Every now and then, a university invites me to come and talk to students about ‘The Essay’. I welcome the opportunity of sharing my fascination with this literary form. It’s also good to have a chance to interact with students. Hearing about what they’re reading, what they’re writing, the ideas that excite them, what they care about, is both interesting in itself and a good way of keeping my finger on the pulse of a constituency I hope will read my books.
Usually I enjoy these occasions. Sometimes, though, I feel like an impostor. I’m almost always asked as part of a creative writing course’s programme of visiting speakers. But the invitations come from English departments and my audience sometimes assumes that I’ll have a background in this discipline. They expect me to be able to talk about the genre with the authority of a literary scholar, providing them with expert historical and critical perspectives informed by up-to-the-minute familiarity with the latest research.
In fact I have no training in English literature. My degrees are in another subject area entirely. Yes, I’m an experienced essayist, with eight collections to my name, but I’ve never explored the origin, development, or nature of this form of writing with the rigour of an academic approach. My genre knowledge, such as it is, has been acquired along the way, in a manner that inclines more to the haphazard than the systematic. To a scholar’s gimlet eye, I must appear woefully unqualified when I stand up to talk about ‘The Essay’.
To try to make sure I’m not speaking under false pretences and that I won’t disappoint expectations, I’ve learnt to make clear on these occasions that I’m a practitioner not a scholar (I do likewise whenever editors ask me to write something ‘about the essay form’). Writing is my primary interest; I want to create new essays not write about existing ones. But the frequent assumption that I’ll possess the requisite knowledge to present and analyze the genre as well as working in it has sparked a set of questions I often find myself mulling over.
How much does a practitioner need to know about the genre in which they’re writing? As an essayist, should I immerse myself in studying the history of the essay? Do I require a grasp of the key figures who laid the foundations of this type of literature? Should I be able to trace a bloodline showing how the work of contemporary essayists relates to – arises out of – the efforts of their literary predecessors? In order to write essays effectively, do I need a knowledge of the evolution and development of this type of writing, together with an understanding of the many diverse manifestations in which it can occur? Or is writing essays entirely independent of knowing about the essay as a genre?
Sometimes, far from its absence feeling like a deficiency, I wonder if the presence of academic knowledge might hinder my efforts. Instead of acting as a facilitator to spur my writing on, give it an edge by honing it against cognate work, would a grasp of the wider context be more like a ball and chain, shackling me to external norms and expectations? Would an increase in expertise mean a decrease in the individuality that’s so crucial to essay writing?
Theodor Adorno suggests that ‘the law of the innermost form of the essay is heresy’. I agree. As the etymology of its very name makes clear, the essay is an experimental genre, it consists of tries, attempts. It often fails. If conformity is anathema to it, would it be helpful for me to cultivate the sense of a tradition that an academic approach would foster? The idea of there being key texts, founding figures, identifying features – some sort of orthodoxy, even a canon – swims against the current of the essay’s essential water.
Of course such questions are not unique to essayists. Similar ones face writers in other genres. Are those engaged in long-form fiction meant to know about the origin and development of the novel? Is it a reasonable expectation that a poet, as well as being adept at writing verse, should be able to define what a poem is, know the history of poetry, be able to compare and contrast the dynamics of a sonnet and a villanelle? Alongside their script for a new TV production, should playwrights have a working knowledge of the different forms of drama and the literary theories by which scholars analyze them, be competent in outlining similarities and differences between, say, Greek tragedy and theatre of the absurd?
To put it in a nutshell: how does a critical grasp of a type of literature relate to the creative effort to produce it?
Proposing a strict division of labour sometimes seems best. This means stressing that I’m an essayist, not a literary scholar, and that my business is to write essays not study them. If you want definitions, histories, critical analyses, ask someone else. In the same way that pilots fly what’s been designed and built by aeronautical engineers, so writers might take the view that they fly the language, but that they’re no more obliged to understand its mechanics than pilots are to know about the blueprint of the engines they rely on to get airborne.
I don’t find that analogy convincing, but I am drawn to the way some writers shrug off responsibility for the kind of theoretical underpinning that academics possess. Chris Offutt’s ‘definitions are for the writer what ornithology is for the birds’ is appealing in its crisp dismissal of the need to know about. I also like Joseph Brodsky’s claim that ‘in writing, what one accumulates is not expertise but uncertainties’. Indeed ‘in this field […] expertise invites doom’. Writers can thereby excuse themselves from any obligation to study the literary form in which they’re working. If expertise threatens to clip the wings of creativity – which should surely be as free as any ornithology-ignoring bird – then best avoid it.
But I don’t think things are quite that simple. Putting writers and academics into separate territories may be tempting, but the boundaries between them are so porous, permeable and shifting as to be of little use. Often academics are gifted writers; writers often possess considerable scholarly nous.
One of the standard pieces of advice given to creative writing students is to stress how important it is to read. As the estimable Mary Oliver says, ‘To write well it is entirely necessary to read widely and deeply’. Would any writer disagree with that? And would it not be curious, to say the least, if a writer’s reading always avoided anything that examined their genre of choice? I’m not saying that writers have to wrestle with the kind of specialized intricacies that characterize an academic approach, simply that they’re likely to include, as part of their reading life, some material that will further their genre knowledge.
Increasingly, my essay writing has become paired with an interest in what this form of writing is, where it came from, what its points of reference are, how it’s changed and remained the same over the centuries. And one of the privileges and pleasures of being an essayist has been reading the work of, and engaging in correspondence with, some of the leading scholars on the essay form. Reading Montaigne, consulting articles in the Encyclopedia of the Essay, and exchanging emails and letters with such authorities as Richard Chadbourne, Graham Good, and Lydia Fakundiny doesn’t constitute a prerequisite for writing essays. Nor does it mean I’ve mastered all the minutia of the essay as a field of academic expertise. But I like to think that this acquiring of knowledge about the genre, far from inviting any doom, has had a positive impact on my writing in it.
Maybe it’s just a case of writers making sure they stay in charge of what they’re doing; that they don’t end up imprisoned in literary orthodoxies. I find a comment of Ted Hughes’s a helpful touchstone here. I’m not sure where he originally made it, but it’s quoted as epigraph to Wendy Cope’s beautifully constructed – and very funny – poem, ‘A Policeman’s Lot’. Hughes says that ‘the progress of any writer is marked by those moments when he manages to outwit his own inner police system’. I’m wary of developing my genre knowledge too far in case doing so might reinforce my inner police system and make it harder to outwit it. Essays depend on such outwitting. As Lydia Fakundiny put it, ‘if an essay doesn’t at some point surprise the writer, it probably isn’t worth writing’. Such surprises would, I think, be less likely to happen if my literary self-consciousness was systematic, detailed, comprehensive, its idiosyncrasies ironed out by the metal of an academic discipline.
Specialist knowledge opens fascinating doors of insight and facilitates a depth of understanding that would be impossible without it. But those who immerse themselves in it can be curiously blinkered — sometimes to the extent of fitting Marshall McLuhan’s description of a specialist: someone ‘who never makes small mistakes while moving toward the grand fallacy’. I’d much rather leave myself open to making a slew of minor errors than become enslaved to the kind of painstaking correctness that would stop me taking the imaginative risks that essay writing calls for.