It is clear from the beginning of “Essays” that Wallace Shawn approaches his success in the literary world as undeserved, largely the product of uncanny good luck. His pieces, though funny and highly accessible, deal with lofty questions, such as whether art is really a catalyst for change and how literature takes for granted the blue-collar workers that drift in and out of its pages. Michael Moore, the filmmaker, says, “How rare to encounter someone willing to question the assumptions of class and the disparity of wealth that grows wider every year in this country. To have such a gentle and incisive soul willing to say what others may be afraid to is considerably refreshing.” Shawn deals with his sheltered upbringing by stepping back from his past and making fun of himself, and he tries to resolve the many contradictions he encounters in society by theorizing on what they mean and where they originated. Tony Kushner, the playwright, has this to say about Shawn’s latest work:
His essays are without sentiment and entirely resistant to the easy comforts of despair. Complexities are rendered delightfully plain, obfuscations are unsnarled and illuminated, clarity and rational thought are organized to plumb mysteries, and mysteries are respected and celebrated. Shawn’s language, his unmistakable, original voice, felicitous, is unadorned, elegant, immediate, true.