Patron saint of the essay, Montaigne, looking on.
Why do novelists write essays? In a 2009 essay, Zadie Smith pondered this question in detail: do they write out of a kind of “novel-nausea”? When “fiction turns sour”? When “oppressed by a run-of-the-mill version of that narrative scepticism Kafka expresses so well in one line in ‘Description of a Struggle’: ‘But then? No then?’” To become a reader again? To succumb to the “strange circular effect” of writing essays, which has the capacity of renewing the essayist’s “enthusiasm for the things fiction does that nothing else can”? When they have literally lost the plot? If the essay resists narrative and loves irregularity, but is equally characterised by limitation in length and subject, “[w]hich is it… that attracts novelists—the comforts of limit or the freedom of irregularity?”1 Perhaps it is for the prestige. Or the money.
For David Shields, it was yes to much of the questions above. He staked out his philosophy for the lyric essay in Reality Hunger: a Manifesto (2009), the book under review in Smith’s essay. “The pages are filled with anti-fiction fighting talk,” she notes, quoting the following polemical statements: “The creators of characters, in the traditional sense, no longer manage to offer us anything more than puppets in which they themselves have ceased to believe.” And: “All the best stories are true.” And: “The world exists. Why recreate it?” Many critics now would roll their eyes at these erroneous and perilous clichés. Only naïve novel historians think of fiction as untrue, or characters as entirely invented. But the “lyric” essay—the specific kind under investigation in Shields’ Reality Hunger—has been a particularly common site of novelistic retreat. “What the lyric essay gives you,” Shields argues, and “what fiction doesn’t, usually… is the freedom to emphasize its aboutness, its metaphysical meaningfulness. There’s plenty of drama, but it’s subservient to the larger drama of mind.”
Indelibly inextricable from the essay industrial complex, then, is a discourse about the novel’s aesthetic and epistemological inadequacies. There is nothing worse than a novel that conforms to everything a reader expects of it. Proponents of the essay have argued that it is its slippery remit that provides the answers to the novel’s problems. The essay is still thought of as a form so capacious, so ill-defined, so anti-definition, that it becomes a backdoor for novelists to escape the “novel nausea” of what Smith calls Bad Novels (those in which “all plots are ‘conventional’ and all characters sentimental and bourgeois, and all settings bad theatrical backdrops, wooden and painted”); an empty-form to meet any desire one might have. Sometimes, then, freeing oneself from plot, character, and setting involves freeing oneself from the form itself. This freedom we see in some of the most formally accomplished contemporary novels, like J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello (2003), which follows the form of eight lectures, the rhetorical origin of the essay; Daša Drndić’s Trieste (2007) is as much historical documentary as it is fiction; Can Xue’s The Last Lover (2005) works by assemblage rather than the narrative pulse of the onward chronology of plot.
There is plenty of novel-nausea in the air. This emerges from critics who engage in a type of criticism that probes whether novels like Coetzee’s or Drndić’s or Xue’s are really novels. Many novelists, too, over the last few years, have attributed their decisions to write essays as a formal one, working against the conventionality, conformity, tamed, “well-behaved novel” contemporary writers have inherited despite “the best efforts of Woolf, Joyce, and Mansfield” (Teju Cole); against the “very annoying,” and even “troubling” Anglo-American distinction between fiction and nonfiction (Aleksandr Hemon); against perpetuating “the same form, the same language, [that] makes everything the same” (Karl Ove Knausgård). For these same writers, the essay is seen as a way out, as a way to make the novel wild again. “Reading a novel should be like watching a pole-vaulter,” Cole argued elsewhere, “maximum flair as well as a high degree of technical difficulty.” Reaching for the essayistic—along with “the list, the tangential excursus, the stream of unbroken dialogue, the thicket of unremitting description”—helps make the magic happen, though few American novelists have done so.” W.G. Sebald put it even more bluntly: “There is so often about the standard novel something terribly contrived; you can always feel the wheels grinding. My medium is prose, not the novel.”
The kind of prose Cole and Sebald are referring to recalls Claire De Obaldia’s 1995 study of The Essayistic Spirit, in which she theorised a kind of “essayistic novel which appropriates existing material.”2 More recent examples might include Cole or Sebald or Knausgård—but these are themselves fashioned after fragmentary continental novels like those of Proust (In Search of Lost Time), Robert Musil (The Man Without Qualities), and Hermann Broch (The Sleepwalkers), which formulate “a mutual interruption of theory and fiction” and a disruption of “narrative continuity and totalization.” For De Obaldia, if there were to be a tradition of the essayistic novel, it would show how “the decisive influence of figures such as Plato, Cicero, Plutarch, or Seneca… has to do primarily with acquiring the ability to express thoughts artistically, with the gradual refinement of an ‘art of imaginative prose’.”3 If the limiting language of genre has all but crippled the novel from proclaiming it actually has ideas, it is no wonder novelists like those mentioned so far turn against it when the market dictates what a novel should look and sound like. Ever since Montaigne called his book of meditations on things Essais, the essay has been understood as a form that attempts, tests, and tries out ideas; from its etymological root upwards, it is a form, or a form in “search for form” (William Gass), or not a form at all (Michael Hamburger). As Thomas Karshan and Kathryn Murphy describe in their recent volume On Essays (2020), “the spirit of the essay… is miscellaneous and anti-systematic.” Trying to pin down a genre so indeterminate, so equivocal, so ambivalent, Karshan continues, has been the occupation of the form itself, as essays have always “understood themselves evasively, preferring to define themselves by what they are not.”
As a form for ideas, the essay is historically rooted in the tradition of criticism. It is not just a form that allows novelists to escape form, it offers a site to stake a claim on form; to dip their toes into the debate; to contribute to their own culture of reading. On the essay, Virginia Woolf was aphoristically blunt: “There is no room for the impurities of literature in an essay.” What these impurities are for Woolf, we can only guess. But she nevertheless insists that “the essay must be pure—pure like water or pure like wine, but pure from dullness, deadness, and deposits of extraneous matter.” Smith picks these quotes out in “The Rise of the Essay,” too, as a way of accounting for “a certain kind of writer—quite often male but by no means exclusively so—who has a fundamental hunger for purity, and for perfection, and this type will always hold the essay form in high esteem.” Novels are messy, embarrassing; but the essay can be art without generic convention, thought without critique. Unlike the novel, “essays hold out the possibility of something like perfection.”
There are some problems with this characterization: the essay as perfect form reproduces a particularly masculine literary history of the essay as aesthetically taut and strangely unyielding; the perfection or purity that Smith and Woolf are referring to lies ironically in the form’s imperfections. Isn’t the essay all “extraneous matter”? Brian Dillon identifies this as “a conflict inside the essay as form: it aspires to express the quintessence or crux of its matter, thus to a sort of polish and integrity, and it wants at the same time to insist that its purview is partial, that being incomplete is a value in itself, for it better reflects the brave and curious but faltering nature of the writing mind.”4 The essay is self-contained, neat, and self-resolving precisely because these writers don’t have “bigger issues”—they can avoid grappling with the politics of their subjects, end in the middle of discussion, and rely on parataxis.
As much as practitioners tend to romanticise the essay’s formal irregularity, for critics this tendency yields no shortage of scepticism. The contemporary essay’s ideas tend to foreground intimate, emotional experience rather than those honed through the production of knowledge. Smith, in the Foreword to her 2018 book of essays, Feel Free, confronts this directly. “I have no real qualifications to write as I do,” she writes. “Not a philosopher or sociologist, not a real professor of literature or film, not a political scientist, professional music critic or trained journalist. I’m employed in an MFA programme, but have no MFA myself, and no PhD. My evidence—such as it is—is almost always intimate.”5 In many ways, this isn’t much of an apology, as what she is really describing is the tradition of the essay as democratic, anti-systemic, and open to those with experience rather than those with higher-order knowledge.
These conditions have long raised important questions about the discipline of literary studies, discipline as the act of study, as well as the essay’s uncomfortable relationship as a disciplinary, institutionalised form. In the mid-80s, Adorno wrote that the essay’s aim isn’t to achieve something scientifically or create something artistically but “reflects a childlike freedom that catches fire, without scruple, on what others have already done. The essay mirrors what is loved and hated instead of presenting the intellect.” Such a description might describe the literary essay, but not the academic essay that we humanities’ students write for assessment, which requires them to pursue logical, intellectual inquiry, but its extra-disciplinary personality. While there is something beautiful about the cadence of Adorno’s assertion here, there is a fundamental problem with the opposition created between taste and intellect. What is one’s intellect without love and hate to guide it?6 Adorno’s instincts recall the philosophical roots of essayism. For Erin Plunkett, the essay’s history as a form for philosophers means that it “can be read as an alternative philosophical tradition rooted in phenomenological experience.”7 For an essayist, “the possible criteria of knowledge are on the one hand empirical—information conveyed through sense impressions—and on the other hand rational or logical.”8 Drawing on Stanley Cavell, one of her essayist philosophers, Plunkett positions knowing as intrinsically in tension with knowability. Naturally interested in “the existential conditions—including historical and linguistic conventions—that shape human understanding”9, essayists lean long and hard into the problem that the impulse to know often hides our fear of being known.
But legible here, too, is Smith’s uncomfortability with the essay market’s desire for subjectivity, and for her subjectivity, rather than with expertise. Why do editors of literary magazines and newspapers commission her experience rather than a critic’s expertise in the production of higher order knowledge? The question becomes what kinds of discourse are we sanctioning when we accept that the essay’s innate naiveté must also mean that the value of the intellect suffers? Here we find a writer who once wondered why novelists turned to the essay making a genuine apology for the de-skilling of literary criticism and the humanities at large. “Essays about one person’s affective experience have, by their very nature, not a leg to stand on”, Smith wrote, “All they have is their freedom.” But though for Smith, freedom here is aesthetic and intellectual, the essay’s freedom is all too often fetishized by late capitalism. Precarious or freelance contracts give us the freedom to determine our own schedules, but in reality fail to remunerate us for the full extent of our labour, or give us the benefits a permanent job would. The extreme example of this is when artists are barely paid (or not at all) for their art, what Leigh Claire La Berge calls “decommodified labor.”10 American novelists’ frustration with the so-called Bad Novel, then, rails against a system in which agents and editors—whose industries are also in decline—set the aesthetic tone.
The contemporary essay’s commercial pressures, especially in the age of the Internet, threaten to further evacuate the form from “aesthetic semblance” and intellectual critique. In a polemical essay in 2017, Jia Tolentino proclaimed the personal essay boom over, ruined by the Internet, “as it does for most things.” The problem, as Tolentino saw it, was that “an ad-based publishing model built around maximizing page views quickly and cheaply creates uncomfortable incentives for writers, editors, and readers alike.” Incentivizing attention in a content-rich-attention-poor economy meant that readers flowed “naturally to the outrageous, the harrowing, the intimate, and the recognizable.” The economics of this exchange is troubling. “For some writers, these essays led to better-paying work”—smaller sites might only pay a few hundred dollars if that at all, while major magazines and Reviews pay upwards of a thousand dollars for an essay—but for so many writers (who tend to be women), they “wrote about the most difficult things that had ever happened to them and received not much in return.”11
With the publication of Tolentino’s collection of personal essays Trick Mirror: Essays on Self-Delusion in 2019, the sentiment of Tolentino’s provocation proved to be itself a gimmick—a retrospectively flippant cultural assessment that, in Sianne Ngai’s conceptualisation of the gimmick, strikes us now as “working too little (labor-saving tricks) but also as working too hard (strained efforts to get our attention).” It is not difficult to see what Adorno meant when he claimed the essay contributes to a system of cultural prestige. “If the essay declines to begin by deriving cultural works from something underlying them,” he warned, “it embroils itself all too eagerly in the culture enterprise promoting the prominence, success, and prestige of marketable products.”12 It becomes a gimmick, in other words, and as “an aesthetically suspicious object”, an essay such as this—or a warning such as Smith’s—risks making the form of the essay irreparably contrived in much the same way Sebald warned of the novel. Clichéd argumentative and grammatical movements of magazine essays come to supersede the intellectual freedom so valued by the form.
The mechanics of essay publishing, then, have not only renewed but intensified Adorno’s searing warning that “forcibly separated from the discipline of academic unfreedom, intellectual freedom itself becomes unfree and serves the socially preformed needs of its clientele. Irresponsibility, itself an aspect of all truth that does not exhaust itself in responsibility to the stud quo, then justifies itself to the needs of established consciousness; bad essays are just as conformist as bad dissertations.” Escaping the bad novel doesn’t mean you will find good essays. Essays risk, in their intellectual freedom, governed by editorial demands, doing themselves formal damage by hovering in the twilight zone between genres, forms, institutions, beholden to the cultural objects they obsess over, and, sometimes, try to sell us.
Essays by novelists perhaps play most emphatically into this system. Take Novelist A, who has written multiple novels, won some awards, and is commissioned by an editor of a major international magazine to write about a hotly anticipated novel or even an art exhibition. Novelist B has a debut novel forthcoming, and their agent or publicist works with a publication to pitch an essay on a related, and perhaps, personal experience that is tangentially or intrinsically related to the novel. Cultural prestige flows between the novel critic or novelist essayist, editors, agents, publicists, eventually to reach the reader. And as the editors of n+1 satirised it recently, “[t]he main problem is that the contemporary American book review is first and foremost an audition — for another job, another opportunity, another day in the content mine, hopefully with better lighting and tools, but at the very least with better pay. What kind of job or opportunity for the reviewer depends on her ambitions.”
More than a decade later, Smith’s essay is an unexpectedly helpful marker in the literary history of the essay, historicising a moment where: “most publishers would rather have a novel”; “bookshops don’t know where to put them”; and, “it’s a rare reader who seeks them out with any sense of urgency.” It is clear that these statements no longer hold much water. One can rarely open the latest New York Review of Books, London Review of Books, New Yorker, or Paris Review without finding an essay by a novelist; swathes of collections of essays have dominated the market, even from University Presses; there are literary agents and editors who specialize in the essay form; bookshops have created new sections under categories like “Literary Essays”; and the critical and commercial successes of contemporary essayists have shown that, while the essay has long been ubiquitous in American literary culture, its status is now reaching a crescendo, resembling something like a major literary form. At the same time, critical attention has increased, as literary critics are attending to how the essay works as both a vehicle for cultural criticism and as an art in its own right.13
As part of the turn against a particular kind of commercial, “well-made” novel (nurtured and honed by literary agents as much as editors, as Laura B. McGath’s work shows14), such accounts first praise their European cousins, which are not attenuated by the same market conditions as the American kind is subject to. Recent novels that verge on the essayistic, Ocean Vuong’s One Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (2019) and Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive (2020), show formal renewal by drawing on non-US centric formal traditions. “At its bones,” Vuong claimed about his novel, “the book embodies the essay’s main thrust, which is essayer, from the French to try, to attempt.”15 Defining his novelistic style in terms of the roaming potential of the essay, he is “informed by the rich American tradition of the malleable historical ‘I’”, where “the ‘I’ is transitory, it’s loose, and it’s up to a futurity—the negotiation of its solidity in fiction is up to the hands of the artist.” Meanwhile, early drafts of Lost Children Archive became “stuffy and illegible” because Luiselli tried to “meterla con calzador (‘jam it in,’ literally, ‘use a shoehorn’) in a fictional narrative” what belonged in essay form: her “political frustration and confusion and sadness and rage,” gained through her experience working as a volunteer translator in New York’s immigration courts.
Looking to the essay for critique and for aesthetic renewal has become the ultimate litmus test, indicating a paradigmatic shift in our cultural systems. The novel has enjoyed a long ascendency as a major form in the US. Today, op-eds still fuel the belief that a sprawling, complex, multi-layered piece of fiction could represent the whole of the American condition, just as mid-century public intellectuals like Lionel Trilling argued that the formal qualities of the novel—freedom, expansiveness, individual choice—made it the perfect analogue for American democracy. In this dynamic, the essay holds the political, economic, and national expectations of the novel form to account. While the form versus form dynamic has become clichéd and tends to yield very little critical value, the authorial struggle over essay versus novel form at this particular moment suggests the market forces that positioned the novel’s political and aesthetic primacy are now in a similar way positioning the essay’s political and aesthetic primacy. As a major cultural form, the essay has emerged in the absence of serious, sustained critical attention. Heralding the move away from weak theories of the essay, no longer is it relevant to let the essay merely define itself obliquely, nor can it afford to feign absenting itself from cultural systems of prestige. Novelists think they have the essay’s number. What will critics do?
This is part of the cluster The Contemporary Essay. Read the other posts here.
- All quotes in this paragraph are from Zadie Smith’s “The Rise of the Essay”, The Guardian (2009). This essay can now only be found on the blog: https://www.youmightfindyourself.com/post/252362834/zadie-smith-on-the-rise-of-the-essay.
- Claire De Obaldia, The Essayistic Spirit: Literature, Modern Criticism, and the Essay (Oxford University Press, 1995): 7.
- De Obaldia, The Essayistic Spirit, 8. De Obaldia is citing Elbert N. S. Thompson’s The Seventeenth-Century Essay (1926) here.
- Brian Dillon, Essayism: On Form, Feeling, and Nonfiction (New York Review of Books, 2017): 17
- Zadie Smith, Feel Free (Hamish Hamilton, 2018): xi.
- This, of course, is Susan Sontag’s argument in “Notes on Camp”: “Intelligence… is really a kind of taste: taste in ideas.”
- Erin Plunkett, A Philosophy of the Essay: Scepticism, Experience, and Style (Bloomsbury, 2018): 25.
- Plunkett, A Philosophy of the Essay, 7
- Plunkett, A Philosophy of the Essay, 25.
- See Leigh Claire La Berge’s Wages Against Artwork: Decommodified Labor and the Claims of Socially Engaged Art (Duke University Press, 2019).
- The exploitative employment conditions of reviewing—a subset of essay publishing—has been well documented in Phillipa K. Chong’s Inside the Critics’ Circle: Book Reviewing in Uncertain Times (Princeton University Press, 2020).
- Theodor W. Adorno, “The Essay as Form,” Notes to Literature, Volume One. Edited by Rolf Tiedemann. Translated by Shierry Weber Nicholsen (Columbia University Press, 1991): 5.
- Several new studies that grapple with the national traditions of the essay will be published in 2022, including The Cambridge Companion to the American Essay and The Cambridge Companion to the British Essay. Thomas Karshan and Kathryn Murphy’s edited collection On the Essay: Montaigne to the Present was published by OUP, 2020.
- Laura B. McGrath, “Literary Agency,” American Literary History 33.2 (September 2021).
- Ocean Vuong, “Ocean Vuong and the New Great American Novel,” Guardian Podcasts (July 23, 2019): https://www.theguardian.com/books/audio/2019/jul/23/ocean-vuong-and-the-new-great-american-novel-books-podcast.