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.
Fortunately, Brian Dillon has not left it at that whatsoever and has instead crafted a beautiful and original book about ‘essayism’, a term that partly invokes the unnerving process of writing essays when you are not remotely sure what they are and why you are writing them. He