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!



12 comments on “The Perfect Essay”

  1. Roger says:

    “Asiah Berlin”
    Another Continental!

  2. Brooke says:

    Puzzling sentence…”I would argue that nowadays America is the natural home of the essay….” Because the essay is a benchmark? Then imo, there are many geographies where the essay finds a good welcoming home.

    Read Lancester’s essay…didn’t capture me, didn’t persuade me to revisit Christie, or Sayers
    Nomination for wonderful essay reads, Thoreau’s Walking. ” I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness…”

  3. Jo W says:

    As well written as it was by Ms Woolf, couldn’t she have opened the window pane and given the moth freedom,if only for the day?

  4. admin says:

    I think the essay is definitely considered by American writers as an option and an opportunity, whereas I’ve never met a writer here who aspires to writing one, although they do.
    Lanchester’s essay made me go back to what I consider her best book, ‘Endless Night’. I also watched ‘Les Petits Muertres’, the French Christie series, nowhere near as good as the BBC’s wild-card of john Malkovich as Poirot, brilliantly pulled down a peg or two.

  5. J F Norris says:

    OH! I thought this title was going to prove to be ironic and you were going to comment on that book I told you about — The Lifespan of a Fact. Ah well. Discussing the lost art of the essay, its capacity for artistry of the written word, and it’s distinction from an article is good enough for me.

  6. Brooke says:

    I’d love to watch Malkovich as Poirot but the ABC Murders is Christie at her convoluted worst.

  7. Wayne Mook says:

    Sadly an increasing amount of essays are more like an academic essays, a stilted presentation of fact with non of the flow of prose. Even when citations are not present you can see the footnotes, although sadly footnotes are out of fashion, they are nearly always presented at the end of the piece. I blame Terry Pratchett myself.

    Can anyone recommend any good essays about cities in general? Or urban life?

    I always thought Christie’s two famous sleuths, a retired Belgian detective and an at first young spinster, were well chosen (even if Christie stated Poirot was too old when she started.) they do show up a lot of the prejudice in British society.

    I enjoyed Endless Night, there is a 70’s film starring Hywel Bennett.


  8. kevin says:

    JoW – Somebody, or something has to suffer for great art, right? More likely her maid was off for the day and this wonderful essay is the result.

  9. admin says:

    Brooke, the ABC Murders book has been largely ignored by the BBC for this remake, which features S&M and a different motive.

  10. Brooke says:

    Re: Christie. I find TV and radio programs usually ignore the original– which says something about her work and the Christie franchise. S&M?!

  11. Roger says:

    Wayne Monk:
    A book about cities – nearly fifty years old, though, so its insights may have become truisms – short enough to be called an essay is Soft City by Jonathan Raban.

  12. Wayne Mook says:

    Thanks Roger, I’ve read it, the way a city and it’s people create a sense of self and space, and it’s soft properties is fascinating.


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