Feature - 01 Nov 2012
Energy & Rue
There is a resurgence of interest in the essay, with collections by Jonathan Lethem, John Jeremiah Sullivan and the first biography of David Foster Wallace all published this year. Is it possible to define a form that stretches from Michel de Montaigne to Wayne Koestenbaum, from Virginia Woolf to Chris Marker? Brian Dillon surveys this enigmatic field, and asks whether this centuries-old tradition might be the genre of the future
Always, with the essay, the problem of beginnings. Absent the consoling incipit of a well-selected epigraph – too many apt quotations to choose – it’s customary to inaugurate an essay on essays with a spot of amateur etymology. But let’s hold off on derivations of ‘essay’ and ‘essaying’ for a paragraph or two, and test instead a fond strategy of the genre, if that’s what it is: blank aphorism, ex cathedra pronouncement, peremptory definition of terms – happily unscrupled by scholarly evidence.
The essay is the most ambiguous literary or artistic form going, or maybe gone. It’s at once an antique, redolent of libraries crammed with dusty tracts and improving pensées, and a way of writing oneself into the unknown, a style or mode that’s all swagger and risk and theatrical conjecture. For sure, there are academic essays, but they become essays at the moment they aspire to be other than academic, when they sideline rigour for the pleasures of seduction and surprise. Essays, that is to say, are well made; they contain ‘good writing’. Except when they don’t, when they scorn what’s considered licit in terms of structure, topic or syntax, when they propel the essayist’s ‘I’ to extremes of subjectivity, or dissolve it entire. Essays are occasional – they may be born of diaries, or gobbets of journalism – but they live to be Selected or Collected, to end between authoritative covers. They may not have been written at all, of course: the film-essay, photo-essay and audio-essay all trouble efforts at definition, even if they also lean on a literary heritage. And let’s end this initial survey of an enigmatic field with an adventurous proposition: the centuries-old form of the essay may well be the genre of the future.
So much for giddy prelims: now for that modest faux-scholarly perspective. The essay, so the dictionaries and textbooks tell us, is etymologically an attempt, a foray, a tryout. A textual sally of sorts. G.K. Chesterton put it like this in 1932: ‘The essay is the only literary form which confesses, in its very name, that the rash act known as writing is really a leap in the dark.’ The French essai as the critic Jean Starobinski reminds us, emerges in the 12th century from the Latin exagium, a scale. So the essay’s ‘effort’ is also a kind of testing, weighing or judgment. Again it’s ambiguous, because the leaper into the dark is not averse to making lucid appraisals, arriving at solid or sententious conclusions. The writer shuttles between essaying and assaying. But Starobinski goes further, etymologically speaking, for essai seems related also to the proximate Latin of examen, which means both the needle on weighing scales and, oddly, a swarm of bees or flock of birds. The essay, he concludes, is a risk, a judgment, but also a ‘verbal swarm’.
This teeming or seething quality of the essay obtains both inside and out. The individual text may be worked up on the basis or pretext of anything at all. Michel de Montaigne jumpstarts the genre in the late 16th century by composing essays on the concept of experience, on cannibalism and on thumbs. Charles Lamb wrote an excellent essay on the historical origins of roast pig, Virginia Woolf a reflection on taking to her bed with flu, Georges Perec on the objects on his desk and on wearing spectacles (which he didn’t). The essayist’s aesthetic is that of the collector, or the ‘amateur’ in an archaic sense: such works seem destined for the writerly equivalent of the Wunderkammer – the essayist thrives on miscellanea. Except to say: the discrete essay may itself be an omnium-gatherum; there’s no duty to thematic unity, and because the notion that the essay is necessarily a short text is just a convenient rule easily broken, none to concision either: in his Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), Robert Burton starts composing an essay about a single affliction and ends up writing a book about everything – but everything – he can think of.
What binds all this disparate stuff together – whether it’s been scattered over numerous more or less focused essays or flung into implausible proximity as part of a single work – is traditionally the essayist’s personality. ‘It is many years now that I have had only myself as object of my thoughts,’ Montaigne writes in ‘Of Practice’ (1580). In an essay, everything exists to pass – maybe only exists when it has thus passed – through a scrim of authorial ego and curiosity. Which is not to say that all essayists project (or better, invent) and voice this inquiring or narrating ‘I’. But it’s always implicit, and it’s always ambiguous and on the verge of evanescing because it runs up constantly against the reality and diversity of subjects and stories the essayist’s ego wants to compass. Thus Woolf, on ‘The Modern Essay’ (1925): ‘Never to be yourself and yet always – that is the problem.’
This sense of the dispersing or disporting of the self has serious and playful consequences at the level of structure. The essay may drift imperceptibly – as in the peripatetic essay-fictions of Michel Butor or W.G. Sebald – between times and places, or lurch bizarrely into another voice or topic or tale. In ‘On Being Ill’ (1926), Woolf ranges about for several pages on the visionary experience of languishing bedridden with a fever, and then swerves almost without warning into the world of a bad, sentimental novel by Augustus Hare that she has been reading while unwell, so that the piece ends at some melodramatic remove from her avowed theme, with the image of an aristocratic Victorian woman clutching at the drawing-room curtains in grief after the death of her husband in a hunting accident.
But the interior diversity of the essay need not be so unexpected or so fervidly imagined as in Woolf. As the novelist William H. Gass puts it, the montage of voices may be a matter of quotation: ‘You can be assured you are reading an excellent essay when you find yourself relishing the quotations as much as the text that contains them, as one welcomes the chips of chocolate in those overcelebrated cookies.’ In ‘An Essay on Virginia’ (1925), William Carlos Williams disparages the notion of aesthetic unity – ‘the shallowest, the cheapest deception of all composition’ – and compares the abrupt stoppages to which the essay is subject with ‘an infant which fails to continue’. (The analogy seems less peculiar, but no less striking, when you recall that Williams was a family physician.) And this is essential to a definition of the essay: at any moment it may simply expire. Or stop dead and start again, otherwise.
Match-cut now to the contemporary essay – or to one, specifically American, perplex of instances and arguments about the present state of the genre. For the last year or so, us publishing has been bristling with essay collections by prominent writers – mostly novelists and mostly male – who appear to want to situate themselves in this venerable tradition. It seems there is not just a resurgence of the essay – somebody is usually claiming there’s a resurgence of the essay under way, somewhere – but an anxiety about what the form might mean today. I’ve begun to suspect that the recent rash of essays by the likes of Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Lethem, Tom Bissell and John Jeremiah Sullivan has something to do with a generational mourning and fret in the absence of a slightly older generation’s best essayist, David Foster Wallace, of whom more below. But it’s also a question, I think, of a combined unease and opportunism on the part of a literary culture that wants to invoke and recover some perceived, apparently lost, authority in the essay as genre.
How else to account for the often inflated claims being made for these books? Of course, a novelist of Franzen’s standing can be expected to capitalize on the success of The Corrections (2001) and Freedom (2010) by having his every journalistic turn adjudged for inclusion in a collection like Farther Away (2012) – actually his third work of non-fiction. And Franzen is at his best a serious and considered essayist; his long investigation, in ‘The Ugly Mediterranean’, of the destruction of southern-European birdlife is evidence of a passionate immersion in his subject, expressed in superior reportage. But there is something vastly dispiriting about the essayistic persona that Franzen frequently wants to project in Farther Away, which is filled with man-of-letters bloviating about certain quirks of other novelists’ syntax, the evils of social media and the failure of audiences at his readings to properly appreciate the torment that is novel-writing.
The far more interesting cases among this recent crop of essayists are those of Lethem – who in The Ecstasy of Influence (2012) weaves his earlier non-fiction into a self-deprecating memoir of sorts – and of Sullivan, whose pieces in Pulphead (2012) on Michael Jackson, Axl Rose and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina are never less than engaging. They are also never more than excellent magazine articles with an eye on the more humanist side of Wallace and some aspiration to state-of-nation timeliness. But the merits and failings of these books ought to be seen, too, in light of what seems their generalized nostalgia for the authority of the essay itself, which in the us has long been bound up with an expectation (not so common, for example, in the uk) that really good newspaper or periodical writing may ascend to the heights (or at least slopes) of literature. What’s striking about these recent examples is that even at their smartest or most moving they seem content with the role of the well made, and well meaning, essay – they fail, in the end, to trouble the form as form.
Recall for a moment the background against which these writers must be judged. The history of the American essay is vast of course, and maybe it’s weighting the critical scales unfairly to choose the very best of postwar essayists by way of comparison. But take, for example, Susan Sontag and Joan Didion: writers considerably unalike in style and intellectual temperament, who share a sense that the essay – whether somewhat loftily erudite or built around a wry, neurasthenic persona – is a genre to be dismantled and remade in the context of relatively mainstream publications such as the The New Yorker or The New York Review of Books. Or consider a writer like Elizabeth Hardwick, a novelist and critic admired by Didion and Sontag, who in 1976 published an extraordinary essay – a version of which appears in her autobiographical novel Sleepless Nights (1979) – about her youthful acquaintance with Billie Holiday. It contains a passage that reads, among other things, like a definition of the way an artist or essayist transforms subject-matter into form: ‘Her talents and the brilliance of her mind contended with the strength of the emptiness. Nothing should degrade this genuine nihilism; and so, in a sense, it is almost a dishonour to imagine that she lived in the lyrics of her songs. Her message was otherwise. It was style.’
All I mean to convey about such essayists is their commitment to abusing the form even as they seem to conform to and excel at its measured and well made variety: Sontag with her stentorian aperçus, Didion with a mode of hyper-subjective reportage, Hardwick in a certain brittle and strange precision at the level of the sentence. It’s the thing, to get subjective about it myself, that I want most from an essay, this combination of skill and rupture, extravagance with acuity. And it’s hard to find among the writers who style themselves (if only for a book or two) essayists today.
For those recent American examples, the problem – exactly Woolf’s problem: being and not being yourself – is wrapped up in the presence and absence of Wallace, whose magazine essays over a period of about 15 years trumped all comers in terms of voice and invention. According to D.T. Max’s recent biography of him, Wallace had trouble considering his essays as real work at all – merely a distraction from the increasingly arduous task of writing fiction. But this is hard to credit, such is the degree to which he vastly exceeded in terms of detail, thought and craft (not to mention word-count) the remit of a given magazine assignment, whether in his meticulous attention to the rigour and style of Roger Federer, a report from the annual Adult Video News awards or, most famously, the burgeoning, hilarious – and, according to Franzen, partly invented – account of cruise-ship ennui, ‘A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again’ (1996). Wallace’s are bravura examples of what Sontag declared she wanted from an essay: ‘energy and rue’.
Of course, those qualities have not exactly vanished – it’s just perhaps that the conventional literary move of passing off your more ruminative journalistic moments as echt essayism no longer quite convinces. This despite publishers clinging to the clumsy rubric of ‘creative non-fiction’, and creative-writing teachers harping on something even more mushy-sounding called the ‘lyric essay’. The main champion, if not practitioner, of this last – of essays that approach the condition of poetry, and deliberately shirk demands for truth in non-fiction – is John D’Agata. Early in 2012, with Jim Fingal, he published The Lifespan of a Fact: an account of the two authors’ wrangling over the veracity of a magazine piece of D’Agata’s (turned down by Harper’s, taken up by The Believer) that Fingal had been tasked with fact-checking in 2005. D’Agata’s insistence on the essay’s liberating proximity to fiction is a canny move in terms of controversy but an especially dim defence of the essay as form. It’s as if he has not noticed the resources, poetic among them, of art and artfulness available to the essayist – resources that exist quite aside from the temptation to embellish or confect the facts. It’s telling that his favoured adjective for a successful essay is ‘dramatic’: as though the only effects available to literary non-fiction are those of inflation. If D’Agata’s lyric essay were the best or only hope for the genre today, you’d have to conclude it would be better off defunct.
The best recent books of essays, or books as essays, have however arrived from writers who would hardly dream of casting themselves in D’Agata’s aggrandizing mould. Not that they lack for extravagance. The poet Wayne Koestenbaum’s fragmented and confessional book Humiliation (2011) and his ecstatic Anatomy of Harpo Marx (2012) – a shot-by-shot analysis of Harpo’s every onscreen antic – are excellent examples of a type of delirious scholarship: ‘We commit a cruelty against existence if we do not interpret it to death.’ And Mark Dery’s collection of essays on cultural curiosities both obscure and mainstream, I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts (2011), is similarly thrilling at the level of style and persona. In fact, like Koestenbaum, Dery uses voice – in his case a demotic-academic pile-up in terms of image and simile – as an interpretative or divinatory principle: David Bowie is ‘a snaggle-toothed twink with a larval pallor’, bloggers always risk becoming ‘tub-thumping Alpha Wonks’. Dery and Koestenbaum are good indicators of a truth that the whole brouhaha regarding the lyric essay suggested anyway: the best essays are very likely written today with no ambition toward anything so belletristic as the essay as such.
Let’s swerve and start again with the liberty we’ve learned belongs to the essay, and not concern ourselves with either conclusions or comprehensiveness. I still want to hang on to the word ‘essay’: it does a suggestive job in terms of describing the sort of adventure I expect from several sorts of non-fictional writing. (Not least among them art writing, in which discipline we insist on the dignity of the term ‘catalogue essay’, even when that genre maybe better resembles what Gass calls ‘that awful object, “the article” […] the careful product of a professional’.) When we say ‘essay’, we name of course all the history and the contemporary controversies limned above – but we also name a desire.
What does the essay want? It wants above all to wander. Not for nothing are the most celebrated instances of the film-essay – the works, for example, of Dziga Vertov, Chris Marker, Patrick Keiller – all records of journeys. But the essay’s vagrancy is not only a matter of its departing from the beaten track of method; nor of something clumsily named ‘interdisciplinarity’, or mere ‘hybridity’ of genre. The point is: the essay, the essayistic, a certain essayism may turn up anywhere – its effect is briefly (usually briefly) to cast into relief the relations between thought, truth, authority and the artifice or style that condition them. Here is the poet Michael Hamburger in ‘An Essay on the Essay’ (1965), describing the form as adventure: ‘The spirit of essay-writing walks on irresistibly, even over the corpse of the essay, and is glimpsed, now here, now there, in novels, stories, poems or articles, from time to time in the very parkland of philosophy, formidably walled and strictly guarded though it may seem, the parkland from which it escaped centuries ago to wander about in the wild meadow.’ Even over the corpse of the essay – here is a form that survives its own consignment to the museum of antique literary forms, one that outlives all local arguments about its relevance. Or maybe we should read that phrase in a stronger sense: here is a form that murders itself at the very moment it is made. (Plutarch: ‘An essay that becomes a lyric is an essay that has killed itself.’)
The essay makes a ruin out of its own conflicting desires for aesthetics and adventure. Writers rarely speak about turning out ‘articles’ or ‘stories’ or ‘essays’; they talk instead about their ‘pieces’. (An ‘odd, useful word’, says Hardwick.) And that, more than anything, is what the essayist aspires to – a life in pieces.
Brian Dillon is UK editor of Cabinet magazine and tutor in Critical Writing at the Royal College of Art, London. A collection of his essays, Culture & Curiosity, will be published by Sternberg Press
First published in Issue 151