(Ed- Prior to publishing excerpts from the 2017 Notting Hill Editions Essay prize shortlist, we asked the marvellous essayist Chris Arthur to write a piece on the essay within the academy… Read & let us know what you think by leaving your comments below.)
Students don’t believe me when I say they’ve never written an essay. But asked to produce examples, the evidence they muster is unconvincing; it consists solely of their coursework assignments. These may masquerade as essays – even to the extent of bearing the same name – but despite a few superficial similarities, such bland assessment exercises bear little resemblance to the real thing.
Although academia prides itself on accuracy, precision, the ability to classify, define, and apply correct terminology, there’s a curious blind spot when it comes to “essay”. It’s a label that’s carelessly attached to almost any short piece of nonfiction writing.
I don’t dispute that essays and assignments share some common features, anymore than I’d deny that albatrosses and hens do. The problem is that a bizarrely indiscriminate ornithology of letters has taken root, leading to dissimilar species being confused. Worse, the prevalence of a common one risks threatening the very existence of what’s become a rarity. Indeed I sometimes think that schools and universities act like cuckoos – laying their assessment eggs in someone else’s nest. Of course the analogy breaks down in terms of who feeds the (monstrous?) chicks that hatch. Essayists may be reticent about defending their territory, but few have been duped into acting as foster-parents – though some, faced with this unwanted occupancy, have deserted the traditional nest and built a new one, unhappily called “creative nonfiction”.
What is an essay? How do essays differ from assignments? Is there a role for essays in the academy? Any one of these questions could generate a thesis-length reply. My brief answers are necessarily shorn of nuance and elaboration but will, I hope, give an indication of the direction a longer response would take.
The best definition I know is Richard Chadbourne’s:
The essay is a brief, highly polished piece of prose that is often poetic, often marked by an artful disorder… and that is both fragmentary and complete in itself, capable both of standing on its own and of forming a kind of ‘higher organism’ when assembled with other essays by its author. Like most poems or short stories it should be readable at a single sitting, readable but not entirely understandable the first or even second time, and re-readable more or less forever.
Not an assignment. Not an article. Not a dissertation. Not a paper or report. Rather, in Chadbourne’s words, the essay “belongs to imaginative literature”. It may be objected that this is setting the bar too high. But that’s only if you’re still seeing it as part of the academic apparatus, something to be assembled according to instructions and then graded, rather than as an art-form to be created.
As integral parts of a specialist qualification, assignments are prescriptive. Length, topic, structure and style are all laid down. There’s little room for individual manoeuvre. Students are asked to produce work that’s conventional, formulaic, and predictable. None of these characteristics fit the essay. One of the most perceptive theorists of the form, Theodor Adorno, suggested that – in contrast to an assignment’s obedience to academic orthodoxy – “the law of the innermost form of the essay is heresy”. He also pointed out that the essay “verges on the logic of music” and that “luck and play are essential” to it; that it proceeds “methodically unmethodically.” In similar terms, Lydia Fakundiny suggests that the essay:
is not part of any formal system whatever, adheres to the methodologies, the discovery procedures, the criteria for proof of no established discipline…. It steers away from logically or conventionally ordered sequences of elaboration, from introduction and conclusion, from the overly explicit transition; it obeys no compulsion to tie up what may look like loose ends, tolerates a fair amount of inconclusiveness and indeterminacy.
Assignments displaying such traits would be marked down quite severely. I’m not trying to denigrate assignments – they’re a vital pedagogical tool. Without them it’s hard to see how students’ competence in a subject area could be measured. But they’re not essays. To confuse the two risks obscuring from our cultural awareness a fascinating literary genre.
Whether essays have a role in an academic context opens up much bigger questions – for an answer depends on what you regard as the purpose of learning. If you believe the point of education is simply to equip students with the qualifications needed for employment, assignments will suffice. If you believe that universities have a responsibility to get students to think for themselves, to reflect and question, to challenge accepted points of view, to explore and inquire, reading and writing essays are natural adjuncts to such goals. To put this in a different way, consider the question posed by Mary Oliver (in her poem “The Summer Day”):
Tell me, what is it that you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Does such a question fall within the remit of education? If so, essays could help students to answer it. Could assignments? If this was a longer piece, I’d pepper it with examples. Without reference to specific essays and essayists I realize my arguments may seem abstract and unsubstantiated. The best I can do is point to some key compendia. For single volume anthologies look at Lydia Fakundiny, The Art of the Essay; John Gross, The Oxford Book of Essays; Ian Hamilton, The Penguin Book of Twentieth Century Essays; Philip Lopate, The Art of the Personal Essay; or Robert Root & Michael Steinberg, The Fourth Genre. For a superb annual anthology – running since 1986 under the general editorship of Robert Atwan – look at The Best American Essays.Twenty years ago, writing in the Foreword to the 1997 edition of this series, Atwan claimed that “the essay is now our most dynamic literary form.” Certainly in America the essay has been flourishing and its star shows no sign of dimming. On this side of the Atlantic, though, it remains on the margins, in the shadows, a minority interest among readers and writers. In part this is because of the continuing history of confusion with academic assignments – who wants to engage with a genre that carries the taint of the schoolroom? There are signs that things may be changing – the Notting Hill Editions Essay Prize is one example of new high-profile interest, and literary journals are more open to the essay than they used to be. But many publishers remain wary of it and the essay stock of bookshops is usually paltry. Meanwhile, in the academy, I suspect the point made by Susan Sontag in 1992 still holds true today – that “the culture administered by the universities has always been suspicious of the essay”. Understandably, academics are wary of a mode of writing that’s subjective, accessible, liable to digression and to what Sontag calls “mischief”.In her weighty tome, The Essayistic Spirit, Claire de Obaldia reminds us: The word “essay” comes from the French essai and essayer, to attempt, to experiment, to try out. Without wishing to delve into the history of the essay, or make questionable claims about the directness of a bloodline running between Montaigne and modern practitioners, I think this etymological root points to a key feature of the genre. Of course an important aspect of tries and attempts is that they sometimes fail. And perhaps that’s another reason why the essay sits uneasily in an academic context. If William Deresiewicz’s recent, troubling analysis is correct, universities are breeding what he calls “excellent sheep”. Bright students are trained to succeed – success being measured by their seamless progression into highly paid professions. Rather than being stimulated to think widely and deeply, to doubt and to question, they’re shepherded through a system of narrowly defined tasks, content to stay within the boundaries marked out for them. Such students are expert at assignments but inept at independent creative thinking. Conformity to the pattern that’s demanded by qualification-career leaves them, says Deresiewicz, afraid to fail and, as a result, afraid to take risks – something he sees as “profoundly anti-intellectual”.
Certainly a mindset cast in this mould might think twice about embarking on a form of writing that has few guidelines and no guarantee of success. Essays require us to speak candidly, not hide behind the smokescreen of objectivity. Instead of producing prose that’s purged of personality, sentences ghosted by a hand that pretends it isn’t there – the stock in trade of academic writing – essayists express themselves as individuals. They leave the fingerprints of who they are upon the page. And instead of plodding through the predictable syllabus of topics that assignments examine, “the good health of essay writing”, to quote Susan Sontag again, “depends on writers continuing to address eccentric subjects.” Whether such essayistic eccentricity and education could ever make happy bedfellows is hard to say – but why not take the risk of experimenting and finding out?
© Chris Arthur