Essays are a literature of fact. They are what some of us write who aren’t much good at making things up—for whom the actual world is more than enough. Compulsive truth-tellers write essays; bad liars write essays. If fiction, at its best, is the lie you tell to tell the truth, the essay is the truth. A more direct mode. There’s plenty of scope in it—more than enough rope—for poetics. An essay tells the truth beautifully.
I’ve written elsewhere about my addiction to the essay: my essay on the essay “Nothing But the Truth” and parts of two chapters of my book The Land’s Wild Music. And I talk about essays here and there in The Little Red Writing Book. But because the essay is at the heart of my work, and because I think essays matter, let me say here, too, what I think an essay is, and then let me give you some examples.
A piece of writing isn’t an essay if it isn’t most of these things.
1. True—an essay is a kind of story about real things, real thoughts, real people, the palpable and actual world; you make up the essay, but you don’t make up its subject matter. 2. Voiced—an essay is a literary conversation; it’s someone in an armchair talking with you about something they’ve learned by heart; it is a careful but casual oration. 3. Personal—an essay is a personal and partial account; it may be about the speaker or it may not, but its ideas and its expression must have about them a particularity we recognise as the speaker’s own; an essay makes the modest claim that “I saw this” or “after long consideration, this is what I think.” 4. Wandering—like a good walk and a good talk, an essay mustn’t go too straight and hard at its end; an essay is an artful meander through an idea or a place or a life or something. 5. Wondering—an essay is not an expert discourse; it is an open-minded attempt to come to some understanding of its topic; to essay is to try but not to prove; to essay is to wonder. 6. Humble—an essay’s tone is modest; writing one is a test of character; posers write bad essays, because one must never show off; and yet one must not be afraid.
And an essay isn’t an essay unless it is a piece of writing; an essay is a literary form, like a novel, a short story or a poem. An essay is something more than a brochure or a piece of journalism or a rant. On the other hand, an essay is very like a letter. A good one. But if you’re reading something, and it’s true and some of the other things on my list, and yet it lacks whatever it is—the care with words, the sense of rhythm, the technique and craft and form—that makes a work literature, then whatever else it is, it’s probably not an essay.
In his wonderful anthology, The Art of the Personal Essay, the essayist Phillip Lopate argues for the personal essay. I’ve always thought, though, that if an essay isn’t personal, it’s not an essay. Still, some work, not always my favourite, casts the writer as its subject and hero. And certainly, there are other kinds of essay, among them the rant, the sermon, the parable, the reportage, the meditation. Categories blur, as they should. Anne Fadiman, in her recent collection At Large & At Small, speaks of familiar essays, a term I like the sound of—neither self-centered nor didactic, but always arising out of the near at hand. In her introduction to Best American Essays 2002, Fadiman speaks of the “journalistic-academic spectrum” along which the essay runs. Too much like journalism (where, as she puts it, content trumps style) or too much like academic discourse (where, I guess, argument trumps voice) and the piece of nonfiction stops being an essay: it becomes an article, at one end, and a paper, at the other.
Some of my favourite essayists: Joan Didion, Annie Dillard, Brian Doyle, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Natalia Ginzburg, Barry Lopez, Alberto Manguel, John McDonald, John McPhee, Michel de Montaigne, Mary Oliver, George Orwell, Octavo Paz, Michael Pollan, Henry David Thoreau, Don Watson, E B White, Terry Tempest Williams, Virginia Woolf,
One of my favourite books, which might not strike you, at first, as an essay (it’s a book length lyric essay): James Galvin’s The Meadow. Other books of literary nonfiction that stretch the essay concept farther than it might be meant to stretched, but do it very beautifully: Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa; James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard;
The Best American Essay series annually publishes a reliably excellent and various collection of essays; so, in more times, does the Best Australian Essay series. The Best American Essays of the Century is a fabulous selection. Phillip Lopate’s anthology, The Art of the Personal Essay gathers essays from across cultures and times and includes an illuminating introduction. John D’Agata gathers what he calls lyric essays in his The Next American Essay, also worth a look.
What you’ll discover, if you read these writers and these books is that an essay isn’t what they taught you it was at school. Nor is it what most of your professors sought from you at college.
Here are one or two of mine.