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October 14, 2009

Stanford scholars discuss the future of the essay at Litquake festival

An essay, said Nicholas Jenkins, is "a trial, a test, an experiment, a questioning."

The word comes from the French word "essai" – an attempt – that underscores the nature of the centuries-old literary form, said the associate professor of English.

But is the essay, usually defined as an analytic or interpretative literary composition, attempting too much nowadays? Some questions linger about the future of the form whose name was coined by Michel de Montaigne's Essais in 1580.

Four Stanford scholars discussed "The Value of the Essay in the 21st Century" on Oct. 11 at the San Francisco Public Library at this week's Litquake, San Francisco's annual literary festival. The Humanities Outreach Project and the Humanities Center are among the sponsors of this year's event.

In addition to Jenkins, the panel included Andrea Lunsford, director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric; Dan Edelstein, assistant professor of French; and moderator Robert Harrison, professor and chairman of the Department of French and Italian.

All seemed to agree that the essay is undergoing metamorphosis. Its very definition is becoming blurred – with photographic essays, musical essays, documentary essays and even audio essays potentially diluting the term.

Jenkins also pointed out that "many poems have been called essays," and, with many essays existing only on the web, anyone can call himself or herself an essayist.

"Some of them I would characterize as essays, some not," said Lunsford, noting that scholar Stanley Fish's game-changing blog posts qualify as essays, allowing reader response and follow-up posts. For example, Fish's New York Times blog post last August, "What Should Colleges Teach?" inspired 619 responses.

"That's what makes the Internet exciting," said Edelstein. In the past, he noted, the reader "could throw the book against the wall – but that was the limit of engagement."

Heavy response rates, such as the ones Fish attracts on the Internet, offset some of the problems of accountability inherent in the essay. Edelstein noted that essays "can play fast and loose with the truth," in part because "the essay does not have to demonstrate, only persuade."

"That's what's annoying about political essays – especially by people who don't agree with you." He criticized French writers who have the "annoying tic" of using unattributed quotes, claiming simply "as Jean-Paul Sartre wrote somewhere," and then proceeding to cite a "mangled, possibly invented quote."

Essays differ from academic writing, which relies on evidence, depending more on the power of language instead: "As an academic, you can get by on so-so language," he said, but not so with the essay. The essay can nevertheless be "much more influential than weighty tomes."

"The identity of an author is just as important in persuading as the arguments," said Edelstein. "Paul Krugman doesn't need pie charts and tables to persuade us of the soundness of his arguments. He just has to sign his name."

By contrast, Edelman said when he wrote an op-ed last March for the San Jose Mercury News about the abusive and imprecise uses of the word "socialism" in political discourse, readers challenged his authority, asking: "What could a French professor know about this?"

"Without the heavy armature of footnotes," Edelstein noted that the Internet offers new ways to incorporate evidence. The hyperlink, for example, "makes the citation part of the essay itself … without making a big fuss about it."

The essay's accountability touches on what Lunsford called a critical issue today: the "contract writers should have [with readers] about veracity." She mentioned the controversy surrounding the unreliable memoirs of James Frey and certain Holocaust survivors.

Those writers also raise further issues about blurring – the diminished line between essays and memoirs, essays and short stories.

Jenkins noted that although the genre began "from philosophical tradition in Europe," it has a more "extravagant" and digressive Anglo-American tradition – look at the titles of some of the publications that publish them, he said: Rambler, Spectator, Tattler.

Said Lunsford, "In a certain sense I'm all for it, but at what point does it become so blurred at the boundaries that it loses all definition?"

Harrison was tempted to "resist the contamination of the genre" by keeping it a "condensed meditation on one topic with a personified voice."

After Jenkins read a portion of his own essay that included the history of his forebears, Harrison wondered: "Is the essay broad enough to include storytelling in its parameters?"

Jenkins said that "you don't start out trying to write a blurry essay," nor "a chaste, austere, chiseled essay." The target is to be "authentic to the ambition," and in the course of writing, as the cliché goes, stuff happens.

While Jenkins' piece may have represented what he called "the novelistic subsumed into the essay," what of the reverse? The novel is "so inexhaustible in its possibilities that it could easily subsume the essay," said Harrison.

He noted that writers like Michel Tournier, Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges had essays that were "transported wholesale into their novels."

Jenkins noted that the essay was adhering to larger patterns where "everything tries to metamorphose into something else," leaving the panelists echoing the question that haunted Montaigne's first essays: "Que sais-je?" (What do I know?)

Editor Note:

Video of event available at:



Cynthia Haven, Stanford News Service: (650) 724-6184,

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