A personal and critical account of the essay genre - its history, possibilities and contradictions.
The essay is a venerable form that may well be the genre of the future. It has its origins in a mode of self-examination and even self-obsession“ 'it is many years now that I have had only myself as object of my thoughts', writes Montaigne in his essay 'Of Practice' - but it is just as accurately defined by its vagrant and curious scope, its capacity to suborn any and every object to its elegant remit. It may not in fact be 'well made' at all, but a thing of fragments and unfinished aperçus, or an omnium-gatherum like Robert Burton's capacious but recognizably essayistic 'Anatomy of Melancholy'. The essay may not even be written, but instead a photo essay, film essay, radio essay or some hybrid of these and the literary archetype. It may belong to a self-conscious genre and have been written by an essayist who self-declares as such; or it might be conjured from a milieu where the labels 'essay' and 'essayist' would make no sense at all. The essay, in short, is a varied and various artefact. Its occasion might be scholarly - there are academic essays, though they tend to be essays to the extent that they wish to stop being academic - or it may be journalistic, institutional or 'creative'. The essay can be tethered to a specific (perhaps polemical) context or written with an ambition to timeless or universal import. Whatever its motivation or avowed theme, the essay possesses a style and a voice. Generic, structural and contextual definitions will vary, but the essay is at least recognizable by its having a certain texture - the essay alters or interferes to some degree with the language of non-fiction. ESSAYISM is a personal, critical and polemical book about the genre, its history and its contemporary possibilities, itself an example of what it describes: an essay that is curious and digressive and at the same time held together by a personal voice and a polemical point.
Logical, stylish, digressive, halfway between tradition and experiment, this book is a perfect example of what it describes.
»A romp through the major practitioners in the essay tradition from Michel de Montaigne to Susan Sontag.«
»Brian Dillon is a 'mournful, witty and original writer,' our critic Parul Sehgal says. In this book, he expresses his love for the form of the essay and for the work of those who have practiced it, including Elizabeth Hardwick, Susan Sontag and Montaigne. The 'crystalline pieces' of this book, Sehgal says, offer 'a sense, never belabored, of the stakes of creating essays and the consolations of loving them.«
New York Times
»ESSAYISM is what Martin Amis might describe as a 'slim vol.' - a small, beautiful book with an austerely embossed cover and deep gutters around its dense interior text. ... Its writer admits to us that he has 'no clue how to write about the essay as a stable entity or established class, how to trace its history diligently from uncertain origins through successive phases of literary dominance' - and praise be for that. ... ESSAYISM is the story of intense unhappiness and the possibility of happiness. ... It is joyfully, wonderfully good.«
Sydney Review of Books
»Brian Dillon has written a moving and vulnerable love letter to the essay as a genre - a region wherein fragmentation provides secret consolation. Depression and essayism, he brilliantly demonstrates, are twins. His own language has never been so sharp, suggestive, coiled - deliciously given over to idiosyncrasy. Interpretive treats abound: Dillon's appreciations of Hardwick, Barthes, Sebald, and other fellow travellers are beautiful acts of critical generosity and acumen. All these wonders occur within a shattering account of literature's power not to alleviate gloom but to justify (by illuminating) the fits and starts of consciousness.«
Wayne Koestenbaum, author of 'Humiliation'
»Written in lucid, exacting and unsentimental prose, ESSAYISM is a vital book for people who turn to art - and especially writing - for consolation.«
Lauren Elkin, Guardian
»[A] beautiful and original book about "essayism" ... Partly memoir, partly disquisition on mortal peril and how to read your way through (some of) it, this is a brilliantly adventurous, clever and moving book.«
Joanna Kavenna, Literary Review
»It is somewhat unseemly for a critic to confess that their immediate reaction to a book is one of unremitting envy. But Brian Dillon's study of the essay is so careful and precise in its reading of a constellation of authors - Derrida and Barthes, Didion and Sontag, Browne and Burton, Woolf and Carlos Williams, Cioran and Perec - that my overall feeling was jealousy. ... A remarkable meditation on memory ... above all he claims to admire style, and he is exceptionally good at defining the styles he likes. ... His account of depression is reflected in thinking about the essay. Is it something composed of fragments and shards? Is it a coolly organised progression? Is it about confession? Is it about concealment? The book's excellence lies in the way these paradoxes are held suspended. ... The book, ultimately, is about how literature can make a difference. It is a beautiful and elegiac volume. I can give no greater compliment than to say that having read it, I re-read it.«
Stuart Kelly, New Statesman
»Erudite and elegiac ... ESSAYISM is a constellation of close readings, its arguments coming to the fore through the repetition and rhyme between its sections. Dillon can locate the single comma or dash whose placement somehow sums up a writer's aesthetic commitments (he does especially graceful work with Hardwick's sentences).«
Will Rees, Times Literary Supplement
»[A] wonderful, subtle and deceptively fragmentary little book ... enjoyably roundabout and light-fingered ... To borrow from one of Barthes's titles, this is a lover's discourse, the love object being writing, not only in the essay but in all its forms. It is also a testament to the consolatory, even the healing, powers of art. And at the last, in its consciously diffident fashion - Dillon is a literary flaneur in the tradition of Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin - it is its own kind of self-made masterpiece.«
John Banville, Irish Times
»Brian Dillon could easily have written another book about the essay - its hallmarks, history, current role in literary turf wars, etc. What a relief, then, to find his ESSAYISM navigating away, in its opening pages, from such a project, and turning instead toward this surprising, probing, edifying, itinerant, and eventually quite moving book, which serves as both an autobiographia literaria and a vital exemplar of how deeply literature and language can matter in a life.«
Maggie Nelson, author of 'The Argonauts'
»Dillon's brilliantly roaming, roving set of essays on essays is a recursive treasure, winkling out charm, sadness and strangeness; stimulating, rapturous and provocative in its own right.«
Olivia Laing, author of 'The Lonely City'
»This book may hover (inter alia) around Montaigne's famous tumble from his horse; only, in Dillon's hands, it's the essay itself that's tumbling, crashing through the strata of its history, all its previous landscapes (those of Woolf, Hardwick, Blanchot, Cioran...) fragmenting and spinning in delirious recombinations.«
Tom McCarthy, author of 'Satin Island'
»A human brain stewed in the pits and pleasures of language is one committed to glorious and erudite disarray. A brain in love with the beauty of broad systems as equally as the algebraic minutiae of detail will move, like a carpenter, between hopeless wasted fragments and those startlingly hewn lattices of logic that launch ideas like spores in the wind. Dillon champions this gymnastic brain, and his own, here in ESSAYISM, embodies the long shadows and descriptive delicacies of many essayist masters: it is a searing and addictive voice, ambitious to probe all corners of this condition called writing.«
Helen Marten, winner of 2016 Turner Prize
»The consolation that essays offer seems to be less a matter of their meaning - the consolation of philosophy, conventionally regarded - than the magic of phrasing, verbal formulas capable of becoming mantras of a sophisticated sort, gaining power from repeated contemplation.«
Adam Mars-Jones, London Review of Books
»ESSAYISM is a quiet and forceful triumph, an attractive, smart defence of stylistic subjectivity and aestheticism, and its direct bearing on life, themes too often ignored or slighted in the wake of anaesthetizing theoretical framework.«
Nicolas Liney, Oxonian Review
»[A] wise, humane and stylish book.«
Joe Humphreys, Irish Times
English, Fitzcarraldo Editions
on behalf of Fitzcarraldo Editions
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© Chris Dixon
Brian Dillon is a writer and critic. His books include Essayism, The Great Explosion (shortlisted for the Ondaatje Prize), Objects in This Mirror: Essays, I Am Sitting in a Room, Sanctuary, Tormented Hope: Nine Hypochondriac Lives (shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize) and In the Dark Room, which won the Irish Book Award for non-fiction. His writing has appeared in the Guardian, New York Times, London Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement, Bookforum, frieze and Artforum. He is UK editor of Cabinet magazine and Professor of Creative Writing at Queen Mary, University of London as well as Visiting Professor in Writing at the Royal College of Art.