Essayism, Brian Dillon, Fitzcaraldo Editions, June 2017, pp. 228, £10.99 (paperback)
I begin by making a list:
Style – Hybrid – Woolf!! – Essay on Essay – (is my response to this an essay on essay on essay?) – part biography – fragments – essay as support vehicle
The list, I confess, is arbitrary – initial thoughts boiled down into general terms. I don’t know what ideas will make it into this piece, or if I will even be able to expand the ideas beyond their now reduced signposts, but I know that the list appeases me, that it calms me before I begin to write.
I notice, as I am writing these down, that I have done exactly what the critic and writer Brian Dillon describes in Essayism: preparing to write an essay by first making a list. It is a method to ‘smother the anxiety that comes with writing’, by having the illusion of a plan; a list swiftly collated to avoid facing ‘the blank page or screen without a word or thought’. I make a list not to aid my paragraphs, but to ease my head.
Dillon sets out in Essayism to determine what it is which makes good essaying – an essence? a formula? – bringing in essayists from Gertrude Stein, Muriel Spark, Anita Brooker to Joan Didion, to discern what an essay ought to possess. The book, alongside narrating and analysing valuable essayists, evokes Dillon’s own experience of essay-writing and his history of depression. Far from being a pursuit of some universal criteria, Essayism is a personal contemplation on the essay.
Dillon splits the book into a myriad of connected passages – fragments that make up a vast essay on essays. Each fragment is entitled ‘on[…]’, whether ‘on origins’, ‘on lists’, ‘on dispersal’, ‘on anxiety’ or ‘on consolation’, and varies from the philosophical, the critical to memoir. The heading ‘On consolation’ is repeated several times throughout, its repetition unsurprising for the underlying presence in Essayism is a dependency on essays and essaying, an intense and personal relationship with words and writing. The dependency is fraught; is subject to all sorts of suspicions and accusations. Dillon asks: are essays a false remedy? Are they repeatedly helping us put off a ‘life-long, career-long project’ – and for what? To abate the fear into a horde of lesser-felt fears? To be able to face a chain of digestible commissions to write, rather than one magnum opus?
These passages are particularly astute, Dillon relaying his depression with a subtle and intelligent voice that lacks melodrama or excess. He recalls, in one stupor of depression, the Sontag, the Barthes and the others that lay in tomes around him, acting as a comfort to his ‘disarray’. The comfort was not even in reading them, but in their very physical manifestation. It was what they promised, as they sat there unopened. It was a reassurance, perhaps, that there were words written, that others had completed their tasks. Throughout the book it is clear that there is something material, something emotional about the essay. Dillon describes ‘counting the pages darkened and the files saved’ – trying to find achievement and self-worth in the 1174 files stored in his ‘Reviews’ folder, as if as a collective they could provide a reassurance. Such a great number, he begs, must point towards success. But of course, it does not dispel the fear.
Sometimes, Dillon remarks, ‘those texts have appeared in retrospect or even at the time not quite worth the emotional, intellectual, existential weight I asked them to bear’. When his mother died, he read the pages of an NME issue front-to-back with ferocity, beginning again – and again – and again. He read incessantly, less because NME was overflowing with powerful writing that needed to be returned to, but more to fill his head, to find consolation in filling his head. He asked the text to bear the weight of his grief, and, just as other essayists later were to, NME held some of it. Dillon’s consistent return in Essayism to examining his experience with depression and his own emotional dependency on writing is the great success of the book. He evokes more than just biography: he illustrates, vividly, the power that writing has and the relationship readers have with writing that does not exist just in the moment of reading. We are shown why we must refine our understanding of good essaying (we are, after all, dealing with the reader’s emotions), as well as highlighting how effective honesty in essaying is. Dillon balances memoir with criticism; giving analysis both on a micro and macro level. He refers to Georges Perec’s description in An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, Perec trying to track every movement, every inch, every passerby; he admires William Gass’s observation of how impoverished our language is in describing sex; in another moment he dissects Elizabeth Hardwick’s word order (who in turn is dissecting Billie Holiday). Dillon approaches every aspect of the essayist, right down to the way they craft a sentence. His respect for the essay is thorough – there is not an inch of the essay that Dillon’s scrutinising eye does not uncover.
Essayism is open. Sometimes Dillon argues for assertion, other times for indecision. Many of the suggestions contradict and cannot co-exist. Essayism is partly a discovery that there can be no singular formula to an essay, and partly an admiration for the divergent successes that essayists have had, a celebration that to essay well is not to imitate. Dillon flourishes on this revelation, moving between ideas without fear of missing material or theory. His approach is full and varied whilst remaining unashamedly perspective. Dillon embraces contradictions – he, after all, has a refrain of ‘I am not quite sure’; at one point asserting: ‘I have no clue how to write about the essay as a stable entity’. He does not compromise his perspective or personal predispositions towards certain essayists for the sake of clean lines, or a clear overview. He groups writer and reader, admitting: I am merely essaying! And in admitting so, he becomes yet more convincing.
He writes: essays ought to be ‘intact and seamless and well-made – except when they are not, when they fracture and fail and open themselves up to the possibility that they will not please’. Later, he implores that he needs essays to have ‘integrity’ formally, their strands so ‘tightly woven’ that they present a ‘smooth and gleaming surface’. In the same moment, he writes, in the same work, this needs to unravel, to fall apart, for the seams to fall partly down, for threads to come loose from the sleeves.
Essays must be well-stitched, but must simultaneously unveil their stitches. Dillon himself gives this impression by leaving himself open; by narrating indecision and suicide and depression and grief and his need for essayists and his need to essay. But these stitches, seemingly bare, are eloquently and carefully constructed, put deliberately – artfully in place.
He acknowledges the inconsistency: to need something both shiny and messy, both done-up and undone, and the idea of visible stitches demonstrates his demand for contradiction. In being human (and thus an array of contradictions) and in essaying being a process which does not finish when the essay is over, to achieve anything particularly real, the essayist needs to show failure – an intelligently expressed inability to perfectly make sense of something in its entirety.
Essayism is not a history of the essay, nor a forensic study – there is no context or timeline to Dillon’s thoughts, asides from his own lifeline. It is an exploration – a process – an example. Dillon dances from one essayist to the next, from one experience to the next, to display, in full technicolour, how he sees the essay.
Any intelligent reader of essays will have a personal Essayism inside them, but few will be able to translate their relationship with essays (which is often only feeling and inclination) into such a poignant and sage first-person love story. Dillon cultivates his own essence: he is instantly familiar, and unwaveringly perceptive. Essayism is an exquisite essay; stitched together in clear fragments and revisions. It is frank – filled with emotional truth and linguistic evaluation, all whilst Dillon makes clear his quest.
‘I like your style’ means: I admire, dear human, what you have clawed back from sickness and pain and madness. I’m a fan, too much a fan, of your rising above. I overestimate your power, loved writer, beloved essayist.
A good essayist convinces others that they have overcome any struggle that can be felt whilst essaying – a good essayist supplies writing that glides with ease; usurping the way I, we, they as writers can falter in approaching a piece. A successful essay has a wholeness that is, as Virginia Woolf writes, ‘subdued’, as if it has always existed as it is. Dillon passes his own test – for Essayism comes complete, and it ends complete, and the idea that it began or once was anything other than it is now, cannot be believed. It is whole.
Rebecca Watson is a freelance reviewer and writer. Her portfolio includes The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, Metro, Times Literary Supplement and TES. She is an Editorial Assistant at the Financial Times and Assistant Editor at Review 31.