One of the books that I brought back with me after my last visit to the Astley Book Farm was At Large and at Small, a selection of essays by the self confessed literary hedonist, Anne Fadiman. Having loved Ex Libris, her previous volume, I was hoping for a series of similar delights that I would be able to savour one by one over the dusky summer evenings. And I’m sure those delights will come, but so far I have read just the introduction and it has set me thinking about the relationship between essay writing and keeping a blog.
In that introduction Fadiman notes that the death of what she calls the ‘familiar’ essay has frequently been predicted. Distinguishing it from both the critical essay and the personal essay, Fadiman defines the familiar essay as being one that is about the author but also about the world and suggests that perhaps this class of essay is no longer fashionable.
The genre’s heyday was in the early nineteenth century, when Charles Lamb was dreaming up ‘The Essays of Elia’ under the influence of brandy and tobacco and William Hazlitt was dashing off ‘Table-Talk’ under the influence of strong tea. The familiar essayist didn’t speak to the millions; he spoke to ‘one’ reader, as if the two of them were sitting side by side in front of a crackling fire with their cravats loosened, their favourite stimulants at hand, and a long evening of conversation stretching out before them. His viewpoint was subjective, his frame of reference concrete, his style digressive, his eccentricities conspicuous, and his laughter usually at his own expense. And though he wrote about himself, he also wrote about a ‘subject’, something with which he was so familiar, and about which he was so enthusiastic, that his words were suffused with a lover’s intimacy.
Of course, Fadiman then goes on to demonstrate that the familiar essay is far from dead by providing several volumes of the same herself, but writing as she was in 2007 and thus at a time when the world of social media was only beginning to make its presence felt, she might be forgiven for overlooking an area where I think the familiar essay still flourishes and that is in the form of the personal blog.
Undoubtedly, we use our blogs for many things that would not be classified as essays. We keep notes, make lists, comment on day to day events and principally, amongst the company I keep, we write book reviews. However, more and more frequently, I am also coming across quite lengthy pieces that could, I think, be described as either personal or familiar essays. Rather than simply reviewing a book, for example, a blogger may use his or her reactions to it as a springboard from which to explore the wider ramifications of the issues that are being discussed therein. A visit to the theatre or the cinema may prompt a consideration of the way in which society views the particular group of people portrayed. An item in the news may recall a memory and the two combined force a reconsideration of a previous response to a difficult situation.
Whatever the subject the one thing that all such pieces have in common is the writer’s enthusiasm. Like the essayists of the nineteenth century, we write about those things with which we are familiar. We write about the subjects that we love and have come to have some knowledge of. I keep a blog to do with books and the theatre quite simply because these are the two subjects that have been central to my identity for over sixty years. Our knowledge may not be that of the academic specialist but then that has ever been the case where the informal essay is concerned. In the introduction to his book The Art of the Personal Essay Phillip Lopate comments that such pieces depend less on air-tight reasoning than on style and intimacy. We don’t set ourselves up as experts, rather we are enthusiastic amateurs and in the British tradition, at least, it has long been acknowledged that such people have as much that is insightful to say about a subject as those who are paid to know far more.
There are, however, similarities other than length and the writer’s relationship to their subject matter. In that same introduction Lopate suggests that
the hallmark of the personal essay is its intimacy. The writer seems to be speaking directly into your ear, confiding everything from gossip to wisdom. Through sharing thoughts, memories, desires, complaints, and whimsies, the personal essayist sets up a relationship with the reader, a dialogue – a friendship, if you will, based on identification, understanding, testiness, and companionship.
It is the very fact that blogging allows such intimacy that keeps us going back again and again to the same sites. I have met very few of you in person but that doesn’t mean that I don’t feel as if I know you. I have a very close relationship with some of you, a relationship that I would say has progressed to friendship. Certainly, there is dialogue, indeed, dialogue of a type that essayists from earlier centuries could not have hoped for. When I click on the ‘publish’ button and this piece goes live I not only broadcast my views to whoever cares to come and read them but also provided those readers with the opportunity to respond to what I’ve written and enter into a dialogue about it not only with me but with anyone else who has taken the time and trouble to leave a comment.
So, I don’t think that Fadiman needs to worry about the familiar essay. To misquote Mark Twain, reports of its death are not only greatly exaggerated but currently a misrepresentation of the facts. I do, however, wonder whether or not we make enough of those posts we write that might fall into this category and if there might not be scope for setting up a blog specifically to cater for such pieces. What do you think? Would anyone be interested in contributing to such a site? Would anyone be interested in reading it? Push the comment button and let me know.