Essays and Essayists
Sontag, Didion, Borges, Barthes.
Those names mean something in the right circles, in the right department buildings and on the right websites. Those names have hidden qualities in the vowels that make us round them out in hallowed and hollow ways. Those names belong to essayists.
In “The Modern Essay,” Virginia Woolf tells us: “We must be sure that we are not praising the famous because they have been praised already and the dead because we shall never meet them wearing spats in Piccadilly.”
Spats aside, the principle remains. We praise the essayists who write well. We praise essayists whose work is full of “I” and “my.” We praise essayists whose introductions and “topic” sentences would never fly in the classroom. Meanwhile, students write essays but are not essayists.
Maybe “essay” isn’t quite the right word, and we can only explain the difference by adding other words. The famous authors wrote personal essays, or they wrote literary essays, or they wrote long poems and called them essays. Maybe students aren’t essayists because they don’t do those things. Instead they write academic “essays,” or “papers.”
And if a student were to write a paper about Virginia Woolf’s long essay, “A Room of One’s Own,” we would never compare the two as essays. We wouldn’t compare them at all. The student paper would be a footnote, a supplement for the “real thing.”
In “The Modern Essay,” Woolf also says: “Vague as all definitions are, a good essay must have this permanent quality about it; it must draw its curtain round us, but it must be a curtain that shuts us in, not out.”
Student papers have a permanent quality about them. They linger in file cabinets and trash bins, or their digital equivalents. They linger in places where nobody can read them. Limiting students to an audience of one makes it easy to write a paper for a teacher, and easier to throw it away after getting a grade. What if we give these essays a destination, an audience outside the classroom?
We should encourage students to write with literature. If we only write expository essays about famous literature, if we only write for grades, then we might as well be writing about spats in Piccadilly.
In one of my first English classes, we had to read Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Criticism.” The poem was written in 1709, when the author was twenty-one years old. Was he an exception? Maybe. But today’s students aren’t any less capable.