Blogging and the Familiar Essay

1331108One 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.

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31 thoughts on “Blogging and the Familiar Essay

  1. A very thought-provoking post. I too have been coming across posts that, taking into account what you’ve said in this post, would be considered an essay and I really enjoy reading them. I love the quote you’ve included about the intimacy and setting up of a dialogue that essays and blogging provide, and I think that it is perhaps this dialogue that means essays can be popular and continue to survive. To answer your questions, I’d definitely be interested in reading or contributing to a site catered for essay-type posts.

    1. Gemma, I’ve waited until today to reply to you so that I could see how many people would be interested in contributing to such a site. At the moment it seems to be about half a dozen and I’m not sure that that would be sufficient to make it work. If we could get up to ten so that we were looking at contributing say one essay a year (publishing once a month) then it might be feasible. Essays take longer to write than we might think. Nevertheless, I’m going to play around with the idea and see what I can come up with.

  2. I absolutely agree that essay writing is alive and well on blogs, and one of the best things about blogs as a medium is that they do provide a sense of intimacy with the writer, just as you say. With so many blogs to choose from, even in the world of book blogs alone, I visit a blog because I like the writing of the person behind it, not just because of the subject matter. I think, too, the unpolished, unrehearsed quality of many blogs adds to the sense of intimacy. That’s not to say that blog writing is of low quality, but it can be discursive, following a train of thought rather than setting down a thesis and building a case to support it, which is the way I was taught to write.

    And you remind me that I have that Lopate collection on my shelf. I made a start with it several months ago but couldn’t work out a good way to make the essays part of my routine. I need to get back to it because there’s a lot of good stuff in there!

    I may be interested in contributing to a site like what you describe. It could make a nice change from my bookish writing.

    1. Teresa, it would be really good if you did. You are one of the most thoughtful writers out there in the blogging world and I’m sure that people would read you with great pleasure. I’m not sure yet if there are enough people to take this forward but I’ll keep playing around with the idea and get back to you.

  3. I love personal essays. One of my favorite books of all times is Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay, and I’ve read it multiple times. A professor I once had said that he highlighted certain books in different colors and dated each so that he would be able to see what he noticed on subsequent readings. I did this with The Art of the Personal Essay, which I’ve been reading for nearly 20 years, and I love that I’ve seen, noticed, had personal experience with different things each time I’ve read it.

    1. Jenclair, I think we all have books like that to which we return because they say something to us on each reading. For me it is Virginia Woolf’s journals and letters. Funnily enough I have read very few of her essays. I should try and do something about that.

  4. What a lovely idea. While I often struggle with shorter fiction, I do love reading essays (including Fadiman’s). I fear my own longer discussion pieces tend to digress and are not well-enough reasoned to be considered proper essays – I’d give it a go. But I will read other people’s gladly.

    1. I’m sure you would have some really interesting things to say, Annabel. I’m going to play around with the idea a bit more and see what might be viable. Then I’ll get back to all those people who’ve shown an interest.

  5. Great idea, I am not a massive essay reader though have enjoyed Barbara Kingsolver’ s and some of Kathleen Jamie’s pieces. I would be interested in reading other people’s essays but I don’t think I would be able to produce anything that could be reasonably termed an essay.

    1. I might have to twist your arm Ali and convince you that you are far more capable than you think. By the way, I’ve been meaning to ask if you would like to meet up for tea one day while you are freer than usual. If you would then do let me know.

      1. Thanks 🙂

        Yes I would love to meet you. I am away over this weekend just till Sunday. I am around next week though (only booked up on Monday so far) and go away again the following week. Also around the last week of school hols week beginning 24th.

        1. That’s great! The week beginning the 24th would suit me best because I’ve got Summer School between now and then. How about either Thurs 28th or Fri 29th?

  6. This is fascinating and absolutely spot on. I would never pick up a book of essays, familiar or otherwise, but of course most of the blogs I read with huge pleasure do indeed fall into this category — including yours, of course

    1. Very interesting post. Of course essays have always evolved – the essay is nothing if not a flexible form. I am not sure that it is such a good thing to have a very ambitious essay in the form of a blog . The virtues of a book blog is its immediacy and instant interactivity and this is great but would those add very much to a James Baldwin or George Orwell or Virginia Woolf piece? The essays of those writer made their impact because rather than despite the fact that audience feedback was slower.

      1. I think this is an interesting reflection on the way in which we read in e-format, Ian. I probably read 50/50 e and print format these days and I’m fairly sure that I don’t give as much focused attention on what I read as an ebook. Interestingly when you look for essay collections in e format they are very hard to find.

  7. I’d love to read such a site! I’d volunteer to contribute to it as well, but not right away perhaps — I’d hold off until I had a better feel for the type of things people were posting. But I’d read it and tell everyone about it. I love that about blogging, that familiarity, and I remember having many of the same thoughts as you when I first read At Large & At Small.

    1. Then I shall bear you in mind, Jenny. I am going to have to do some thinking as to how we might organise such a site because I don’t think we can ask anyone to write more than one piece a year (essays take time) and so far I don’t have that many offers to contribute.

  8. I’d read and contribute to such a site! Definitely, the familiar essay is doing well, I think not only on blogs but in published collections too. Many of the collections that have done well recently (by Leslie Jamison, John Jeremiah Sullivan, Tom Bissell, Zadie Smith) have been about both the author and the world. I think personal nonfiction is a very vibrant genre right now, and it’s exciting!

    1. Knowing your love of the format, Rebecca, I thought you might be interested. I am going to have to play around with the idea a bit and see what might be possible because I haven’t been overwhelmed with offers to write but if we could get going then perhaps we could drum up more interest.

  9. I loved your post! I agree that the essay is alive and well. It is a genre I like very, very much. I would be interested in reading a site like you describe and I’d be willing to give it a go as a contributor too.

    1. That’s great, Stafanie. I’m going to have to give it some thought as to how best to take it forward because being practical and knowing how busy everyone is I think it would be silly to ask for more than one piece a year from people and I don’t have quite enough volunteers to get me that far, but there will be a way round it I’m sure.

  10. I couldn’t agree more! I love blogging sort-of essays on my site and enjoy them enormously on others’. I seem to have my hands a bit full with SNB at the moment, but I’d definitely read and contribute when I could.

    1. It doesn’t look as if there are going to be enough possible contributors to make it work, Litlove. Still it’s good to know that there are so many readers out there who still enjoy the essay as a format.

  11. I think you’re right- blogging is a great place for essays. I haven’t heard of the term ‘familiar essay’ before, but certainly those (and personal) essays make for some of the most enjoyable blog posts I’ve read (and even, I’d venture, the critical essay). I would definitely love to see more of it!

    1. I don’t think there are enough potential writers to get a site going, Catie, but I’ll continue to play with the idea and see if I can find a way of making it work.

  12. I’m not sure I could usefully contribute anything – but it sounds an excellent idea if you can get enough people! I love reading more personal views of books and the issues raised, sharing ideas and thoughts makes for much more interesting reading.

    1. It doesn’t look as though there are going to be enough people who want to contribute, Margaret, which is a shame as we clearly all appreciate reading such pieces.

  13. I love reading and writing essays and will contribute if this idea ever gets off the ground. I’ve been in London for the past week and had no access to the internet, or I’d have said something sooner.
    On my blog, I approach every post as an essay. It’s interesting to me what happens to essays when you take them out of such a context–I assume my readers know me, or can get to know me, if they want to, by reading selected post surrounding the one that first interested them. An essay on another site, though–there would have to be some information up front…what perspective am I seeing the world from, to focus on these ideas?

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