Pity the essay—so undervalued that nobody recognizes it. We pass it by without a nod, or imagine we see it in a dozen other faces. “Ah, there you are! I’ve been looking for you! We must catch up,” we say, pumping a hand or slapping a rounded shoulder, all the while checking our watch in anticipation of our next appointment. Nobody wants to read the essay. Nobody wants to buy it. It’s so unpopular that in the 2012 Canada Reads—the first nonfiction edition ever—books of essays are explicitly ruled out.
But why? What makes the form so dismissible? Traditionally, the essay has been considered a minor genre, a species of “belles-lettres.” Pretty, perhaps—but useless. Lightweight. Like a lavender-scented lace handkerchief hidden in a great-aunt’s attic. At the same time, we associate it with those silly five paragraph stumps of thought that we were made to write in school. Not to mention the fact that when we hear its name we tend to imagine a tract or a sermon or a rant—all worthy literary forms in their own right, perhaps, but no more relation to the essay than a terrier is related to a cat.
Maybe that is the real, the deeper problem. Like a cat, the essay wants to go its own way. In an unstable world, we want to know what we’re getting, and with an essay, we can never be sure. Partaking of the story, the poem, and the philosophical investigation in equal measure, the essay unsettles our accustomed ideas and takes us places we hadn’t expected to go. Places we may not want to go. We start out learning about embroidery stitches and pages later find ourselves knee-deep in somebody’s grave. That’s the risk we take when we pick up an essay.
Yet, astonishingly, we do pick it up, if and when we get the chance. For despite what agents and editors say about the impossibility of marketing the things (and despite the generally paltry sales figures for essay collections by a single author—even a famous one) many readers adore the form. Why else do those anthologies like Dropped Threads and its many cousins fly off the shelves? Why else have blogs become so popular? True, the blog rarely boasts the essay’s richness of reference or contemplative depth, but it does share the intimate, confiding tone that may be the essay’s most striking and memorable feature.
In exposing the workings of her own mind—her prejudices, her contradictions, her faults, her fears, and her dreams—the essayist reminds her readers that they are not alone. This is how things look to me, she seems to say. Think along with me and ask yourself—do they also look like that to you? She takes the random, the seemingly meaningless events of her own life, illuminates their unexpected connections, and through the prism of her point of view, creates art. “Every man has within himself the entire human condition,” claimed Michel de Montaigne. The revelation of this essential truth is the essay’s particular genius.
As the undisputed father of the essay, Montaigne gave it sturdy roots in Europe. But the English were early adopters, and the Americans, those lovers of liberty, took up the essay’s invitation to wander with their typical gusto and verve. Until quite recently it still remained possible in the United States to sell short nonfiction to paying markets; the result was a flowering of essayistic talent in the last century. From John D’Agata to John McPhee, from David Shields to David Foster Wallace, from Joan Didion and Annie Dillard to Susan Sontag and Terry Tempest Williams, the American essay makes exciting and vibrant reading, and for decades a series of anthologies such as The Best American Essays and the Anchor Essay Annual have celebrated the form.
Canadian essayists may be less recognized and acclaimed for their work, but they are no less interesting. Think, for example, of Anne Carson’s experiments in form or of Anne Simpson’s gently probing meditations. Of Elizabeth Hay or Timothy Taylor. Of Ray Robertson, whose collection, Why Not: Fifteen Reasons to Live, secured a spot on the shortlist for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Nonfiction Prize. Or of Theresa Kishkan, whose Mnemonic: A Book of Trees, elegantly reminds us of our essential ties to nature. These writers may be better known as poets or novelists. But in the essay their gifts take on a new, and often deeper lustre.
The American writer Carol Bly defines an essay as a piece of prose that contains at least one personal anecdote and one argument. These two elements are always in tension, and in the best essays, the tension leads to sparks that set language sizzling. For it’s by language that an essay stands or fails. “What art can the essayist use…to sting us wide awake and fix us in a trance which is not sleep but rather an intensification of life—a basking, with every faculty alert, in the sun of pleasure?” asks Virginia Woolf. “He must know—that is the first essential—how to write.”
Susan Olding’s first book, Pathologies: A Life in Essays (Freehand, 2008) won the Creative Nonfiction Collective’s Readers’ Choice Award and was long-listed for the BC Award for Canadian Nonfiction. Her work has appeared in Event, The L.A. Review of Books, Prairie Fire, The New Quarterly, and The Utne Reader, among other publications. She lives with her family in Kingston, Ontario, where she is currently working on a novel and a second book of essays.
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