Prose with a voice

The essay is the ultimate outsider genre.

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 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 one of the most unruly genres around. It defiantly resists categorisation. Even the great lexicographer Dr Johnson must have known that his own dictionary definition of the essay as a "short, undigested piece" fell short - it could hardly encompass the 600 pages of systematic philosophy contained in John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding of 1689.

That the term can embrace such a miscellany - from narrative to polemic, from flippant to serious, from personal to scientific - says much for the essay's status as the ultimate outsider genre. Throughout history, it has stood outside institutional authority, and usually, whenever it seems to have entered the mainstream, it has withered, only to be reborn again on the margins, whether in the Romantic individualism of Thomas De Quincey and William Hazlitt, or through the subversive decadence of Oscar Wilde and MaxBeerbohm, or in the rigorous anti-authoritarianism of George Orwell, whose short weekly essays in Tribune appeared under the banner "As I Please".

Perhaps because the form is so protean, the history of the essay remains relatively uncharted by scholars despite its richness. Yet unusually among literary genres it can trace its origins to a single moment and a single man: Michel de Montaigne, whose Essais appeared in 1580. The word he coined meant an "assay", a "trial", a "test"; and thus, a sense of experiment, provisionality and questioning were written into the idea from the start. Though his matter was various - from cannibals to sorrow, from liars to parental love - his true subject was himself. As Hazlitt later put it, Montaigne "did not set up for a philosopher, wit, orator, or moralist, but he became all these merely by daring to tell us whatever was in his mind".

Montaigne arguably invented not just a genre, but the modern notion of the author as a subject (in both senses). But the proto-Enlightenment philosophers of the 17th century, such as Locke, attempted to transform the essay into an objective positivistic form. Perhaps reflecting the scientific idea of an assay - laboratory analysis of a metal to determine its ore - they used the essay to test their theories. John Wilkins's Essay towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language (1668) even attempted to invent a system in which every word corresponded perfectly to one particular thing in the universe, and every thing to one word. Its aim was to eject ambiguity, uncertainty and relativism - the very qualities out of which Montaigne created the essay form, which for him had been the opposite of a transparent language: prose with a voice.

Nothing could kill Montaigne's original notion of the essay, however. Subjectivity, the individual voice and even philosophical relativism have remained strong strands in the humanistic essayistic tradition. For the Austrian modernist Robert Musil, Essayismus ("essayism") became more than a matter of literary form: it was a metaphor for a philosophy of life, a route to knowledge and self-realisation in a world perceived as fragmentary. When Zadie Smith recently described the essay as a form of prose capable of expressing "messy reality", she was pointing to something similar.

Smith's own essay collection, Changing My Mind, appeared in 2009, signalling her commitment to the revival of a genre for which publishing has offered few outlets in recent times. In 1992, the late John Gross lamented that many writers who in the past would have set themselves up as essayists had been sidetracked by the demands of modern journalism. Certainly, in the 19th century the periodical press offered a forum that no longer exists for substantial essays such as De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821) or Matthew Arnold's Culture and Anarchy (1867-68). In our own times, journalistic articles have grown shorter and shorter and academic monographs more monolithic and specialised, while the essay has been neglected.

Yet there are signs that the essay is entering a phase of renewed development. In the past two years, collections have appeared not only from Smith, but also Hanif Kureishi, Geoff Dyer and Ben Okri. If so, there are precedents. Intriguingly, it seems that the personal essay - a form of prose often seen as conversational or at least close to speech - historically flowers during anxious growth spurts in the dissemination of the written word.

Montaigne's assertion of the subjective authorial stance was arguably a response to the growing influence of print, which dislocated writers from books as these circulated in an ever wider - and more arbitrary and anonymous - marketplace. Similarly, the Romantic revival of the essay occurred during an unprecedented boom in print culture, fuelled by rising literacy, increasing commercialisation and, after 1811, the development of the flatbed cylinder press, which enabled the Times to be printed at 1,000 copies per minute.

For Hazlitt, De Quincey, Charles Lamb and Thomas Carlyle, the essay was a bulwark against their enemy "abstraction", whether in metaphysics, ideology, or the dehumanising influence of market forces, the "cash nexus". As it had for Montaigne, the "I" of the essay stood up for the value of individual imagination against the anonymity of modern culture.
Today, the explosion of electronic media has placed subjectivity under threat, perhaps more so than at any time since the invention of print. The welter of instant individual comment creates a weird anonymity. In the age of instant information, the Babel of the blogosphere and 24-hour tweeting, the writer's voice can easily get lost. It would not be surprising if, in our own age of anxiety, the essay - with its play of subjective and objective - were once again coming to the fore.

On 5 May, a new publishing imprint will open: Notting Hill Editions, committed to providing an outlet for essayistic writing in the broadest sense. Appropriately enough, considering the essay's resistance to classification, one of the launch titles, Thoughts of Sorts by Georges Perec, is a series of tiny pieces exploring the human need to classify things. Another title, Roland Barthes's Mourning Diary - published for the first time in the UK - was written as a private journal following the death of his mother. Paradoxically, the book is more truly essayistic, in the Montaignian sense of watching oneself thinking (or, in this case, watching oneself grieving), than Barthes's best-known published essay, "The Death of the Author". The form may continue to defy definition, but it will always assert that the author - the writer able to put the texture of his or her own thought processes into prose - is alive and well. l

Lucasta Miller is the editorial director of Notting Hill Editions

This article first appeared in the 25 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special