At the beginning of Chris Arthur’s session today, there was some time devoted to the tricky business of defining the essay as a literary form. It’s worth discussing because the association of essays with tedious school assignments appears to be impacting the marketability of the modern, creative essay, which remains a ‘minority interest.’ Publishers are largely reluctant to embrace the essay, in spite of the success of recent collections like ‘Nasty Women.’
So, what is an essay? Chris Arthur is reluctant to fully endorse the ‘Creative Non-Fiction’ label although he concedes that for the moment, it might well be the best compromise. His essay collection, The Reading Life, is a collection of fifteen essays based, not surprisingly, around reading – reading books, reading objects and responding to books as objects.
He says that he begins an essay with a symbol or object because objects are weighted ‘with astonishing cargo.’ It’s the unpacking of this cargo, the peeling back of the layers which drives the prose, taking the reader on a voyage of discovery. The essay is both expansive and introspective and to be effective, it must have an element of accident; it should surprise the writer as well as the reader.
He reads a section from his essay, Scrimshaw (reading a whale’s tooth).
‘One of the most treasured remnants from my childhood is a whale’s tooth. It was given to me in exchange for – and as a distraction for losing – a tooth of my own.’
The whale’s tooth, a gift from Mr Wilson the dentist, becomes the literary springboard for an examination of the art of scrimshaw, that is, drawings engraved onto the teeth and bones of whales. From there we journey to the ocean and imagine the life of the whale whose tooth was gifted to the young Chris Arthur.
‘Astonishing cargo’ indeed. Objects have provenance and can open up a world of wonder if we only stop to look and allow our thoughts to unravel.
Over the summer I dipped into and very much enjoyed reading Lia Purpura’s lyrical essay collection, On Looking which is on the M.Litt reading list. Purpura says, ‘I called to things, and in turn, things called to me, applied me to their sight and we became each as treasure, startling to one another, and rare.’ Purpura beckons you close, whispers into your ear. Her work feels intimate, as if you have been chosen to go with her and look at the world through her eyes, for a little while at least.
I’m looking forward to reading Chris Arthur’s essays. He has signed my copy of The Reading Life with ‘Life is full of wonders’ and it strikes me that this is an echo of Purpura’s comment about treasure.
However you wish to define the non-academic essay, there seems to be agreement: what awaits the reader is wonder and treasure, wrapped up in beautiful, highly polished prose.