Blogs and Essays

As a blogger who is fundamentally drawn to the medium as a way of producing brief essays, I was very intrigued to find, via the highly talented Jean, this blog post exploring the relationship between blogging and the essay form, as resurrected in the twenty-first century. The impetus for the discussion comes from the recent publication of an anthology of essays. The book review editors at The New York Times have a blog, apparently, and reviewing the publication, express first of all the usual tedious sentiments about blogging being only for the ADHD fraternity, before expressing some restrained respect for a small minority of bloggers who do in fact foster the traditional format of the essay as a speculative space in which an issue is thought out loud on paper (or on a screen, in this case). I agreed with much of what was said in the Cassandra pages post, but I felt that the opportunities of the internet were underplayed. The essay has fallen out of favour because it is not sensational enough for the contemporary media, but the web, and especially blogging, provides the only place where you can write and publish a very particular literary form that it would be a huge loss to render extinct.

Let me tell you why I think the essay is extremely important. Most published forms tell stories, be they fiction, non-fiction or journalism. In each case the material put forward for consumption has a certain shapeliness, a self-awareness of its own patternings, and an underlying message. They are all forms of persuasion, in other words, with varying degrees of force deployed to win the audience over. The essay is the only place where the language of exploration resists such easy, crowd-pleasing tactics. Essays are little splinters in the soft, massy flesh of general thinking, they don’t have to be completely coherent, they don’t have to take up a position and stick to it no matter what, the way that journalism does. Instead they make a virtue of their unfinished business, their slow contemplative revolution around an issue, their sly opening up of a question rather than its triumphant closing down. It doesn’t surprise me that so much thinking in modern society, whether in politics or education or in the mass media, is alarmingly black and white because we’re surrounded by genres that peddle that approach. But the essay is a hybrid and a renegade, a piece of steadfast resistance and the kind of gentle exploration that no one has the time for anymore. Its rarity value alone makes it important.

But this is not to say that the essay lacks discipline; on the contrary, the combination of its internal elements demands a more rigorous approach from the writer than the simple seduction of the reader. Essays generally combine three dimensions; the personal or autobiographical, the informative (with that information sometimes derived from experience) and the universal or the general. What makes them special is that they hold those elements apart in their internal reasoning rather than simply mushing them together and conveniently eliding the distinctions. For instance, in the paper on the weekend I read an article that came as close as journalism ever does to the essay. In it, a woman commented on the quotation that’s hit the headlines claiming that the glass ceiling for women is now a reinforced concrete one. The journalist began by saying that women like Sarah Palin exhausted her, went on to state that the reluctance of women to reach the highest echelons of career success was based in a desire for all parts of their lives to be rewarding, and ended by congratulating herself on her sensible decision not to enter into the competitive fray. Now if this had been an essay, there would have been room for far more doubt, paradox and honesty than journalism allows. The hard-won compromises of successful women might have had time to be heard, the uncomfortably contradictory emotions of mothers who want to work might be acknowledged, the impossible decisions facing women who would like both children and a career might be explored. The writer’s personal experience would not necessarily be held out as a passing bandwagon onto which the reader could jump, but would instead remain personal, and far more provocative in the reader’s thoughts for being so. Journalism is the fast food of thought, a snack on the run that fills a hole but is far from nutritious. It has grown out of that other old-fashioned form, the pamphlet, which was a cross between publicity and propaganda, and the roots still show beneath the rhetorical bleaching. The essay, on the other hand, is a more expensive form of thought – it requires more time and attention from the reader but rewards them handsomely for the outlay. Rather than handing over pre-digested thought, it makes the reader think for themselves. A fine distinction but a highly significant one.

All of which leads me to the extraordinary capacity the internet has shown for keeping the minority interests alive in a world where the mass rules. Essays, short stories, flash fiction, poetry, experimental writing are all virtually impossible to get published today because they are insufficiently commercial. They don’t shock or provide a quick fix of something reassuringly familiar. Thank goodness, then, that if you know where to look on the web (and it isn’t that hard) you can find people producing work in these genres that doesn’t need to fear the commercial demands of compromise and conformity. Most importantly for me, the internet provides a space in which ideas and concepts can be properly discussed, not just dismissed in a few scornful or sycophantic paragraphs (and I’m sorry but journalism is all too often guilty of both). All of which makes me wonder when publishers and the mass media are going to tap into the rich material available online rather than fear it or be confused by it. I would so much like to see disciplined, reflective thought as a viable and widespread alternative to sensationalism, rather than the modest enclave it has been obliged, by the power of market forces, to become.


13 thoughts on “Blogs and Essays

  1. An excellent essayette, although I’m not sure what the true audience has ever been for the essay and to which social and intellectual groups it applied. Hasn’t it always been a minority in the mass? Still today it is like an oasis in an arena of noise, to mix similes/metaphors and all that. Glad to see you back and on such good form.

  2. So, my first response is that these are clearly not people who are reading your blog.

    The essay was so central 150 years ago, even 100 years ago. I think of Henry James’s essays and am certain that, if he were alive today, he would have a blog. Gertrude Stein would have two — one for her and one for her ego.

  3. “I would so much like to see disciplined, reflective thought as a viable and widespread alternative to sensationalism, rather than the modest enclave it has been obliged, by the power of market forces, to become.”

    I’ll second that. A nice essay of your own Litlove. One of the things I like about the internet is that it allows for so much flexibility, so much experimentation. Even within a blog there is lots of assaying going on. It’s very exciting. Montaigne would be proud 🙂

  4. Seconding Stefanie’s second! It is the ability for reflection/reconsideration/rewriting/rethinking that appeals to me in essay. Why do we need to pretend to have concrete answers all the time? Oh wait, we don’t – how wonderfully refreshing! And how sad this form of exposition has lost much of its commercial value. Not that I want it to become commercialized but it would be nice to think it could have a wider impact, maybe it would help reshape the way we approach issues?

  5. Very interesting — you’ve pinpointed exactly what it is I love about the essay genre, which is the openness of it, the chance it allows the author to explore and to ponder and to be contradictory. I think blogs can do this in individual posts, but I also think they can do it in their totality — I mean, if you consider the entire output of a blogger you really like, chances are you’ll see the kind of essayistic thinking you describe here.

  6. Great piece! I came to blogging once I realised it could be an essay: that it didn’t have to be a rant, a story of meusli and lost cats, or a basket full of nothing but links to something else. (Which isn’t to say there aren’t blogs I enjoy which aren’t any or all of those things. But I didn’t want to do them myself.) Now I go over to my blog to think: when something’s flashed up in messy, partial, un-coherent form in some other part of my life, I settle down and try to turn it into something which may well not reach a conclusion – there’s so much in writing which ends up being ‘it depends’ – but which does unpick some of the issues involved and lay them out for inspection.

    Of course the advantage of essaying on the internet is that within the form you can use links to offer origins, expansions, references and so on, if you want to. And, as you say litlove, other people can find you.

  7. When I read Beth’s blog post, I thought at once of you as one of my other favourites who writes beautiful essays on your blog. So I’m delighted you’ve taken this up. I love bringing different bits of my personal blogworld together!

  8. I really like the essay form. Since you work in this format, do you find it harder to write essays than writing creatively? And are essays and creativity (am thinking stories here) mutually exclusive? I don’t think I’ve read a single essay this year (sadly), but your post is serendipitous as I was just thinking I need to read more (like I’ve started reading short stories). It is sad these formats are not published much–just for the appreciation of the art of writing them, but then I suppose every book that’s published these days has to make money or it’s just not viable. As you say–thank goodness for the varied writing on the web!

  9. Bookboxed – hello and how nice to see you, too! If you look back to times when the essay was in vogue, it was pretty much always a genre for educated folk, but then you don’t have to look back far to see only educated folk being able to read at all. I suppose my interest is really in seeing all forms survive and live in happy variety. Given that we’re more educated now than ever before, it seems terrible that such progress should bring only dumbing down in its wake because of the need to make money. Hurray for the internet 🙂 Emily – you are a sweetie and you did make me laugh about Gertrude Stein. How true! Henry James would have adored a blog, and I’ll bet he couldn’t ever resist leaving a comment without adding a smiley. Or perhaps now I’m just entering the realm of wild fancy. Stefanie – Lol to Montaigne! Another blogging man if ever I saw one. I think people are generally very creative if you give them time and space and a cheery audience, and the internet is just great for all those things. The result means, of course, that I spend too much of my life surfing! Still, I’m not complaining. Verbivore – oh I long for ideology to shift and accept that we don’t have to have answers immediately – before any thinking is done, all too often! It’s interesting isn’t it to see that the lack of commercial interest shows how little value is placed in reflective thought. Still, I always hope for a backlash! Dorothy – what an interesting idea. Yes, I think you’re right, that you can take a blog as a whole and see the extent and range of thought within it. I like that idea very much! Emma – your timing is impeccable – I am 100 pages into The Mathematics of Love and enjoying it enormously! I like reading your blog, too, because I can watch you thinking through a little puzzle in writing and that’s very intriguing. You’re quite right – those extra features of blogs, the blogrolls, the links, the comments, situate us in a community of thought, not just a community, and that’s quite exciting in its way. Jean – oh thank you! I will be returning to Beth’s blog – what an interesting one it is. It was a great link to flag up, and I hope you’ll get a chance to respond to the piece too. What you do is always so intriguingly different and artistic. Danielle – you always ask such very good questions. I think essays (well, this is just personally) are easier to write than stories because they don’t have a plot, as such, but a structure of thought. I find it easier to follow a causal link than to imagine what ought to come next. Or perhaps it’s better to say that essays allow for all kinds of links – association, or digressions or explanations or examples as well as causality. If ever I’ve tried to write a story I’ve always floundered about, not sure where to take it, but essays offer so many paths. That being said, I think it can make them harder to read, because the reader has to keep up rather than being carried along, if you see what I mean! But it also means that short essays are more satisfying in some ways than long ones, and that’s also perfect for blogging.

  10. Really like this reflective, thoughtful style and your indirect encouragement to use blogs as a way of thinking things through. I’m despairing at the thought of a possible PhD and think it would be a lot more fun to write a whole lot of blog-posts instead. The feedback would also help a lot. And as you say, the linking up with thoughtful people really makes blogging worthwhile.

  11. Well, I have the same response everyone else does – a very fine essay of your own! A well-written essay I believe can be as satisfying as any fiction every written, and it challenges the mind in an entirely different way. I also agree that i have found better writing on the web than I do any more in traditional formats, but for the most part I am a traditional girl and would like to see the web tapped for its talent and translated into more traditional materials…

  12. Glad I read this litlove. My own notions about the distinction between the essay and the journalistic article are quite vague, because of the wide spectrum available for both. Sometimes they seem to blend (I recall some of the sports articles by Verlyn Klinkenborg and David Foster Wallace), and sometimes not. However, your distinction – beautifully precise as always – holds up quite well for the majority of journalistic articles that I read and feel dissatisfied about. As venerable a publication as the New York Times is, most of the political opinion pages, written by supposedly respected journalists, suffer from radically oversimplified material. It is as if everyone buys the right v. left, Republican v. Democrat distinction wholesale and is ideologically, if not physically, on the payroll of their constituency.

  13. Being a great fan of the essay format, I am so pleased to see you champion blogging as a way of invigorating this style of writing. I agree that essays “make a virtue of their unfinished business, their slow contemplative revolution around an issue, their sly opening up of a question rather than its triumphant closing down.” Reading a good essay works like a gentle electrical prod in my own thinking, rather than the didactical hammer which so much of today’s writing tends to bring down in my mind.

    Wonderful post! Bravo!

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