In these shouty times, the art of the essay matters more than ever

Ed Smith's "Left Field" column.

Michel de Montaigne
Michel de Montaigne. Image: Getty Images

I’ve just reread Hugh Trevor-Roper’s masterly five-page essay, “Thomas Hobbes”. The power of the genre emerges as strongly as the clarity of the mind. How is this for concision? “The axiom, fear; the method, logic; the conclusion, despotism.” After precis, surprise: Trevor-Roper’s most provocative hypothesis appears unannounced, just before the end, an almost accidental reflection. “That his psychology was inadequate, elementary and wrong is an irrelevant objection. The function of genius is not to give new answers, but to pose new questions, which time and mediocrity can resolve.”

Having dropped the bombshell, the author departs the scene, with a lightness of conscience that a more exhaustive genre would not allow. The essay allows that kind of freedom. “It [the essay] says what is at issue and stops where it feels itself complete – not where there is nothing left to say,” wrote Theodor Adorno.

Trevor-Roper, of course, was an essayist in the mainstream printed media as well as a professional historian. Would he find it so easy, in today’s environment, to reach such a wide readership while still writing at the top of his intellectual game? In recent years newspapers have become even choppier and more led by headlines. It is much rarer for reflective writers to be allowed the freedom to explore a theme at length. Even mainstream book publishers avoid the term “essays”, believing that it scares off the general reader.

Opening a door

All credit, then, to the University of Iowa Press for launching a fine collection entitled Essayists on the Essay: Montaigne to Our Time. The book includes surprises as well as old favourites. One of the best contributions is by Paul Graham, the American computer programmer, painter and venture capitalist who publishes essays on his website paulgraham. com. Graham contrasts the essay with the genre that has largely replaced it: the polemical column. “In a real essay,” he writes, “you don’t take a position and defend it. You notice a door that’s ajar, and you open it to walk and see what’s inside.”

Having amassed a fortune as an internet entrepreneur, Graham writes for his own pleasure as much as the reader’s – a modern take on a great tradition. The essay has always lent itself to joyful amateurism rather than dutiful professionalism. Montaigne was a diplomat and statesman, Francis Bacon a barrister and MP, Charles Lamb a bookkeeper.

Even those who earn their living from writing find that the essay can set them free. Martin Amis, writing about Gore Vidal, said that he was too clever to be a great novelist, too clever to be a politician, but a great essayist – “you can’t be too clever to be a great essayist”.

“Radical Chic: that Party at Lenny’s”, Tom Wolfe’s 1970 essay that exposed political posturing and social positioning in New York, will surely be admired long after anyone remembers his new novel Back to Blood.

Historians, too, can strike different truths in the essay, freed from footnotes and the duty of providing overwhelming evidence. José Ortega y Gasset argued that the essay was “science, minus the explicit proof”. At its best, the essay catches the essence of a subject – as a sculptor’s clay model can surpass the full-scale work.

But can the mainstream media support the essay today, in such impatient times and when the pre-eminent journalistic form is now the column, or opinion piece?

It was once assumed that the digital age would turn the essay into a distant anachronism. But the internet has revived long-form writing. Follow Longreads on Twitter and a 140-character message will direct you to articles that run to many pages. Very short or very long: if our tastes develop in those two directions, then the essay’s future is bright. As news coverage increasingly appeals to our impatient streak, we crave the occasional luxury of settling into a broader, more rewarding piece. The Daily Mail, often criticised for its populism, runs a long weekly essay.

What about the objection that there is already too much confessional, self-obsessed writing? “I am myself the subject of my book,” as the father of the genre, Montaigne, argued. Surely the 21st century requires no further opportunities for writerly indulgence? There is a vital distinction. The essayist reveals his personal experience only when it leads to wider truths. The controversialist relies on shocking personal confessions because he has nothing else to say. The essayist is measured about which aspects of his personality can be made public, which must remain private. The controversialist is an indiscriminate flasher.

Understated erudition

If a polemic demands the confidence of knowing where the argument will end, an essay requires the confidence of not knowing where it will end. That is why an essay cannot be “pitched”. If it can be reduced to a schematic equation before it is written – I will make these points, using these evidential tools – it is not a real essay. The thrill of reading a great essay is sensing and sharing the discovery of the writer.

Paradoxically, we need the genre now more than ever. In these shouty times, the quiet assurance and understated erudition of the essay speak louder than ever. In its purest form, the essay achieves something often missed by writing that is determined to be relentlessly punchy and relevant.

The scandals that have engulfed our great media organisations over the past two years have essentially been about one thing: questions about trust. As the media has been professionalised and corporatised, it is often forgotten that the most important relationship is between writer and reader.

The essay relies entirely on that trust. It provides illumination rather than just information. It persuades because it is written with honest techniques as well as honest arguments. An essay is true in so far as it feels true. That is why, above all, the essayist must be trusted. When an essayist has lost a reader’s trust, he is about to lose the reader.

Ed Smith’s “Luck: What It Means and Why It Matters” is published by Bloomsbury (£16.99)