The Contemporary Essay / Conclusions, Interrupted: A Conversation / Ella Barker, Lola Boorman, Philip Coleman, Alexandra Kingston-Reese, Kathryn Murphy, Gillian Russell, and Luke Young

Patron saint of the essay, Montaigne, looking on.

Talking about the essay is often much easier than trying to write about it. Our research cluster on “The Contemporary Essay” began, in fits and starts, with a series of conversations. These discussions—taking place on Zoom or in elliptical WhatsApp and email threads, sometimes freewheeling, sometimes rigorous—came to model many of the formal characteristics of the essay itself. There is an ease to conversing, to never really finishing a discussion, to letting it drift off into new realms, and draft in other interlocutors. It is fitting, then, that we end with a final (at least for now) meeting of the participants of this cluster—not a conclusion, per se, but an attempt to conclude.

— Ella Barker

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Ella Barker: In her contribution to this cluster “On On,” Katie writes that “[a]ttempting to define the essay is notoriously both compulsive and impossible.” Over email, in advance of this conversation, Philip suggested that this compulsion dogs other genres and forms, but the intensity of our compulsion is peculiar to the essay and ensures that we cannot settle on a definition to suit all, or even many. This brings up the question of taxonomy, but in many ways capitulating to the essay’s “whatness” as opposed to its “aboutness,” to misquote Katie, reproduces our compulsion to define the essay. So, what would it mean for us to sit with the difficulty of the essay—to resist an urge to contain it, or rather to abide by its resistance to containers?

Katie Murphy: I have a lot of thoughts about defining the essay. One thing is that when I read back both my work for On Essays and for this cluster, it sounds like I’m puritanically saying: “Everybody stop trying to define the essay!” Whereas I think that the impossibility of definition, but its continual generativity, has actually produced some really interesting writing and I wouldn’t want to put an absolute ban on the process. I’ve also been thinking about the process of definition, of which there are two broad categories (or at least in Renaissance taxonomies): on the one hand, there is an essential definition, which limits the boundaries of things; on the other, there is the descriptive definition, which brings about approximate synonyms, associations, metaphors. The latter produces lots of essays on essays, which have wonderful images, and many of the essays for this cluster ruminate on this too. I’ve also been writing something about the early essays, and I’ve started to think that certainly with the very early English essay, there is no such thing as an essay, there are only essays. So it’s possible to call your book “essays” because that describes a collectivity of what Francis Bacon calls “dispersed meditations,” but it might even be a kind of misdirection of attention to try and come up with a definition of what the essay, or an essay, is, because they come together in a shoal, or, as I talk about in my essay, a collectivity, to use Emily Ogden’s image from On Not Knowing.

Philip Coleman, contributing over email writes: A curious thing in Essay Studies, it seems to me, is the lack of author-focussed or even text-focussed studies. It would be interesting to have a group of scholars (this group another time, perhaps?) to take a single essay and see what perspectives are offered. Would this exercise help us to be clearer about what we mean when we refer to a certain text as ‘an essay’, as opposed to essays as you describe Katie? Or would the fact that we’d all start with that assumption undermine the effort from the outset? As a methodological exercise, would this be useful?

Lola Boorman: I’m intrigued by what Philip says about single-author studies of the essay (or an attention to a single essay), rather than thinking about the essay from a generic perspective. We pick out canonical or exemplary essays, or work to anthologise them, in our attempts to define the essay and marshal it. We end up working in the same mode of the essay: we list, collect, and try to contain—so much of how the essay emerges as genre comes from these acts of collection. I think that there was something in Philip’s call to consider “what does the essay mean for this particular author, in this particular tradition?” There has been so much written about the English essay (and Katie and Gillian know far more about that history, tradition, and mode) and similarly with the American essay too—even though the American essay feels, expectantly, so much more individualised: it’s James Baldwin’s essay, Joan Didion’s essay, David Foster-Wallace’s essay. I think that the question of individuality and collectivity is really interesting when we come to define the essay, and I like that we always come at it through these metaphors and approximations, just as how Alexandra’s essay explores how we think about the essay in approximation to other forms—where the essay is an impoverished cousin or supplement to other literary forms. At the same time, maybe it’s just because we’ve been having these conversations over the past couple of years, we’ve been thinking about it, and we’ve been reading a lot of essays that always try to define the essay, but I feel like I know what an essay is more than I know what a contemporary poem is—I have no idea about that! I have a sense of fixedness, even if it is the professed unfixedness of the essay, when defining it, whereas I don’t think I could talk about the contemporary novel in the same way, even though I work with that form a lot more.

Katie: Does that clarity about “what the essay is” resolve to something that is communicable in a sentence, or two sentences, Lola?

Lola: Not really, but I think it comes down to some of the clichés of defining the essay, and I don’t necessarily think that takes us closer to what the essay is, but we do have a shared grammar, as well as a shared history and tradition. When we’re writing about the essay, we still gesture towards the unknowability of that definition; we’re all drawing on the same materials (so Montaigne etc) and the starting point is always either a foil (so the essay is often defined like this, but it’s actually doing this) or it’s thinking about these problems of definition. But is this not something that other forms do as well? Then again, maybe I’m trying to be contrary!

Alexandra Kingston-Reese: They do, but there’s something about the way essays talk themselves in circles that compels us to remark on how they’re figuring the art or epistemology of the form. It has become a necessary dance. When I read your essay, Katie, I remembered embarrassingly that I spent much of the first part of the reading group constantly asking myself: “how is this an essay?”, “what makes this an essay?”, “why is this an essay and not something else?” For every piece we set or read, I first thought, boringly, about aesthetic criteria. In part, this was because I was editing Art Essays at the time, and was involved in the procedural activity of having to decide whether something a novelist wrote about art was an essay or not. If, for example, Chloe Aridjis’s abecedarium about Leonora Carrington could count. But it’s really interesting to see how these conversations have reached this crescendo over the last couple of years, both within our research strand and more widely, and now I think there’s less pressure to justify and say “oh well, it’s not quite an essay,” or “it’s only half an essay,” or “it peters out towards the end, and it’s not very good, and so therefore it’s not an essay because an essay has to be a perfect specimen.” On the one hand, we have scholars working out a formal definition of the essay, or the essayistic as Lola does in her essay for the cluster, a critical history, a literary history of different genres of the essay, and in some cases a philosophical history or political history of the essay. On the other hand, we have the role of editors—whether they be at magazines, such as the New Yorker, or at publishing houses—who decide what pieces of non-fiction constitute a collection of essays, as opposed to memoir or another kind of autobiographical or biographical genre. The popularity of the essay as a form for practitioners of the essay is, I think, led by editorial taste-making. I was thinking about this a lot when reading your essay on Elizabeth Hardwick, Gillian—especially about the review essay as a genre, and how much the popular review essay, which was mocked in an n+1 editorial last year, has become a kind of ur-essay genre in which the critic centres their own aesthetic sensibility over critical inquiry.

Gillian Russell: I suppose, when we think about the various kinds of essay, what I was writing was “the personal essay.” I’ve been thinking about the essay and periodisation, and in particular the centrality of the essay to my period—the long eighteenth century—to The Spectator, to Charles Lamb, and to the romantic essay, which makes me wonder why the essay has been marginalised within literary history? Certain periods, such as the long eighteenth century, have been buttressed by the essay form; I think that also relates to what we were saying before about this tendency to collect and contain the essay, in terms of the taxonomies and the miscellany of print culture.  I think it’s interesting that there’s a renewal in the essay now when looking at media studies, book history, etc—there’s an interest in the scrap, in the individual item, and in the multifariousness of writing. I’m also thinking here about literary ecosystems (though I must confess that I don’t like the term “media ecology” that much) but if we’re thinking about it more as an ecosystem, in a Darwinian sense, almost a literary genealogy, then, the essay is a very durable and persistent form. The essay also relates to broader trends in media cultures (so right now, the rise of the internet and so on), and how, as a durable form, the essay is able to adapt to these changes. Another thing to consider is how the essay relates to academic writing and scholarship more widely. Certainly, I found in writing my own essay, it was so anti-academic! It made me think also about our discussions around curriculum and programme review here at the University of York, and the way that students are taught to write the essay: it is the dominant form of writing that they do so what is the relationship between the essay that we teach students to write and the essay in its broader cultural context? And it has just occurred to me—I really like the word “shoal,” in terms of its movement, but also I’m wondering about “osmotic” and “osmosis” as a biological metaphor for the essay.

Katie: There’s obviously a long history between the academic essay and the literary essay—or whatever we choose to call the extra-institutional essay—but one of the things that does hold them together, not just historically (and against their differentiation in style) is the invitation to pay attention to something. Obviously, that was one of the things that I was writing about in my essay for the cluster, but I do think that provision of a subject of attention, and the assumption that this form of writing involves a relation to something else that is the object of attention—however imperfectly it is attended to—is shared by both the academic and extra-institutional essay. Maybe one of the distinctions between them is that you are punished for your digressions in the institutional essay, and you are praised for them in the extra-institutional essay; one can deviate from one’s apparent purpose and play truant from it in the literary essay or extra-institutional essay in a way that is not available in the academic essay. There was something that came out in what Lola and Alexandra were saying earlier on, in terms of knowing what the essay is, which I think is really important in terms of essayistic epistemology—that is, you both seem to have an ostensive definition of the essay, where you know it when you see it. It reminds me of a passage in Montaigne, which was in my original draft of the essay for this cluster. It was at the beginning of his essay on names, where he says, in Donald Frame’s translation, that “whatever variety of herbs there may be, the whole thing is included under the name of salad.” There’s this idea that the ingredients are various, you can’t stipulate them in advance, we don’t really know what this definition of a salad, or an essay, would look like, but once we’re calling it a salad or an essay, we know what it is and we’re happy to consume it as such. There is something about essayistic epistemology that allows this post-hoc definition rather than an advance definition.

Ella: That approximation of an essay, or an essay as salad, reminds me of what Alexandra was saying earlier about taste making and no longer having the pressure to hedge what is or isn’t an essay—but once we call it an essay, we make a value judgement on the essay itself. And I was thinking about how, when you went on to talk about the ways in which the essay is contained by editors or publishers as much as scholars, those value judgements are being imposed top-down or even sideways—it’s a tangential form of containment to the essay itself.

Gillian: When you mentioned “attention,” Katie, another word that occurred to me was “discipline”—so how does the essay relate to a disciplining of attention?

Katie: I think that comes back to the institutional versus extra-institutional essay. Also, something that comes through in Alexandra’s contribution to the cluster, and in what Ella was just saying, is, again, there’s a fissure in the way we use the term “essayistic” because in some circles, that’s an insult (i.e. “you’re not performing your task properly”), and in others, it’s something that is really valued and valorised. One of things that I’m really interested in (and that I don’t have an answer for at the moment) is why we care so much about the essay, and why we value it so much at the moment. Why is the essay cool? What is the essay doing for us—not just for writers, but for academics, for people who are based in institutions? As a form that we are invested in, what is the essay saying about our own attitudes to professionalism and to academia, and to the kinds of writing that we perform? Another thought is that one of the invitations for this cluster was to loosen some of those academic expectations around genre, and I find myself not very capable of doing it when writing about the essay, which was interesting to me. Some of the other contributions to this cluster definitely moved more towards the essayistic; Philip very kindly said that my essay was essayistic—and that I would take as a compliment! The writing process did not feel essayistic to me, which might have had more to do with the pandemic, and with having Covid, than it did with the task at hand.

Alexandra: I’ve come to wonder whether part of the enthusiasm for the essay comes down to the popularity of “undisciplining” the discipline at the moment—not in the horrendous managerial way that Australian universities are doing, but in terms of the various attempts to unpick disciplinary knowledge, expertise, and qualification that place importance on affective structures, on unlearning received epistemologies and received rhetorical structures, on genres that place emphasis on subjective experience like autofiction or autotheory. But this hasn’t filtered down to all parts of the system of literary criticism. Katie, I like that you pick up on the pejorative ways that academics use the term “essayistic.” Just the other day I was reading Patricia McManus on Amy Hungerford’s “On Not Reading DFW” essay from a few years ago, in which McManus critiques Hungerford’s “hard-boiled personalized procedure”, arguing that it “is written in the fluent, educated yet light-touch style one would expect of a LARB essay, albeit falling short of LARB intellectual standards.” I mean, ouch. There’s so much to say about this, but to begin with it shows how easily, in a broader discussion of the personalisation of aesthetic evaluation in literary criticism, the sometimes-empty overtures of essayistic style can be seen right through.

Gillian: There’s also an implication of the “essayistic” as somehow unprofessional.

Alexandra: Unprofessional, exactly. So, the dialectic between “disciplining” and “undisciplining” is at once about professionality and unprofessionalism, and the value placed on style and personality in the gig-economy university. But it has become clear that this focus on literary critical style is a smokescreen for a deeper problem about the current and present dangers facing the profession of literary criticism. I’m thinking of the argument  Anahid Nersessian made in an article for New Left Review that no matter how sunnily utopic the versions of literary criticism have become, such attempts to renew the vivacity of literary criticism actually ignore the problem at hand, which has more to do with how frayed its social purpose has become, rather than its style. To be relevant has come to mean, shallowly, producing and celebrating beautiful criticism, of making art instead of critique, as if an aesthetic as well as ontological reason for our existence as literary critics, and for the existence of academic criticism, would renew or preserve the value of the humanities enough to save our jobs or encourage the kind of entrepreneurial investment the scientific research benefits from.

Katie: There is a danger that the vogue for the essay is a sign of weakness more generally of academic criticism in the institution of the university. I mean, it’s both a strength and a weakness; it’s ambivalent like all of these things.

Lola: And then there’s also this emphasis on style, whereby you move into the essay form as a rejection of, or a supplement to, the academic form. I think that’s why we’re seeing a lot of academics writing the review essay because of its speed of production and dissemination. Academic publishing is so slow, it’s so closed, it’s so laborious and turgid, and there’s an exhilaration to the speed afforded (as well as a commercial benefit) to publishing in these other avenues. I totally agree with you, Katie, it was very hard for me to break out of a mode of academic criticism, maybe it’s because we’ve been talking about these things for such a long time, and I’m more used to that kind of writing. My piece for the cluster was actually a repurposing of a recent job talk I gave—I don’t know if that makes it a kind of extreme professionalism or whether my admitting this is totally unprofessional, but anyway!

Katie: In an interview recently, Merve Emre discussed critical writing, on the one hand, and then academic writing, on the other. In the basket of academic writing, she had placed the essays that we write, but also reference letters, abstracts for conferences, job talks, and all of those sorts of things. It was obviously provocative, but it was also interesting to think: “What if my essayistic essays for art journals are less like my academic essays, and my academic essays are more like the hundreds of reference letters that I have to write?”

Lola: The horror! It is this question of style, and the essay allowing style coming to fore, that I’m really interested in, and how there’s such a fetishization of the essay as style through writers such as Hardwick and Didion. There’s been quite a lot of interest in Hardwick lately because of her biography coming out and so forth, but also with Didion, too, because she passed away last year—and that style has been emulated in the resurgence of the review essay in recent years. Alexandra, it’s in your piece when you’re discussing Zadie Smith, but it’s also in your piece too, Katie, when you talk about playing truant, and the organicism of the essay that comes from the Romantic tradition; the essay is this “staring out of the window” rather than “staring at your book.” I wonder about the flip side of that, which comes out in Luke’s essay on David Foster Wallace and the service essay, and the idea of the essay as a kind of responsibility—Baldwin very interested in this question, too—a kind of rigorousness that is directed elsewhere, such as the self rather than a subject, which is there in Montaigne, of course, and in these truant essays that we’ve been discussing. I guess I’m wondering about “the essay as creative freedom” versus “the essay as civic responsibility,” which perhaps also has its origins in the eighteenth-century tradition.

Luke: To touch on Katie’s point about the essay as revealing a certain weakness in the university, but also a social weakness more broadly, I am drawn to those early ‘essayistic’ novels like Tristam Shandy and Tom Jones, where a massive part of the style, the essence, is this idea that whilst their imagined authors are trying and trying to capture everything that happens, the infinite flow of events, these on-going narratives have to, eventually, come to an end. And of course, Sterne and Fielding are parodying this idea of total artistic verisimilitude, and that becomes the lesson: you inhabit this reality, but you can never capture everything. The problem now, of course, is that because of the internet, and because of the economic structure that we have, we can just keep going and going forever, and so the digressive element of the essay becomes an infinite content generator ripe for consumption. I think that’s a stylistic element—a “lesson” or “aesthetic”—that the essayistic was trying to cultivate and that has now been co-opted for content and infinite consumption. Lola, I think that your point about Didion is a good counterpoint to what I was thinking, but with someone like Montaigne for example, I think there’s a certain unity in looking at particular essayists for extended periods of time, you see the development and limits of their thought, whereas now with the internet—and this comes back to Katie’s point about the plurality of essays—we look at individual essays, rather than multiple essais in relation. I think there’s a certain aesthetic quality to sitting with a particular essayist and weighing up their writing in this way. Even someone like Stefan Collini for example, I don’t sit down and experience the development of his thought, I get isolated nuggets of content mediated via the internet. You’re not encountering failures or a series of attempts, you’re just consuming different content in isolation, and that’s an interesting shift in the essay in terms of consumption and aesthetics. Secondly, on service and civic responsibility, not sure what to say about that apart from what I say in my essay…!

Katie: “Read my essay!”

Luke: Yes, cite! I think this comes back to pedagogy—it’s kind of boring to keep talking about what the essay “is” and after a couple of years of discussing it, you know it when you see it, and that’s a good starting point. I think there are other more pressing questions; to me, the most important ethical, political, or pedagogical one is whether we should be using the term “essay” when we talk to students about the kind of papers that they write. Even if we carry on doing so, which I’m almost certain we will, I don’t think anyone is using the term with any level of attention—if we were to pay more attention to our use of the term, and to explaining it beyond the realms of mark schemes, that would be productive from both an ethical and pedagogical perspective. Which is why Merve’s comment that everything we do around our academic writing is our actual writing, is true not just for academia, but more broadly—it’s about styles of communication, modes of relation between self and world. Everyone who learns to write in school, even those who don’t become a literary critic, or even do a humanities subject at A Level, has some experience of learning how to write something we have all agreed to call the ‘essay’, and then they go and write business plans, project proposals, blogs, emails, personal reflections, all of these different forms that have some tangential relation to the ‘essay’ they learnt to write in school, and the types of essay, digressive, introspective, experimental etc.. that they absolutely didn’t learn in school. But because we aren’t paying attention to the styles and unthought ideologies embedded in these forms, they are free to play havoc with our public discourse.

Alexandra: Right, the essay in secondary education is all about regulation and requirement. Mine was always “SEXC” (Statement, Explanation, Example, Conclusion) and now I say to my students: “No, it needs to be sexy with a y!”

Gillian: Coming back to Luke’s point there about the essay in the present time and how we relate to the internet—I wonder if that was always there, say in the eighteenth century, in terms of the relationship with a broader media context, so it’s not a recent development as such but its DNA?

Luke: Yes, I think that’s true and I was definitely simplifying—

Gillian: No, no! I think it’s really interesting to see the essay form as instrumental to that development: the essay produces what we’re dealing with now.

Luke: Oh, I see. Gosh, that’s depressing!

Alexandra: It interests me how other disciplines see the essay, too. Political philosophers often claim to turn to the essayistic—and not necessarily the essay—or use “essayism” because they value it, perhaps misguidedly, as promoting a democratic frame of mind.

Gillian: Yes, there is that assumption of a more democratic, more open form, but—

Luke: Especially in American “identity,”  which again comes back to the whole American essay culture—

Lola: But the American essay isn’t particularly democratic, it has a more individualistic spirit even as it continuously gestures towards the collective, a kind of filibustering; it’s about cultivating that culture of personality rather than embarking on a kind of digression.

Katie: I love the idea of the American essay as filibuster—

[An interruption! A knocking is heard.]

Alexandra: Lola, you should write an essay on that!

[More knocking. Katie leaves the screen only to return seconds later.]

Katie: I was hoping that I was going to bring a real live essayist, Matt Bevis, in, but I took too long to answer the door—oh, he’s knocked on my door again!

[Katie leaves the screen]

Ella: While we await the arrival of our actual essayist, Luke, I like that notion of the constant regurgitation of content (almost as much as its production and reproduction) on the internet, which allows for the essay to carry on ad infinitum

[Katie re-enters, this time with a companion.]

Katie: Everyone say hello to Matthew Bevis, essayist in the wild!

Alexandra: Welcome!

Luke: What is the essay? Tell us, please!

Matthew Bevis: Oh, god, I don’t know, is the answer!

Katie: But do you know one when you see one?

Matt: Exactly, I know one when I see one. It’s a feeling thing—

Katie: Excellent.

Matt: Actually, I have just thought of a good non-definition, which is from G. K. Chesterton’s “The Essay” (reprinted in Carl Klaus and Ned Stuckey-French’s wonderful volume), in which he argues that “[t]he perfect essay has never been written, for the simple reason that the essay has never really been written. Men have tried to write something, to find out what it was supposed to be.”

Lola: Where were you an hour ago?!

Katie: “Mic drop.”

At this point, our conversation comes to an aptly abrupt ending. Essays, too, come to an end when they want to. And so we say goodbye, with many thoughts interrupted and unfinished, and with what Georges Perec called “the art of enumeration”: etc. 

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This is part of the cluster The Contemporary Essay. Read the other posts here.

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