In praise of the essay

The Point would like to alert Standpoint readers to a new publisher, Notting Hill Editions, and its online journal, dedicated to the art of the essay. Sharing Standpoint‘s aim to provide its discerning readers with unashamedly highbrow pieces in an era characterised by an ethos of instant throwaway communication, Notting Hill Editions — edited by deputy books editor of the Independent, Lucasta Miller — launched yesterday with work from authors Roland Barthes and Georges Perec.

The inaugural piece on its online journal, edited by Standpoint contributor Harry Mount, was — appropriately enough — an essay on the essay, written by Lucasta Miller:

For most people, the word “essay” conjures up memories of school, and it’s usually the essays you didn’t want to write that stick in the mind. In Our Mutual Friend, Dickens made it the embodiment of pedagogical narrowness in the figure of the “small, shining, neat, methodical” Miss Peecher, who “could write a little Essay on any subject, exactly a slate long”, and whose essays were always written “strictly according to rule”.

Yet the essay is in fact one of the richest — and most unruly — genres in literature. It defiantly resists categorisation, which is perhaps why it has never accrued the corpus of academic critical commentary which surrounds, say, tragedy or the novel. Even Dr Johnson, whose Dictionary describes the essay as a “short, undigested piece”, must have known that his own definition fell short — it could hardly have encompassed the six hundred pages of systematic philosophy which made up Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding. In America, where they write “assignments” at school, the essay is more associated with high art than it is here; but it remains the ultimate miscellaneous form, outside standard literary taxonomies.

 Read the rest of the text here.

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