The classic essay form may seem musty to students, but far from being dead, it is poised to gain a second life in the blogosphere, argues Sven Birkerts
The academic year is under way, and the grim weekend of the syllabus is at hand - the annual ritual of preparing the course that will again try to create excitement around the essay. My first task, as always, is to make the case that the essay - reading, discussing and writing it - matters.
This is not a form of prose that students take on faith anymore. Academic papers, yes, they get those - they have to - and articles in magazines. But with the essay, the first association for many of my students is with the old, old days, kettles on hobs, gentlemen with their legs propped up to ease the gout: shades of Hazlitt, Lamb and the educated moneyed class for which "A Dissertation on Roast Pig" was a staple refinement. The American incarnation, likewise, has more than a bit of grey in its beard. Excellent as they are, the classic essays of E. B. White, James Thurber and Eudora Welty seem predicated on a stable order, an assumption of common literate reference and a certain disgruntled humour more commonly shared by readers of a certain age.
At the level of preconception, the essay represents the old order. It is still seen as a kind of vehicle for summings-up, for pronouncements, and in the hands of some of these earlier practitioners it was sometimes just that - a strong, delightful, civilised art form.
But this is not what my students want to hear and not what I want to teach. Planning my course, its rationale, I hark back to the first conception - the one put in practice by the founding master of the form, Michel de Montaigne - which always brings the etymology of the word to life. The familiar noun originates in the verb "to essay", which means "to try, to venture", and it is there I always turn first, for, if the considered pronouncement is anathema to 20-year-olds in 2006, the improvisatory, exploratory possibility has never been more relevant.
Rather than being a used-up form, an expression suited to a more intellectually settled world, the essay is poised to achieve a second life in our complex hyper-driven culture. I see it as an ideal medium of response and reflection, adjustable in scale from a few short pages to more ambitious lengths (much as the short story can span the gamut from sketchy aperçu to near-novella), and it is open to a full range of voices, from the antic anecdotal sketches of a David Sedaris to the more considered thematic meanderings of a Phillip Lopate. Best of all, it is structurally malleable. ncreasingly these days, it makes use of different strategies of collage and lyric juxtaposition, both of which reflect the evolution of contemporary sensibility.
This malleability may well prove to be the salvation of the form, allowing it to evolve into the platform for considered self-expression in a world becoming more overwhelming by the moment. To confirm that the need exists - and is indeed growing - I need point only to the proliferation of blogs. People are possibly more driven than they have ever been to mark out their interests, to vent their thoughts and biases, and to do so not in the pages of a diary but rather in a public format. And when I go trolling around - looking mainly at literary blogs, admittedly - nothing could be more clear: these postings, long and short, interrupted and resumed, resemble nothing so much as essays in draft form. If the form sometimes seems to be languishing, the impulse itself lives.
The question is whether the essay itself will flourish or be superseded by this new, less formal incarnation. It may be too early to say for sure. Part of the answer has to do with the health of magazine and book publishing. Blogs are like mushrooms sprouting in damp, fertile soil, but the essayist looking to publish - this I know from hard experience - must turn mainly to low-circulation venues, literary journals and the like, and be cunning and resourceful besides. In a culture abounding in documentary prose, in flash takes on trends and op-ed excitements, there is little place for the more artfully fashioned entity that is the essay.
And yet, at the same time, with some modifications, no form is better suited to expressing the way we live - and not just in its blog incarnations. For it must be said, if blogs satisfy the bloggers themselves, they tend to leave the reader wanting - wanting exactly what an essay could supply: a more complexly fashioned, more finished, more lastingly resonant version of things.
This semester I am offering for the first time a course called "The lyric essay", my attempt to smuggle a somewhat radically minded wolf in under the sheep's wool of the word "lyric". What I hope to explore with my students are the possibilities of the new - what happens when the essay shakes off its dutiful demeanour, its traditional pretence to closure, and takes up the challenge of a more open-ended approach to subject matter.
The essays we will read and discuss - by writers such as Susan Sontag, Anne Carson and Albert Goldbarth, to name just a few - differ from their more straight-up predecessors in several ways. For one thing, they do not necessarily march forward logically but present their elements associatively, sometimes without obvious connective tissue; or they combine their materials more in the manner of collage, juxtaposing several themes or kinds of narrative sequences. In some ways, they adopt the resources of poetry.
The beauty of the lyric essay is that, more than other kinds of prose, it offers a means of responding to the variegated and fragmented character of contemporary life. Unlike the full-length book, it can compress its elements, diverse as they might be, in the unified field of the writer's intent. The essay, moreover, can model in its structural dynamics both the unfolding and the provisional wrap-up of a single reflective occasion.
A piece such as Annie Dillard's Total Eclipse moves with deft assurance through anecdotal reflection, poetic association, rigorous observation and scientific documentation. The work is just long enough to create a weave of suitable complexity and just short enough to absorb in one focused sitting.
I have been talking about essays of the looser sort, the outlook for the future, but what about the traditional subject-centred exposition or the so-called academic essay? Here we might look for a different, possibly more (to coin an expression) pyrrhic solace. The same forces that create diffusion in our daily lives also put considerable pressure on the culture of reading. Where people have less time and possibly a good deal less capacity for simple directed concentration, the book - the comprehensive, demanding book - is the first casualty. We already see the growing market success of ventures such as short-version biographies and distillations of various bodies of lore. This would seem to augur well for the essay. Not necessarily for the close-focus scholarly product - "Lexical transformation in the Venerable Bede", say - but certainly for the sort that does the work of engaged reflective overview.
There is no question that our literary culture is undergoing profound transformations, precisely the kind that demand serious reflection, interpretation, opinion and exploration - the very qualities that have since the time of Montaigne been the raison d'être of the essay. The kettle, you could say, is off the hob, and the cursor is winking steadily.
Sven Birkerts is the author of five books of literary essays and a memoir. He will publish Reading Life , a look at formative novels, and Then, Again: The Art of Literary Memoir with Graywolf Press next year. He is Briggs-Copeland lecturer at Harvard University and editor of the journal Agni .