The art of the essay

Despite moments of self-indulgence, four new collections demonstrate that the essay still deserves a place in the modern literary landscape, says Philip Hensher
September 21, 2011
In 2008 Christopher Hitchens underwent waterboarding by US special forces: the subject of an essay in his latest collection, Arguably

Arguablyby Christopher Hitchens (Atlantic, £30)

Whatever It Is, I Don’t Like Itby Howard Jacobson (Bloomsbury, £18.99)

Except When I Writeby Arthur Krystal (OUP, £16.99)

Colour Me Englishby Caryl Phillips (Harvill Secker, £14.99)

Essays come in all shapes and sizes. Professional essayists have, perhaps, only one thing in common. The sort of essayist grand enough to be collected in a volume always, sooner or later, starts going on about his bloody books. Take four new essay collections published this autumn.

Here is Christopher Hitchens: “The available shelf space, which is considerable, continues to be outrun by the appearance of new books… In order to have a dinner party, I must clear all the so-far-unsorted books off the dining room table.” Howard Jacobson, meanwhile, reports on relocating his library, every unread book “a reproach to my lack of industry and resolution.” Nor can Caryl Phillips resist the temptation, telling us that when researching the Holocaust, he decided “to catalogue just how many books and films I read and watched during the three-year period… the number was a little excessive.”

Arthur Krystal’s collection does not actually contain an essay along these lines, but the author clearly has an “All Those Books Of Mine” essay in him. At one point he says, “Who could deny the pleasures contained in such splendid works as Richard Ellmann’s Oscar Wilde, Leslie Marchand’s Byron or Michael Holroyd’s Bernard Shaw?” which I think is what sophisticated people call a rhetorical question, and what to me is a question which makes me roll my eyes and set the book down.

How do they get away with it? What sort of response do they get, on phoning up an editor to say “Well, bugger all’s happened this week, so I thought I’d write a thousand mellifluous words about how many sodding books I own?” However, these four books are not simply an excuse for self-indulgence—they display the opportunities, and historic pitfalls, for the essay form.

The essay is more than an assembly of literary conventions: it ought to be an examination of the facts of the world. This has become clearer with the emergence of new technologies, which threaten to deprofessionalise one of the main historical strands of the essay, the egotistical ramble. For decades, the discussion of private family life has been a mainstay of the newspaper essay. However, the essay on purely personal themes is now so widespread that it may now be on the way out in terms of literary prestige. It is difficult to see the future for the following sort of contribution, the work of a well-known journalist and author, published in a daily national newspaper, inspired by the marital travails of a better-known author:

“Parting from my wife, Sarina, and children Ruby and Cissy in 1999, left me with too many agonising memories to count. The lonely weekends in the parks alone with other sad single dads. The lies I told my children in order to reassure them… The memory that sticks in my mind is of Ruby, then seven years old, running after my car screaming for me to come back after my designated weekend was over. That image—of her running down the street after me, as I stared at her diminishing image in my rear-view mirror—still replays in my head.”

The fixation on the first-person singular, and on the importance of these perceptions to the narrator, approaches mania. Who has ever counted memories? What does “The memory that sticks in my mind” actually mean, or add to the heartrending scene? How convincing an addition is “That image… still replays in my head”? When a report on personal experience is not that well-written, not particularly unusual, and focused entirely on the state of the individual rather than the experience, we may conclude that the place for this sort of thing in the future is online, in an unpaid and largely unread blog.

The essay that deserves to survive, is surely the essay which proceeds from a well-stocked mind. That does not necessarily mean that the author will not bring his experience to bear on the subject—Howard Jacobson, in the best and most complimentary sense, is a writer whose subject is himself. The essay which starts from a personal observation about the world, and proceeds into the world with interest and curiosity, is as old as Montaigne, and will surely survive. The essay which starts with a personal observation about what happened to you and your wife and kids and stays pretty much on asseverations about how moving and upsetting you found the whole caboodle has very little literary ancestry, and I suspect very little lasting power.

Of these four volumes, Colour Me English by the author and playwright Caryl Phillips remains most firmly within the personal. Here, his personal experience takes him, and the reader, a very long way, because it is of such intrinsic interest—the experience of a clever black boy growing up in the English provinces, long before consciousness of racism began to modify everyone’s behaviour. The biographical essays here are of some interest. A little doubt begins to creep in when he addresses the life of a fellow pupil, an Asian boy from a Muslim family. We don’t doubt that the boy was savagely bullied. The doubt creeps in when Phillips tries to imagine what might have become of him subsequently. Engagement with the post-colonial experience and religious fundamentalism was not compulsory among the Muslims of England. Rather than Phillips’s constructed scenario, it seems just as likely that the boy ended up as a perfectly respectable solicitor in Leeds; the essay somehow serves to throw interest back onto Phillips himself.

A small sub-genre of the essay is added later in the volume with a piece you seem to have read many times already, about what the author was doing on the morning of September 11th 2001. The rhetoric is stirring; the fact of the event is remarkable and distressing; the essay brings nothing to the table except the stated presence of the author, which is not necessarily enough.


Howard Jacobson definitely possesses a well-stocked mind. In his collection of pieces from the Independent—I should declare the interest of writing on the same pages each week—a distinctly Leavisite moral sense is joined to a characteristically personal style of observation. He makes a point of being unimpressed with conventional pieties—the essayist must always tend towards the perverse position, to maintain the form of an individual voice wandering through the world. Sometimes, as in many classic essayists, the pressure of perversity leads him to take on some fairly feeble opponents with more vigour and scabrous wit than you feel they altogether deserve. The faintly pathetic and now rather forgotten Blair-era minister Estelle Morris is glimpsed saying to an audience: “Is there an unwritten rule of life that says the more excellent a piece of art, the fewer people will be able to appreciate it? Of course there isn’t.” Such an absurd position, codified in that ridiculously ignorant “unwritten” of an aesthetic view which writers have been explicitly stating for centuries, might have been left to speak for itself. Jacobson leaps on it as a great opportunity to restate his ringing defence of elitism, complexity and learning in civilisation.

The no-nonsense tone, coupled with a coherent defence of truth, even in uncomfortable circumstances, shows the essayist as natural comedian. Jacobson is at his best in a defence of Jonathan King, the radio DJ who was convicted of abusing teenage boys. Jacobson’s central point, that 15-year-old boys are never innocent, is unarguable; whether his argument amounts to a coherent suggestion that the age of consent could, or should be lowered, I don’t know. But the central situation is teased out with a brilliant comic brio:

“I have inhabited the mind of a fifteen-year-old… the mind of a fifteen-year-old boy is a sewer… If a woman the same age as King, let us say of comparable standing and let us say of comparable looks, had shown comparable interest…? Exactly—I’d have reeled off my top ten and had my hand down her pants long before she’d opened the door of the Roller.

And the emotional damage? She’d have got over it.”

By contrast, Arthur Krystal is an old-fashioned sort of literary commentator, expounding his pleasure in books, writing, and words in a sort of pseudo-humility vein. The two characteristic essays here are one on the pleasures of the essay, focusing on Hazlitt, and that essay you’ve probably written yourself, about how impossible it would be for you to become a novelist. Oddly, one always likes this sort of person in real life—bookish, cultured, interested reader—while often finding their essays could do with some sharpening up. The combination of a declared love of words and an apparent unfamiliarity with the decisive phrase is not a unique one.

Here is Krystal: “Another man I write about is William Hazlitt, and he wore his politics on his sleeve. Hazlitt is a writer I like and admire, and he, too, was a lot smarter in print than in person. In his wonderful essay, ‘The Fight,’ Hazlitt recalls overhearing one man say to another, ‘Confound it, man, don’t be insipid,’ and thinking ‘that’s a good phrase.’ I said it to myself once or twice while working on these pieces, and if I have failed only once or twice in heeding the admonition, I shall consider myself fortunate.”

Perhaps the age has passed for this sort of self-congratulatory fluff. A sharp editor could have reduced this to “Hazlitt wore his politics on his sleeve, and was smarter in print than he could be in person. It was with admiration that he once heard a man say ‘Confound it, man, don’t be insipid.’”

The most substantial volume here is, predictably, Christopher Hitchens’s Arguably. He is the embodiment of the well-informed essayist, and those thousands of books are evidently read, even though it must be said that some of his best observations and quotations have a habit of cropping up more than once in this volume. He is so engaging an essayist because, in a way, an essayist is exactly what he is not. It would be a dull reader who found Hitchens either consistently perverse, or consistently articulating rational opinions. But he is not just a provocateur: in his writing there is the strong impression of the literary criticism of his generation—“this is very fine” is the sentence that practically every alumnus of the early 1970s New Statesman is always writing of admired authors. There is the worldly commentator on the human condition: “Teasing is very often a sign of inner misery,” he says of Samuel Johnson, and whether one knows whether that is the case or not, one admires the epigrammatic bravado.

And there is the imprint of reportage. It is hard to imagine Arthur Krystal asking of the US special forces if they would “waterboard” him, as Hitchens does, and writing an essay afterwards about the experience. Hitchens is not immune from the old-fart formulations inherent in the genre—“Who can pass the great and spacious lawns of Trinity College without thinking of Bertrand Russell…”—but he gets a pass through (a) being funny, and using his comic gifts to assault other people’s old-fart formulations, and (b) actually getting out of the house from time to time. Plenty of people do get out of the house, but not many of them have the knack of writing about their adventures subsequently. In Hitchens’s case, it is not so surprising that he ends this collection with a series of small observations about language—there is a particularly good one about the spread of the filler “like.” To care about language, to care about truth, and to care about the art of the engaged provocation is not a common collection of gifts in a human being. In Hitchens, the three join together to make a natural essayist. I would start to set out the points at which I disagree strongly with him, starting with the famous piece entitled “Why Women Aren’t Funny”—but, hey, any reader can do that for themselves. The tragic feeling which settles on the reader, turning from this vintage Hitchens collection to the usual sort of essay, or “think-piece,” or “Me and My Books” which clog up so many of our media, old and new, is that you realise that almost every other purveyor of this sort of thing is not even worth disagreeing with.