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From ancient influences on the essay as a form of rhetoric to the Irish essay as performance, from British imperial propaganda to African postcolonial resistance, from political pamphlets to the rise of literary professionalism, from gastronomy to ecocriticism, The Cambridge History of the British Essay offers the first authoritative single-volume history of the form's development within the British literary tradition. It restores to the contemporary understanding of the essay an appreciation of its true richness and diversity. The fifty contributors to this volume come from widely diverse backgrounds and areas of expertise that brings out neglected pockets of essayistic activity, by women, by persons of colour, by poets and pamphleteers. Together, they show how the form morphs to serve new contexts and concerns, remaining a vital genre of literary 'attempt' in the fields of journalism, academic study, autobiography and other forms of life writing, and online language arts.
This chapter argues that generic distinctions between the essay and the novel have historically been difficult to preserve, with many of the supposedly identifying features of each genre applying in practice to the other. The author surveys work by writers including Milan Kundera, Robert Musil, Zadie Smith, and Virginia Woolf.
Essayism, when imagined as a constructive approach to existence, is a blanket of possibilities draped consciously on the world.
Might it not strike us as curious, given the defining role of indefiniteness in our thinking about the essay, that we so often encounter the idea that it is a form of nonfiction? ‘[T]he essay belongs, obviously, in the category of nonfiction’, avers G. Douglas Atkins, ‘and from it we expect, certainly, honesty as well as candor and fidelity to historical and biographical truth, in addition to accuracy of representation’.Considering the indefiniteness abovementioned, there are no doubt many scholars of the essay who would pause before such an emphatic statement of expectation. In an essay published in the New York Times, Christy Wampole writes:
I recently taught a graduate seminar on the topic and, at the end of the course, to the question ‘What can we say of the essay with absolute certainty?,’ all of us, armed with our panoply of canonical essay theories and our own conjectures, had to admit that the answer is: ‘Almost nothing.’
Similar admissions abound in the critical literature. But even Wampole describes the essay as ‘nonfiction prose’.In his introduction to Best American Essays 2007, David Foster Wallace – while acknowledging ‘all the noodling and complication involved in actually trying to define the term “essay”’ – declares a preference for the term ‘literary nonfiction’, implying a significant degree of overlap, if not outright interchangeability.Robert Atwan, though conceding that essays ‘emerge from the same creative urgency as do short stories and poems’, clearly labels them ‘nonfiction’.That it is nonfiction might be the second-most agreed upon of our certitudes about the essay – right after the fact that we do not really have any.
In the following pages, with the hope of deepening our sense of the essay’s categorial ambiguity, I want to lend my voice to recent efforts to problematize this idea. Indeed, I want to invite the reader to consider whether the assumptions implicit in the term ‘nonfiction’ undermine the indeterminacy we often note – and sometimes claim to prize – in the essay as a mode of writing, reading and thinking. This will involve arguing that the kind of thinking the essay embodies or experience it evokes is, as Claire de Obaldia phrases it, ‘closer, in a sense, to the “as if” of fiction’.
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