Are Essays Viable in the Twenty-First Century?

March 30, 2010 § Leave a comment

Patrick Madden, editor of the enormously-wonderful website Quotidiana, and author of the equally-wonderful new essay collection Quotidiana, blogs this week over at The Huffington Post on where the classical essay fits in the current literary spectrum.

An excerpt:

I love essays in general, present and past, which has driven me to spend all sorts of time I don’t have on collecting them … And it sometimes makes me lament that the term essay itself has fallen into disfavor. Just mention the word and watch people’s eyes glaze over, hear them stammer out apologetic platitudes and poorly veiled excuses. People don’t want to read essays. Or they think they don’t.

The biggest (and saddest) cause of this, I believe, is that the word essay has been hijacked, blasphemed, forced into service for the enemy. If by “essay” we mean a punishment assigned in school, a brief bit of prose designed as a rhetorical proof of somebody else’s ideas, then me, too: I hate those things …  But if we mean what Samuel Johnson meant–a “loose sally of the mind; an irregular, undigested piece”–if we agree with Montaigne, the father of the form, that “it is a thorny undertaking…to follow a movement so wandering as that of our mind, to penetrate the opaque depths of its innermost folds,” yet we make the intent anyway … then count me in! And maybe others will find this form of writing viable, agreeable, enjoyable even!

And the rest of it can be found here, at Huffington Books.

Also, check out the Atlantic Wire re-post/response. They’ve flip-flopped the title to ask “Is the Essay Dead?” and the comments section is rather rough and tumble.

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