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Dorothy W.

Very interesting post! Have you read the intro to Phillip Lopate's anthology of essays? I thought that one dealt with the definition issue pretty well. The title of that book helps me out too -- The Art of the Personal Essay -- personal as distinguished from something more journalistic or purely factual. Not all essays have personal elements, but Lopate is helpfully limiting the field a little bit. I don't think there are clear-cut distinctions at all -- more of a spectrum of essay writing, I guess. Journalism is more interested in news as it happens; essays can deal with "news" but they try to take a larger perspective, and sometimes a personal one. I also like to think of essays in terms of the French word "essai" -- an attempt. An essay is an exploration, an attempt to say something or discover something in words.

I'm certainly not helping you out with categories though -- I'm muddying things up I'm afraid.


I checked out the Lopate book, started to read the intro, then it was recalled. I did buy it, but I have not gotten back to it! When I was reading the intro to the Best Essays book--it said: "By the 1960s Tom Wolfe (and many others) pioneered a new mode of creative journalism that audaciously incorporated literary techniques from other genres into the standard mag profile or feature article. Unlike the established essay, this branch of literary NF was not easily identifiable and at first sparked a great deal of controversy: how much was accurate reporting? How much was fiction? Was it possible that journalism could also be imaginative? was creative NF--a term then coming into vogue-- not so much a necessary literary designation as an oxymoron? By the mid-80s, we had launched the series, it had become impossible to ignore the cultural impact of literary journalism. To restrict the Best Amer Essays to the older (but still vital) genre would, I thought, seriously limit the books and prevent them from reflecting the ways in which narrative reporting had reinvigorated the essay". So this is my dilemma. I get personal sorts of essays and I get straight forward journalism, it is some of the other stuff (not necessarily straight news) that I am wondering about. There seems to be some crossover there in the middle, and I am not sure which way to categorize it!


I recommend the introduction to Lopate's book too. He goes into great detail about what an essay is and isn't. But of course, Danielle, it starts to get fuzzy around the edges, just like my question about what a short story is.

Dorothy W.

Great quotation, but notice all the questions! The author doesn't really know what to do with it either. Can we call it creative journalism or literary journalism, even though the labels sound contradictory, and just live with the contradictions? I'm not sure either. But I do like this sort of writing.


With regard to the Huxley quote and the three poles: Seems to me that the first, the personal and autobiographical, is what could be called memoir. Yet, I wouldn't call most memoirs I've read essays. The second pole, the objective, factual and concrete, clearly defines journalism, but much more can fit into that category. I'm tempted to use 'history' as an example, but I think all history is 'revisionist', meaning subject to interpretation. But I realize that can be a 'fighting word': I regularly get into wonderful, spirited lunchtime debates on this topic with a coworker. The third pole, the abstract-universal, seems to me to be an important unifying element in an essay. Without it, the factual is "just" journalism, the memoir "just" the retelling of one's selective memories, or a diary entry. Seems to me that the abstract-universal is what connects with the reader and elevates a piece of exposition to something worth reading -- and reading again. In this regard, I think Huxley's next statement that most essayists are at home in only two of these areas does not hold water: it seems to me that for an essay to be considered a good piece of writing and of interest to a reader, it needs contain, in varying proporation, some of each category. Perhaps you could argue that the personal/autobiographical would not need to be included, but I would consider it as not needing to be stated. Certainly one's biases would be in the writing.

I'm unfamiliar with the Huxley quotation and it's larger context, so maybe this isn't what he meant.

A very interesting post, Danielle!


When I see the word "essay" I automatically think about academic articles! Maybe that has put me off reading them for pleasure in the last few years...

Still, my favourite essayist (although whether you'd call them essays or not is debatable) is Viriginia Woolf, who brings such vigour and lyricism to her personal opinions. She *always* convinces me that I agree with her 100%. :-)


What type of essays do you like to read? I really have a hard time with them, unless they're related to a show I love; those are the only ones I seem to be able to get "into" lately.


As for the 1000 copy limit, well, hopefully the internet will start to change all that. Books can be kept on servers and then simply printed out as and when people want them, thus not causing publishers to worry about warehouses full of unwanted stock. It might mean that more experimental and unusual work gets a chance to be read.

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