A fascinating conference at Queen Mary, University of London, brings together writers to talk about the neglected genre, the literary essay in the context of English literary history.
Since Montaigne, the essay has been, alongside fiction, poetry, and drama, one of the major genres of literature, distinguished by its appeal to personal experience rather than institutional approval for authority. It is an intimate forum in which difficult political, scientific, and philosophical issues can be introduced to the general public, and to one another. Yet the essay has been almost completely neglected in literary studies, and in contemporary culture there is little understanding of the genre’s history and importance. Its distinctive forms – experimental, exploratory, polemical, introspective, or conversational – have not been charted; nor have the themes which mark the essay through its history: dissent, whimsy, experience, experiment, conversation, unconscious experience, frailty, amateurism, friendship, and intimacy. In the public arena opportunities to publish essays are now very few: the tradition which passes from Johnson’s Idler, through the Edinburgh Review, the Westminster Gazette, Hound and Horn, the Dial, the Athenaeum, the Criterion, Horizon, and – finally, perhaps – Encounter – is practically at an end. Hazlitt and Lamb would have few opportunities to publish their essays nowadays. This conference seeks to remedy this neglect, bringing together academics, novelists, and essayists, creating an opportunity for ideas to be exchanged, stimulated, and disseminated. Continue reading “the return of the literary essay”