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essay

Kathleen Norris, The Best American Essays: 2001 (Houghton, 2001)

Definition:

A short work of nonfiction. A writer of essays is an essayist.

In an essay, an authorial voice typically invites an implied reader to accept as authentic a certain textual mode of experience.

See also:

Etymology:

From the French, "trial, attempt." Michel de Montaigne coined the term when he assigned the title Essais to his first publication in 1580. In Montaigne: A Biography (1984), Donald Frame notes that Montaigne "often used the verb essayer (in modern French, normally to try) in ways close to his project, related to experience, with the sense of trying out or testing."

Essays About Essays:


Definitions and Observations:

  • "A composition, usually in prose . . ., which may be of only a few hundred words (like Bacon's Essays) or of book length (like Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding) and which discusses, formally or informally, a topic or a variety of topics."
    (J.A. Cuddon, Dictionary of Literary Terms. Basil, 1991)


  • "A genuine essay feels less like a monologue than a dialogue between writer and reader. This is a story I need, we conclude after reading the opening paragraph."
    (Kathleen Norris, ed. The Best American Essays: 2001. Houghton, 2001)


  • "Essays are how we speak to one another in print--caroming thoughts not merely in order to convey a certain packet of information, but with a special edge or bounce of personal character in a kind of public letter."
    (Edward Hoagland, Introduction, The Best American Essays: 1999. Houghton, 1999)


  • "[W]hat finally distinguishes an essay from an article may just be the author's gumption, the extent to which personal voice, vision, and style are the prime movers and shapers, even though the authorial 'I' may be only a remote energy, nowhere visible but everywhere present."
    (Justin Kaplan, ed. The Best American Essays: 1990. Ticknor & Fields, 1990)


  • Montaigne's Autobiographical Essays
    "Although Michel de Montaigne, who fathered the modern essay in the 16th century, wrote autobiographically (like the essayists who claim to be his followers today), his autobiography was always in the service of larger existential discoveries. He was forever on the lookout for life lessons. If he recounted the sauces he had for dinner and the stones that weighted his kidney, it was to find an element of truth that we could put in our pockets and carry away, that he could put in his own pocket. After all, Philosophy--which is what he thought he practiced in his essays, as had his idols, Seneca and Cicero, before him--is about 'learning to live.' And here lies the problem with essayists today: not that they speak of themselves, but that they do so with no effort to make their experience relevant or useful to anyone else, with no effort to extract from it any generalizeable insight into the human condition."
    (Cristina Nehring, "What’s Wrong With the American Essay." Truthdig, Nov. 29, 2007)


  • The Artful Formlessness of the Essay
    "[G]ood essays are works of literary art. Their supposed formlessness is more a strategy to disarm the reader with the appearance of unstudied spontaneity than a reality of composition. . . .

    "The essay form as a whole has long been associated with an experimental method. This idea goes back to Montaigne and his endlessly suggestive use of the term essai for his writing. To essay is to attempt, to test, to make a run at something without knowing whether you are going to succeed. The experimental association also derives from the other fountain-head of the essay, Francis Bacon, and his stress on the empirical inductive method, so useful in the development of the social sciences."
    (Phillip Lopate, The Art of the Personal Essay. Anchor, 1994)


  • Articles vs. Essays
    "I am predisposed to the essay with knowledge to impart--but, unlike journalism, which exists primarily to present facts, the essays transcend their data, or transmute it into personal meaning. The memorable essay, unlike the article, is not place or time bound; it survives the occasion of its original composition. Indeed, in the most brilliant essays, language is not merely the medium of communication; it is communication."
    (Joyce Carol Oates, quoted by Robert Atwan in The Best American Essays, College Edition, 2nd ed. Houghton Mifflin, 1998)


    "I speak of a 'genuine' essay because fakes abound. Here the old-fashioned term poetaster may apply, if only obliquely. As the poetaster is to the poet--a lesser aspirant--so the average article is to the essay: a look-alike knockoff guaranteed not to wear well. An article is often gossip. An essay is reflection and insight. An article often has the temporary advantage of social heat--what's hot out there right now. An essay's heat is interior. An article can be timely, topical, engaged in the issues and personalities of the moment; it is likely to be stale within the month. In five years it may have acquired the quaint aura of a rotary phone. An article is usually Siamese-twinned to its date of birth. An essay defies its date of birth--and ours, too. (A necessary caveat: some genuine essays are popularly called 'articles'--but this is no more than an idle, though persistent, habit of speech. What's in a name? The ephemeral is the ephemeral. The enduring is the enduring.)"
    (Cynthia Ozick, "SHE: Portrait of the Essay as a Warm Body." The Atlantic Monthly, September 1998)


  • The Status of the Essay
    "Though the essay has been a popular form of writing in British and American periodicals since the 18th century, until recently its status in the literary canon has been, at best, uncertain. Relegated to the composition class, frequently dismissed as mere journalism, and generally ignored as an object for serious academic study, the essay has sat, in James Thurber's phrase, ' on the edge of the chair of Literature.'

    "In recent years, however, prompted by both a renewed interest in rhetoric and by poststructuralist redefinitions of literature itself, the essay--as well as such related forms of 'literary nonfiction' as biography, autobiography, and travel and nature writing--has begun to attract increasing critical attention and respect."
    (Richard Nordquist, "Essay," in Encylopedia of American Literature, ed. S. R. Serafin. Continuum, 1999)


  • The Contemporary Essay
    "At present, the American magazine essay, both the long feature piece and the critical essay, is flourishing, in unlikely circumstances. . . .

    "There are plenty of reasons for this. One is that magazines, big and small, are taking over some of the cultural and literary ground vacated by newspapers in their seemingly unstoppable evaporation. Another is that the contemporary essay has for some time now been gaining energy as an escape from, or rival to, the perceived conservatism of much mainstream fiction. . . .

    "So the contemporary essay is often to be seen engaged in acts of apparent anti-novelization: in place of plot, there is drift, or the fracture of numbered paragraphs; in place of a frozen verisimilitude, there may be a sly and knowing movement between reality and fictionality; in place of the impersonal author of standard-issue third-person realism, the authorial self pops in and out of the picture, with a liberty hard to pull off in fiction."
    (James Wood, "Reality Effects." The New Yorker, Dec. 19 & 26, 2011)


  • The Lighter Side of Essays: The Breakfast Club Essay Assignment
    "All right people, we're going to try something a little different today. We are going to write an essay of not less than a thousand words describing to me who you think you are. And when I say 'essay,' I mean 'essay,' not one word repeated a thousand times. Is that clear, Mr. Bender?"
    (Paul Gleason as Mr. Vernon)

    Saturday, March 24, 1984
    Shermer High School
    Shermer, Illinois 60062

    Dear Mr. Vernon,

    We accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong. What we did was wrong. But we think you're crazy to make us write this essay telling you who we think we are. What do you care? You see us as you want to see us--in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. You see us as a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal. Correct? That's the way we saw each other at seven o'clock this morning. We were brainwashed. . . .

    But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain and an athlete and a basket case, a princess, and a criminal. Does that answer your question?

    Sincerely yours,
    The Breakfast Club
    (Anthony Michael Hall as Brian Johnson, The Breakfast Club, 1985)
Pronunciation: ES-ay

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