Joanna Kavenna

The Long & Short of It

Essayism

By

Fitzcarraldo Editions 138pp £10.99 order from our bookshop

Let us turn, dear reader, to the essay. What is it? Sometimes people claim it is dead, but then people claim literary forms are dead all the time and they stagger on, nonetheless, for further centuries or millennia. Aldous Huxley described the essay as ‘one damned thing after another’; Virginia Woolf argued that its sole purpose is to ‘give pleasure’, leading to the inevitable caveat that one person’s pleasure might be another person’s agony, and so on. Yet Woolf also meant that the essayist must be deeply solicitous of the reader, like a charming dinner party guest. More recently we have seen the rise of the ‘personal essay’ – like a dinner party guest who tells you in great detail about their favourite sexual positions or, worse, their recent loft conversion. With the personal essay, everything must be ‘true’ or the writer may be found out and rebuked. To add to the fun, we have also recently witnessed the rise of fictional essays or essayistic fictions, in which nothing must be ‘true’ at all. Thus we might join Edward Hoagland in denouncing the essay as a ‘greased pig’ and leave it at that.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter

  • Last Tweets

    • Why did the 'bold and determined' Empress Matilda never manage to become Queen regnant? Peter Marshall reviews a n… ,
    • From the Archive: Martyn Bedford on Ian McEwan's 'Atonement' ,
    • In 'Silenced Voices' reports the ongoing story of the human rights lawyer, Nasrin Sotoudeh, who has been… ,
    • The mystery of Jack the Ripper's identity has long been agonised over. But what do we know about his victims?… ,
    • A piece of Literary Review history from way back in 1983: John Haffenden talks to the great Iris Murdoch. ,
    • Britain’s only travelling lit fest, the Garden Museum Literary Festival is heading to Houghton Hall, Norfolk, for a… ,
    • 'The 19th-century German sage is not my idea of a pleasant travel companion' goes hiking with Friedr… ,