For many of us an essay is something we wrote at school and, perhaps, at university. Sometimes these were imaginative, fictional pieces of writing, set by our English teacher and at others they would be discussion pieces where we would try to show what we understood about a particular subject and attempt to offer a reasoned opinion on any issues raised.
However, the true essay is a respectable, challenging and fascinating genre of professional writing. And while it’s true that over the last century or so, it has fallen out of favour with both readers and publishers, it has never gone away completely. In the UK there is a modern genre of writing called ‘creative non-fiction’ a somewhat clumsy and rather ugly name in my opinion. Presumably the marketers prefer this horribly trendy label to the much older term of ‘essay’. There is a squeamishness and reluctance about simply calling an essay an essay.
But whatever you call it, it’s an underrated art form and one that will repay any reader who seeks it out. The true essay isn’t an article -it doesn’t need to make an argument or set out proof or try to educate. Neither is it a feature – it’s not required to showcase or persuade. It may do any or all of these things but these will be incidental and not vital. Essays are spontaneous. They are not required to follow a formula. The essay author is a free-ranging explorer who writes observational pieces about anything and everything.
I mentioned Kathleen Jamie‘s ‘Sightlines’, her superb second collection of nature essays, here in May this year. Indeed, it was reading her first collection ‘Findings’ which first introduced me to this neglected genre.
And now I’ve discovered another wonderful essay writer – namely – Chris Arthur. I read his new collection entitled ‘On the Shoreline of Knowledge’ whilst on holiday a couple of weeks ago. It was captivating, stimulating and challenging read – at times comforting, at times unsettling. Arthur is a master essay writer. On his website http://www.chrisarthur.org Arthur quotes Alexander Smith who describes essays as being concerned with ‘the infinite suggestiveness of common things’ and he states ‘I am drawn to the everyday epiphanies such suggestiveness sparks and like the freedom essays offer for exploring them.’
In the book he writes about Zen Buddhism, his father’s briefcase, mementoes, lists and photos – to name just a few subjects. And through his subjects – which are often objects – he examines all of life. He addresses the nature of time, the universe and human mortality. He shines a ray of light into the meaning of life’s almost impenetrable darkness. It is deeply moving and thought-provoking writing.
Chris Arthur has a scribes accuracy, an artist’s eye and a poet’s soul. This is mindful, wonderful and transcendent writing. It’s proof that the unexamined life is an unforgiveable waste.
So, readers, be brave – go forth and essay the essay!
‘On the Shoreline of Knowledge’ by Chris Arthur is published by University of Iowa Press.