Sunday 23 July 2017

Essaying has a new lease of life

The splendidly comprehensive Everyman edition of George Orwell's Essays is one of the books to which I constantly return, along with books of essays by writers as diverse as Michel de Montaigne, William Hazlitt, Virginia Woolf, HL Mencken, Hubert Butler, Graham Greene, Gore Vidal, Clive James, John Updike and Joan Didion.

All of these are superb stylists, but it's the exploratory nature of the essay form itself -- trying out ideas and opinions and seeing where they lead -- which I also love, although it's a form that seems to have few outlets in contemporary publishing.

Indeed, the eminent literary critic John Gross, who died recently, remarked some years ago that "the demands of journalism have pushed writers who might once have set up as essayists further and further in the direction of reportage, travel-writing and instant comment." And he noted sadly that "there is less and less time and scope for the essay."

So it's cheering to learn that a new publishing enterprise called Notting Hill Editions is aiming to revive the popularity of the essay by devoting its imprint entirely to the form. Among its first books are Thoughts of Sorts by French writer and filmmaker George Perec (above), with an introduction by Margaret Drabble, who enthuses that "essays are the perfect size and shape for those brilliant self-contained ideas that don't fit into longer books." And she thinks that Perec's essays are "a treasure house of very French oddities", which is either a recommendation or a warning. I'll take it as the former.

*****

Most of the workshops in this year's Listowel Writers' Week, which runs from June 1 to 5, are booked out, but there are still a few places left in some of them. So if you want to learn from such experts as John McKenna on the art of writing short fiction, Sarah Webb on the skills needed for popular fiction or David Park on creative writing, you can do just that by contacting the organisers at info@writersweek.ie.

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