The blackout prose yesterday reflected my struggle to balance on the slippery arête between excessive passion and apathy. I had parked myself in a local Brixton coffee shop with the intention of re-writing my thoughts on Zadie Smith’s essay on essays, but then flailed and stuttered to a disappointing end.
This evening, and early tomorrow morning, I gave it another crack.
In The Rise of the Essay, Zadie asks:
Why do novelists write essays? Most publishers would rather have a novel. Bookshops don’t know where to put them. It’s a rare reader who seeks them out with any sense of urgency.
So, while perhaps not identical, there must be some kind of commonality amongst professional writers (which I’m certain extends to your average human, too) as to why the essay is turned towards – what’s in it for them?
I wonder … whether we all mean the same thing by the word ‘essay’, and what an essay is, exactly, these days.
For me, ‘essay’ represents laminated anxiety; it’s a relic of school that screamed and demanded my best, stole my evenings, tore it from me, told me it was average at best, and refused an opportunity to learn from or amend my mistakes. Essays meant unavoidable mistakes. Mistakes were (unavoidable) failure. Irretrievable conclusions, words you couldn’t fix. I didn’t need the sex-talk as a kid – my mates and porn had that part covered – but I really could have used someone telling me that failure was normal; failure was, in fact, good for us.
You build on failure. You use it as a stepping stone. Close the door on the past. You don’t try to forget the mistakes, but you don’t dwell on it. You don’t let it have any of your energy, or any of your time, or any of your space. Johnny Cash
Anyway, much like today’s anxiety towards tapping my online banking app, the archaic senses started tapping again upon reading the title of this … *shudder* … essay. But, to see it described by Zadie’s research as
the action or process of trying or testing; a sample, an example, a rehearsal; an attempt or endeavour; a trying to do something; a rough copy; a first draft – a composition more or less elaborate in style, though limited in range
was comforting. It’s not always going to be polished. The appeal, then, Zadie suggests, could be one of two things: its irregularity in form, or its limit in range. The former is covered first, channeling David Shields’ Reality Hunger: A Manifesto a book that, even in its own form, is
in effect, ‘built’ rather than written, the sum of many broken pieces of the real simply shored up and left to vibrate against each other in a significant arrangement. The result is thrilling to read, even if you disagree with much of it, as I do.
Zadie hints at her thoughts, using the essay’s form and permission to reflect what is, in essence, “the self” towards Shields’ disillusionment with the modern novel. Shields sees fiction,
with its neat design and completist attitude, to be a dull and generic thing, too artificial to deal effectively with what is already an ‘unbearably artificial world’. He recommends instead that artists break ‘ever larger chunks of reality into their work’, via quotation, appropriation, prose poems, the collage novel … in short, the revenge of the real, by any means necessary. And conventional structure be damned.
Initially, it made me think of George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo. The “experimental novel”, a rearranged collection of historical and fictional ‘blocks’, won the 2017 Man Booker Prize, after all. Also, Austin Kleon’s Steal Like An Artist.
Then, though, Shields becomes… bitter. Characters are “sentimental puppets”, all settings become “theatrical backdrops, wooden and painted”, and “novels that don’t look like novels” rise to become the ideal – as if this attitude was the mark of a refined literary taste of literature.
But who decides what a novel is, therefore isn’t, therefore can be considered the ideal for this position of refinement? Can someone place themselves in such a Godlike position?
Is War & Peace, with its huge tracts of undigested essay, absurd plotting and obscene length, a well-made novel? Is The Trial? And those neat Victorian novels we’re now expected casually to revile – is it not only from a distance, and in the memory, that they look as neat as they do? Which of them is truly ‘well-made’? Jane Eyre seemed hysterical and lopsided to its earliest readers; we now think of Middlemarch as the ultimate ‘proper’ novel, forgetting how eccentric and strange it looked on publication, with its unwieldy and unfeminine scientific preoccupations and moral structure.
So, while irregularity is certainly an appeal, Zadie’s essay believes that an essay’s limit is, in fact, what appeals most to the writer.
In the confined space of an essay, you have the possibility of being wise, of making your case of appearing to see deeply into things – although the thing you’re generally looking into is the self.
& my favourite line(s) are these:
When our own imaginations dry up – when, like Coetzee, we seem to have retreated, however spectacularly, to a cannibalisation of the autobiographical – it’s easy to cease believing in the existence of another kind of writing. But it does exist. And there’s no need to give up on the imaginative novel; we just need to hope for better examples.
In fact, perfect essays “abound in this world” are presented as vital opportunities to express one’s self, while the novel, “as we all know, are rarer than Haley’s comet.”
By that logic, Zadie accepts that books aren’t always good – obviously – but when they are, there’s nothing quite like it. They’re gold dust – no, stardust.
This year, Ballard’s stories, in particular, have been a revelation to me, being at once well-made, full of the supposedly contemptible components – plot, setting, character – and yet irreducibly strange in proportion.
It made me think of this quote, something I wanted to start applying to my own life:
Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work. Gustave Flaubert
While Shields wants more truth-telling in what people write,
literal truth-telling is out of place in an essay.
Even Shields himself agrees that the essay should hold imagination at its core. So, what exactly is the difference between an essay and fiction?
Oddly … it seems to be the only in the novel that the imagination must be condemned.
Both essay and novel are, as Werner Herzog described, “ecstatic truth”.