The Essay—An Unprescribable Form

Thomas Larson

The Essay—An Unprescribable Form

The Edinburgh Companion to the Essay - Edited by Mario Aquilina, Bob Cowser Jr., and Nicole B. Wallack
Edinburgh University Press

Review by Thomas Larson

1 / For two decades, the Edinburgh University Press has been publishing a series of volumes under the group title, the “Edinburgh Companions to Literature and the Humanities.” Considering the "death of the humanities," declared far and wide a fait accompli, these compilations are brave undertakings, exhaustively conceived and handsomely produced. They weigh up to five pounds, run to 500 pages or more (Moby-Dick length), and are squintable in 11-point type. Reference tomes, morbidly expensive. One recent cast member is the Edinburgh Companion to Vegan Literary Studies, 422 pages at $165. The volumes are like valentines, sent to and from the professorial class: The mission is for scholars to bestow academic gravitas on beloved literary forms and authors. The audience is the English-speaking literate realm—the Modern Language Association horde and whatever its org is called in the United Kingdom. That audience (and curious writers like me) insists on academic writing. The learned “paper” confines and confirms a community of university-trained readers, who fetishize literary forms in prose stylings fortified with rhetorical distance and, at times, affected jargon.

This quilting of a scholarly coverlet into one multitextured ware is impressive. The Edinburgh Companion to the Essay features 27 articles by American and British authors, all rigorously footnoted and cited, a few mountaineering across a massive range: from the worldwide origins of the essay to the confessions of Montaigne and the tart treatises of Johnson and Bacon to today’s ethnic, racial, and immigrant/migrant voices, most new to the essay, thanks to the Internet’s reach. Three segments comprise the vastness: “Theories and Definitions,” “Publics, Pedagogies and Histories,” and “Form and Genre.” In between these, two or three practitioners speak as “Contemporary Essayists in Focus,” with personal reflections on the form.

The opus, furthermore, shares its most appealing and least appealing aspect, its contemporaneity: Viewpoints on the still authoritative practice of the English essay are set against some hip writing on the Intersectional, which, like a road hog, dominates literary criticism in our time. As such, it’s inevitable—and I want to be forbearant—that the quality varies from the invigorating to the fatigable.

What rules govern an academic essay? To achieve an authenticating style, writers use in-text quotations from dozens of sources, a technique which an editor defined for me as “analysis engaged with existing scholarship.” In other words, a formal essay drafted for an argumentative end. M. H. Abrams in his 2011 A Glossary of Literary Terms calls the formal or academic essay earnest, utilitarian discourse, which “persuades us of a thesis” and adopts the role of “authority, or at least as highly knowledgeable, [expounding] the subject in an orderly way.” Opposing that is the informal essay, personal in tone and freely constructed, and, according to Abrams, “relaxed, self-revelatory, and often whimsical.” That whimsy is key: Wrestling with one’s seriousness pushes an author to purposely trouble or lighten up her take on a topic, to shift and self-surprise. Thus, how sweetly contrarian is William Hazlitt’s 1826 treasure, “On the Pleasures of Hating.”

Writing about the essay is to suit up with teams of the likeminded who, alert to extant views on a subject, reassess or contextualize afresh conclusions from a prior age. As a result, critics here explore new topics, among them, teaching the essay as central to the university’s mission, the ecocritical essay, “The Essay as Trans Body,” the digital/visual essay, not read but watched, “The Essay and the Advertisement,” and the menageries of Annie Dillard and Elena Passarello in “Why the (Animal) Essay Matters.”

2 / Among past rhetoricians, Theodore Adorno is used most often here to bolster positions. The discourse dictator called academic writing “washed out cultural babble” whose pedagogues hover like gnats high above the essayist’s artlessness. Bob Cowser Jr. agrees with Adorno: “Enlightenment rationalism” resulted in a “compartmentalization of knowledge” antithetical to the essay’s facility with “unlocking the ‘whole truth’” of a topic under scrutiny. In his famous 1952 piece, “The Essay as Form,” Adorno lauded its “unmethodical method,” which “does not permit its domain to be prescribed.” “The effort of the essay reflects a childlike freedom that catches fire”—the author dares not douse those flames but, rather, fans them.

One road back from the “babble,” an epithet that Adorno might have slung at this volume, is to examine the essay’s ethical dimension, its desire for moral truth. Here, the dean of essay anthologies, Phillip Lopate, in his “The Postwar American Essay, the Liberal Imagination, and the Contemporary Essay,” writes that the informal form has flourished since 1950 because of its association with “progressive ideology” whose liberality is stamped on all genres of American literature. Following the essay’s evolution from James Baldwin’s mid-century exposé of Whiteness, “justifying Black subjugation,” to the pansexuality of Maggie Nelson today, we see the essay, alongside memoir, expressing our culture’s “tolerance for pluralism and difference.”

The word essay is verb and noun and, thus, is subject to pretentious suffixes. I balk at extending its action to the philosophic essayism, a stomach-turning term. Instead, I like essayistic, for its elastic, usefulness. Essayistic seems to be how the nonfiction intellect feels, a kind of cerebral intimacy central to my favorite authors who more freely unlock their psyches—or, at least, the performance of same. Reading Virginia Woolf, Stephen Jay Gould, Rebecca Solnit, Margo Jefferson’s On Michael Jackson, or Geoff Dyer’s The Last Days of Roger Federer, in which Federer is barely mentioned, I’m entranced, knocked off my rocker, welcome yowling cats in through the backdoor.

I bring this up because I’m impressed that three editors shepherded this volume despite knowing, which they must have, that the effort might fail—the concept, not the book. Asking more than two dozen scholars for essays about the essay, which, en masse, might define the form is, just as likely, another way the form might elude definition. In addition, it proves that once you do the thing you then try to define after the fact, you realize you defined it by having done it. As the drummer Max Roach once said, the art of jazz involves players who must “create, maintain, and develop a musical design” simultaneously with each other.

3 / As I say, politics dominates the essay these days, exemplified in the London Review of Books and the New York Review of Books, and here in five of the 27 pieces. One such is Briallen Hopper’s “Everybody’s Protest Essay: Personal Protest Prose on the American Internet.” Citing James Baldwin’s classic, “Notes of a Native Son,” as a prime forerunner, Hopper calls the essayistic blog “a mashup between the protest essay and the popular Internet form Tressie McMillan Cottom refers to as the dreaded ‘first-person essay,’ a much-maligned kind of personal writing that dominated much of the recent digital era.”

Another famous protest essay is Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “Letter From Birmingham Jail”—political, argumentative, not, per se, personal, other than you can feel the explosive nature of King’s underlying fury behind bars. What is the “dreaded first-person essay”? Circa mid-2010s the call went out for writers to create “content” to populate breaking-news websites like Gawker, Slate, and BuzzFeed. Such viral-seeking missiles, launched from the fringe, stressed the smart, snarky takedown. Nifty pieces like Kiese Laymon’s “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America.” This essay, a work of creative destruction on par with Emmet Till’s open casket, helped to propel the Black Lives Matter movement.

Back to Cottom. Because of her dread of the essay morphing into the blogosphere—uninformed, overshared, unpaid pouts, often marked by the 4 minutes it takes to read—she argued that its unforgiveable sin was to fledge the Tweet and the social-media text. Fearful of writing fluff, she concentrated on the formal essay since, as she notes, she was trained as a social scientist and felt it necessary to “disavow the ‘personal essay’ label.” Hopper, however, objects to Cottom’s tendency to moralize. In support of Laymon, “who embraces the confessional mode and delves deeply into shame, self-harm and the personal work of remembering,” Hopper says the essay’s twenty-first-century raison d’être is to “tie the ‘I’ into a ‘we.’”

Hopper praises gutsy essays by Rebecca Solnit, Chanel Miller, and Seo-Young Chu, women writing about men as mansplainers or rapists or both, applauding the serious-mindedness of authors who, we-inspired, engineer “impersonal selves.” Such impersonhood depends on political/personal outrage, as in Chanel Miller’s essay about her rape at Stanford and the criminally light sentence the rapist, Brock Turner, received. This is targeted prose of the dramatized and documentarian now, even as it takes time to gel. Such work identifies a “we,” a waiting contingency, that is owed a reciprocal embodiment of rage.

How marvelous to think that an essay, like those of the feminist and antiwar Adrienne Rich 50 years ago, would enflame a justice-oriented movement. However, as Jia Tolentino complained in The New Yorker, casting a cold eye on the “personal essay,” that in just the last decade “so many women wrote about the most difficult things that had ever happened to them and received not much in return.” OK, I get it. Still, doesn’t the writing, the posting, and the follow-up appearance on women-run podcasts add personal value to the channels on which voices of the collective broadcast? These essayists nail down an authorial agreement, I am you. The Laymon-like essay, a political diatribe indeed, may risk a feigned selflessness, but one that justifies, according to the “we,” a greater cause.

4 / There is a tendency—gladly, not a trait—in the Edinburgh Companion for some pieces to swell like a Ph.D candidate, pregnant from reading everything on her advisor’s list. Do we need another hit parade of French literary theorists of the last forty years? For instance, in Kara Wittman’s “The Essay as Resistance,” she centers her topsy-turvy thesis on Montaigne and his “autobiographical resistance to ‘definition’ as a symbiotic sociopolitical and aesthetic innovation.” Like Joan Didion, Montaigne is famous for “epitomizing in himself the confusion of his times.” Perfect. But then, Wittman’s prose is dizzying as she rides the citational Tilt-a-Whirl, spinning from Paul de Man to Derrida to Adorno to Amitav Ghosh to Valeria Luiselli to Margaret Cavendish (of the seventeenth century) to Teju Cole (of the twenty-first)—all in a single paragraph. I think her point is that those authors are comparable if they undercut the essay “form” in any way, regardless of their argument or their era. Which I’m not sure requires that much saying.

Of course, to be an academic is (mostly) to write this way. But do the profs think this way as well? I’m not asking for a stream-of-consciousness lit-crit. But I do favor an alliance between one’s critical or encyclopedic faculty and a style that pulses with some tension, some turnabout. Wittman’s writing, I imagine, done in a windowless carrel, begins with twenty volumes of tabbed texts, from which she wedges into her paragraphs their “highly knowledgeable” quotations, a mass assault not unlike Russian tanks pelting Ukrainians in the Donbas. In another paragraph, her shots ricochet from Jenny Boully, Roland Barthes, and W. J. T. Mitchell to James Agee and Kevin Adonis Browne. In the Wittman manner, several other authors in this Edinburgh Companion suffer from such eruditional grandstanding.

Another tack concerns essayists whose home language is not English and who employ the form to unpack their assimilation. Louise Kane in her “The Essay in Asian (American) Contexts” reveals how early Asian-America writers, 100 years ago, seldom had the “luxury of eschewing the educational purpose of the essay.” They were “assigned,” by self and culture, to translate the West for Asian arrivals. They became spokespeople for “the sense of in-betweenness or being ‘other’ or (‘othered’).” Thus, their “polemical essays” dramatize dual loyalties, native and migrant, for their few but highly aware readers. Moreover, these authors also work the “I” into the “we,” moving in tandem, slow-dancing to “the melancholia of displacement.”

The highlight of Kane’s trenchant history is a distinction between “exile literature” (once the “lost generation”) and a new “migratory literature” (today the “forcibly evicted”). This shift, Kane writes, quoting Carine M. Mardorossian, “‘challenges [the] binary logic’” of exilic and migratory, “‘by emphasizing movement, rootlessness, and the mixing of cultures, races, and languages.’” The result is a broken frame, losing the sense of here versus there. Comparably, Zhang Ailing suggests the essayistic resembles “trees in the garden . . . when the wind blows, their seeds will disperse far into the distance.”

5 / Several pieces are focused on women who, as with film and TV directors and a new college majority, are radiant of late, according to Jenny Spinner in “Follow the Yellow Brick Road: Contemporary Women Essayists and Their Golden Moment.” Many are examining “gender and whiteness . . . that is, an understanding that just as we [women and women of color] work to confront the maleness of the essay form, we must confront its whiteness.” Spinner’s manifesto-like piece deflates the essay’s Euro-patriarchal legacy of “Montaigne’s privilege” and, instead, pedestals the ethnic internationalism of women authors today. She aims some of her anger at male essayists by quoting Michelle Dean who decries the “false universality” behind which “male essayists hide.” Spinner adds that most critics have over-lauded the nonfiction of Woolf, Didion, Lourde, Sontag, Malcolm, and the Nobel Prize-winning Annie Ernaux. From them, it’s about time we moved on. After #MeToo and BLM, she approves of the racializing assertion of Soraya Roberts: “The personal essay isn’t dead, it’s just no longer white.”

On one hand, Spinner notes that Joan Didion’s “staying power” speaks to white women’s dominance. She quotes Hayley Mlotek’s 2015 “Free Joan Didion.” Joan is a “literary stereotype” who “requires very little explanation to a very large group of people, representing a class of consumers who tend to be young, female, upper middle class, white, and somewhat inwardly tortured.” On the other hand, Spinner heralds Rachel Cusk as the epitome of what new women essayists are up to, namely, using the form “to poke, to unsettle, to resist resolution,” in my mind Didion traits of the first order.

Spinner ping-pongs between belittling a literary culture that cannot quit the nineteenth century’s “male-heavy essay standard” while she also shows that the dogmas of the past have been replaced by divergent women’s and LGBTQ voices—Cusk, Tolentino, Roxanne Gay, Meghan Daum, Emily Witt, and Morgan Jerkins. They are sounding present-day women-centric alarms—menstruation, rape, sex, drugs, substance abuse, miscarriage, abortion, postpartum depression, and race—all forbidden to writers of Woolf’s time and before and, therefore, in need of loaded-for-bear feminists today.

This identitarian net, however, can feel ensnaring. I wonder how easily the art of the essay gets left behind and time is wasted on consciousness-raising the roofbeams of inclusion so that a sociological literary community (we) rules. I agree. An ascendent community must describe and dismantle the historical crimes of racism, the war against women’s bodies, the intolerance of individuals’ neuro-divergency. However, Spinner’s heating-up a new womanly subjectivity for the essay, diverse and equitable, will—if the past is prologue—one day burn itself out and tender, in its wake, the form’s next conflagration.

6 / Finally, I’ll cite two of the eight writers who supplied personal reflections on their essayistic cred for this volume. Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams and a later book on her alcoholism, calls the essay a “mistress genre.” Her polygamous affair with the form, buoyed by a Joni Mitchell-like sense of feeling “free and unfettered,” blends “personal narrative, critical investigation, [and] literary reportage” in single essays. “Hybridity,” another word for romancing the essay, intensifies the form’s “rigorous ambivalence,” and this multi-partnering has become Jamison’s stock and trade.

David Shields, a lit-crit provocateur, stirs the pot more than any other contributor. His specialty is essaying at length on kooks like Salinger, Trump, and an NFL running back, Marshawn Lynch, as well as collaborating with collagists and documentarians. He believes that fiction has been sidelined by our insatiable hunger for reality. He tallies how his first three novels shrunk from 350 to 250 to 180 pages and tipped him off to the essayistic style, which could free him from his youth’s literary slavishness once he learned “to get to the fucking point.” The following substantive quotation shows Shields confirming the essay’s current cast as orality reborn, which, McLuhan prophesized, resembles a print or online digital conversation, meant less to last and more to tie us together—yet another we—in the moment.

Basically, the thing that I love about the essayistic gesture, whether it’s Heraclitus or Spalding Gray or Phoebe Waller-Bridge or Chris Rock, is that there’s this unbelievably intimate connection between the speaker and the audience, whereas I find that the apparatus of fiction often takes me away from that existentially essential, bridge-building operation. A novel might deliver all sorts of amazing things (immersion in a built world, interest in what happens next, etc.), but these things aren’t anywhere nearly as valuable to me as the extraordinary intimacy and the amazing conversation that develops between a truly rigorously honest essayist and a truly empathetic reader. Which is, in my view and my experience, as deep a human connection as exists on the planet.

The essay is like a rhizome—which grows horizontally underground, poking its roots and extensions above and below, linked though separate, whether adventitiously or on purpose. Thanks to this wide-ranging anthology, we see the essay’s true colors: It’s highly functional and off over-yonder, aesthetic and self-reverential, wantonly confessional and critically undefinable, and, like a ship-abandoned lifeboat, afloat atop the  directionless sea, asking itself and its practitioners: Which way? Which  way?

Thomas Larson

Thomas Larson's website archives nearly 400 of his publications over the past 30 years, information about his four books, and new writing every few weeks. He lives in San Diego, CA. ( /

Back to Issue
Also in this thread
This thread has no other posts

More from

No items found.

More from

No items found.