Despite moments of self-indulgence, four new collections demonstrate that the essay still deserves a place in the modern literary landscape, says Philip Hensherby Philip Hensher / September 21, 2011 / Leave a comment
In 2008 Christopher Hitchens underwent waterboarding by US special forces: the subject of an essay in his latest collection, Arguably
Arguably by Christopher Hitchens (Atlantic, £30)
Whatever It Is, I Don’t Like It by Howard Jacobson (Bloomsbury, £18.99)
Except When I Write by Arthur Krystal (OUP, £16.99)
Colour Me English by 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…