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.