery, Thomas Dolby. Photo: Laura Weyl.

Dean Martin Existentialism: Bobby Darin’s “Beautiful Things”

“Why the Nightingale Sings: On Bobby Darin’s ‘Beautiful Things'”: HERE.

Attention-Conservation Keywords: Dr. Dolittle, “Dean Martin existentialism,” memento mori in the cocktail lounge, lovers with wings, the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche, Roland Barthes’s concept of the “punctum,” the nightingale as symbol, Dream Lovers: The Magnificent Shattered Lives of Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee, “Sailing to Byzantium” by W.B. Yeats.



Isn’t there something unsettling, a sly wink of Dean Martin existentialism, in Bobby Darin’s finger-poppin’ Vegas-hipster version of “Beautiful Things” (from the 1967 movie musical Doctor Dolittle)? A hint of nonchalant menace to that walking bassline as it slinks down a minor scale in the song’s opening bars? Subliminal whispers of memento mori amid the brassy blare of Roger Kellaway’s orchestral setting, which nails that sweet spot between suave and schmaltzy? Intimations of mortality between the lines of Leslie Bricusse’s lyrics about “beautiful days of sun-kissed showers” and “beautiful nights of moon-kissed hours,” right there in Darin’s breezy delivery of the lines, “Our lives tick by like pendulum swings/ Delicate things, butterfly wings?”



This Saturday, at the extraordinary New York Academy of Medicine Library, I’ll be speaking from 12:30-1 PM on “Gray Matter: The Obscure Pleasures of Medical Libraries,” at a conference brilliantly curated by Joanna Ebenstein of Morbid Anatomy and featuring, among others, Oliver Sacks, Lawrence Weschler, Michael Sappol, Amy Herzog, and Salvador Olguin.

WHAT: Festival of Medical History & The Arts.

WHERE: New York Academy of Medicine, 1216 Fifth Avenue at 103rd Street.



“Medical libraries such as the New York Academy of Medicine’s offer ready access to a mother lode of ‘invisible literature,’ the SF novelist J. G. Ballard’s term for medical textbooks, scientific journals, technical manuals, and other gray matter. Although it comprises a veritable galaxy in the universe of print media, invisible literature is nowhere to be found in general-interest bookstores and is never reviewed in mainstream book pages for the simple fact that no one, not even the specialists who are its intended audience, thinks of this stuff as literature in the literary sense of the word. But what if we did?”