The Perfect Essay
‘There are some questions in life, the very speaking of which are their undoing’ – David Rakoff
First, a definition.
An article is a piece of writing that is included with others in a newspaper, magazine or other publication. An essay is a short piece of writing on a particular subject. An article is written to inform the readers about some concept. An essay is generally written as a response to a question or proposition.
In the right hands, an essay can become a thing of beauty. It resolves the posed question by fusing facts, opinions and personal experience, and brings out something of the writer’s personality to form a hypothesis, but is above all enjoyable to read.
A few of my favourites would include ‘The Decline of the English Murder’, ‘Why I Write’ and ‘Shooting an Elephant’ by George Orwell, ‘The Death of a Moth’ by Virginia Woolf, any number of essays by David Foster Wallace, Christopher Hitchens, Samuel Johnson, and Joan Didion. JM Barrie’s powerful ‘Courage’ and Asiah Berlin’s ‘The Hedgehog and the Fox’ – ‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing’ – are hard to resist.
David Rakoff’s quote above works both ways; there are questions in life which stand because no-one speaks of them, and part of the pleasure of the essay is to have these questions exposed to the light and examined. The Pulitzer committee, a strong influence on essays, awards cash prizes to distinguished feature writing that concerns itself with the ‘quality of writing, originality and concision, using any available journalistic tool.’
I would argue that nowadays America is the natural home of the essay because it is a form that still represents a literary benchmark of the arts, and can be found in The Atlantic, New Yorker, McSweeney’s, The Conversation and dozens of other websites. It has developed a tradition more recent but just as deep as the UK’s. Here we have The New Statesman, The Spectator, the LRB, the TLS and others.
John Lanchester’s essay on the art of Agatha Christie in the LRB sought to explain her mastery of the form. Lanchester asks why Christie a writer with such a clear-eyed attitude toward good and evil, would pick such a dull detective to investigate it, and reminds us that as a Belgian refugee Poirot would have been an outsider – and all detectives, in some sense, must be outsiders.
Woolf’s ‘The Death of a Moth’ compares the insignificant brief flight of a moth to the struggles of human life. The moth becomes a symbol of humanity and relates to our struggle to survive, particularly in its inevitable encounter with death. Thus the essay, whatever its subject, enlightens, comforts, unsettles, and connects us to the thoughts of others.
Essays are perfect for the miniaturist who seeks a meaty read in a short reading time – therefore they’re perfect for today’s environment, where time is a commodity. And the nice thing is that they exist in complete form online!