Why I Love Essays

by John Boland

It’s almost ten years since Zadie Smith’s first novel, White Teeth, created such a stir – and a well-deserved one at that – among critics and readers. Since then, she’s written other novels (On Beauty, her updating of EM Forster’s Howards End, was especially intriguing) but more and more you’ll find her writing lengthy pieces on literature for the New York Review of Books and other august publications.

Indeed, in a recent Guardian piece she confesses to “novel nausea” and considers the notion that non-fiction is perhaps more suited to capturing the messy realities of life than the well-made novel, with all its contrived trappings of plot and character. And as if to demonstrate her increasing allegiance to non-fictional musings, she’s just published Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays (Hamish Hamilton).

Oddly, though, while name-checking the writers who’ve also recently come up with essay collections (Margaret Drabble, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Safran Foer), she neglects to mention most of the great essayists, starting with Michel de Montaigne, who invented the form almost five centuries ago in an attempt (from the French word essayer) to give expression to what he felt and thought.

I’ve been  reading Montaigne all my adult life for his wit, wisdom, common sense, contrariness and humanity, and though his starting point is invariably himself (“It is myself that I portray,” he says by way of introduction), his insights – on friendship, love, sex, cruelty, power and the vanity of human wishes – apply to everyone.

Other great essayists followed in succeeding centuries and the form continues to thrive right down to our own time, though there are fewer outlets today for extended ruminations on life and literature. Still, the past century can boast such wonderfully entertaining and provocative essayists as GK Chesterton, Virginia Woolf, HL Mencken, George Orwell, Graham Greene, Edmund Wilson, Cyril Connolly, VS Pritchett, Hubert Butler, Gore Vidal,  Joan Didion, Ian Hamilton and Clive James. Indeed, it could be persuasively argued that the finest achievements of Woolf, Orwell and Vidal lie not in their fiction but in their mastery of the more intimate and directly revealing essay.

Personally, I find the essay, when written at its  finest, the most congenial of literary forms and I’m forever rereading Orwell, Pritchett and the others mentioned above for the sheer pleasure they give. You won’t find their collections among any season’s bestsellers (in many cases you won’t find them at all, except in second-hand bookshops or from such online sites as Abebooks), but they’re among the glories of literature.

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