Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Essays? Like them or not?

Zadie Smith talks about the essay in the Guardian:

For Samuel Johnson in 1755 it is: "A loose sally of the mind; an irregular undigested piece; not a regularly and orderly composition." And if this looks to us like one of Johnson's lexical eccentricities, we're chastened to find Joseph Addison, of all people, in agreement ("The wildness of these compositions that go by the name of essays") and behind them both three centuries of vaguely negative connotation. Beginning in the 1500s an essay is: the action or process of trying or testing; a sample, an example; a rehearsal; an attempt or endeavour; a trying to do something; a rough copy; a first draft. Not until the mid 19th century does it take on its familiar, neutral ring: "a composition more or less elaborate in style, though limited in range." Which is it, though, that attracts novelists – the comforts of limit or the freedom of irregularity?

I love reading really good ones--but there are so many mediocre essays in the world it's hard to find the gems. Does anyone have any recommendations? I like pieces that are willing to range across disciplines, particularly things like history, language, anthropology, economics and neuroscience. But I'll read almost anything if it's good enough.

I love writing essays, too. I write them less often since I began blogging. But I have a lot--and they're all over the map, but they always try to connect the dots of a variety of disciplines and/or genres. It's been interesting to work with Kelley on the last two, figuring out how to make our (very) different processes mesh. It's not just that our 'writing' process is different, it's that our personal non-fiction and fiction processes are different, too, and what I know about novel writing doesn't apply to an essay on, say, gendered language. (I need to rewrite that essay; some of it is wrong. I know more now than I did then...)

Anyway, as I say, I have a lot of essays now, a book's worth, and was wondering what the market might be like for a collection. Any thoughts on the matter will be happily received...

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