Patron saint of the essay, Montaigne, looking on.
Begin with Montaigne. Reach for Adorno, for Sontag, for formal comparisons. Scramble to find literary histories, look towards established national traditions, to print culture, to the end of print culture. Retreat into definition: to “essayer,” to “try,” to “fail.” Find yourself back at Montaigne.
Why is it so complicated to write about the essay?
The essay is one of our most dynamic, playful, and irreverent literary forms. It is also our most ubiquitous, comprising modes of artistic production (literary, filmic, photographic) and the means by which we critique them. Nevertheless, writing about the essay, by artists or scholars, often falls back into familiar patterns and formulas, replicating the same uncertainties.
In this cluster, we collaboratively explore alternative methods of scholarly exchange on the essay (conversation, collaborative close reading, critical fragments) that work through the cliches and paradoxes of the essay as a cultural and artistic form. Short pieces by our contributors—Kathryn Murphy, Alexandra Kingston-Reese, Gillian Russell, Philip Coleman, and Heather Macpherson—generate new ways of thinking about the essay’s familiar (if underexplored) genres and characteristics, raising questions about essayistic style to theorize and historically situate the essay’s formal and generic affiliations in the contemporary sphere. Our pieces each explore various genres and characteristics of essay writing: the personal essay, the poet’s essay, the critical essay, the visual essay, the political essay, the essay’s “prepositionality.” And each piece asks whether, indeed, we can speak of the essay in terms of genre or whether the essay, as Christy Wampole suggests, is simply “what happens when [writing] cannot be contained by its generic borders.”
This cluster has emerged from a research network on The Contemporary Essay established at the University of York in 2020. The project was formed to stabilize an emerging body of scholarly work on the essay and to establish an international, interdisciplinary network of scholars. The group convened through a series of virtual reading groups and research events. What we initially saw as an impoverished form of academic exchange (Zoom) became a means of connecting a group of essay enthusiasts in the UK (including the Oxford Essays Research Group), Ireland, and the US in ways that would never have been possible before. The cluster records and extends our conversations over the past two years, which frequently circled back to the persistent problem of writing about the essay, to the irony, as Thomas Karshan and Kathryn Murphy put it, of writing “academic work on a form so resistant to methodical scholarship.” Our collaborative conclusion, a dialogue edited from a Zoom conversation, naturally skirts around this while reflecting on the possible futures of contemporary essay studies.
This is part of the cluster The Contemporary Essay. Read the other posts here.