When Nicholas Gruen asked me to review The Best Australian Essays 2006 published by Black Inc (in which his essay on Adam Smith – workshopped right here at Club Troppo earlier this year – features), the first question I asked myself was a really basic one. What is an essay? Not the sort we inflict on our
victims students at university or high school, but the literary genre “essay”?
The ubiquitous Wikipedia (which incidentally gets slagged along with Google in an entertaining if not especially profound essay by Gideon Haigh in BAE 2006) asserts that there’s substantial definitional overlap between the essay, the article and the short story. Fair enough for “article”, but surely a short story is a work of fiction while an essay is almost always in the realm of non-fiction.
Every source I checked, including both Wikipedia and the introduction to The Best Australian Essays 2006 by its editor Drusilla Modjeska, observed that the essay genre (or at least its label) was invented by Montaigne. Wikipedia also quotes a rather more informative observation by Aldous Huxley about the essay form:
Like the novel, the essay is a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything. By tradition, almost by definition, the essay is a short piece, and it is therefore impossible to give all things full play within the limits of a single essay. But a collection of essays can cover almost as much ground, and cover it almost as thoroughly, as can a long novel. Montaigne’s Third Book is the equivalent, very nearly, of a good slice of the Com©die Humaine. Essays belong to a literary species whose extreme variability can be studied most effectively within a three-poled frame of reference. There is the pole of the personal and the autobiographical; there is the pole of the objective, the factual, the concrete-particular; and there is the pole of the abstract-universal.
BAE 2006 certainly contains works from each of the personal, factual and abstract/universal poles, and the best of its essays embody more than one of those poles.
However, my own expectations for a work in the essay genre are better encapsulated in an essay about essays by Paul Graham:
To understand what a real essay is, we have to reach back into history again, though this time not so far. To Michel de Montaigne, who in 1580 published a book of what he called “essais.” He was doing something quite different from what lawyers do, and the difference is embodied in the name. Essayer is the French verb meaning “to try” and an essai is an attempt. An essay is something you write to try to figure something out.
Figure out what? You don’t know yet. And so you can’t begin with a thesis, because you don’t have one, and may never have one. An essay doesn’t begin with a statement, but with a question. In a real essay, you don’t take a position and defend it. You notice a door that’s ajar, and you open it and walk in to see what’s inside.
If all you want to do is figure things out, why do you need to write anything, though? Why not just sit and think? Well, there precisely is Montaigne’s great discovery. Expressing ideas helps to form them. Indeed, helps is far too weak a word. Most of what ends up in my essays I only thought of when I sat down to write them. That’s why I write them.
If I want a piece of didactic, ideologically loaded writing, I can always read the op-ed pages of any newspaper, or for that matter most blog posts. An essay needs to be more reflective, teasing out nuances of a topic in a way that surprises and delights (or frightens or saddens).
Quite a few of the essays in BAE 2006 are of that sort, but quite a few disappoint. BAE 2006 is a literary curate’s egg: good in parts. Every couple of essays I’d find myself thinking: “If these are Australia’s best essays I’d hate to see the worst”. But then I’d reach a little gem that restored my faith and kept me reading with interest and pleasurable if not breathless anticipation. BAE 2006 isn’t a rivetting summer holiday page-turner by any means, but it’s certainly worth purchasing, especially if you live in Melbourne and can take advantage of Nicholas Gruen’s generous discount offer. Of the 32 published essays, I found 16 of them well worth reading. That isn’t a bad hit rate, although I must admit my expectations before reading it were a little higher given the tag “best”.
Over at Lava Rodeo, several of the commenters observe that the blogosphere generates numerous essays every bit as good a (and in some cases better than) most of the works anthologised in BAE 2006. I agree. Certainly the personal essays by Ampersand Duck and Kerryn Goldsworthy mentioned in today’s Missing Link are just as moving and finely crafted as their equivalents in BAE 2006, as is almost anything Don Arthur writes and lots of David Tiley’s posts as well.
However, I’m not meaning to damn this book with faint praise. The best of the essays published in BAE 2006 are very fine pieces of writing indeed. I particularly enjoyed Alan Frost’s From the Reef Country, a gentle reminiscence about growing up as the son of a school teacher in country Queensland in the 1940s and 50s, especially its shocking and unexpected conclusion. And Anne Deveson’s The Man Who Escaped, about her ambivalent relationship with her British Raj era father, with its background of the Japanese conquest of Malaya and Singapore in 1942, is a beautiful and evocative piece of writing. Just as impressive, while we’re lingering at Huxley’s personal/autobiographical pole, is Georgia Blain’s essay Writing About Us, dealing movingly with her brother’s schizophrenia, drug addiction and inevitable death.
At Huxley’s factual pole, several essays stand out too. Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man reminded me of the best of Helen Garner’s writing – documentary in subject matter but literary in sensibility and with the author and her reactions forming a counterpoint in the narrative. It tells the story of the inquest into the death of Cameron Doomadgee at Palm Island (for which a local police officer was recently found responsible by the coroner, but who is yet to be charged with any offence AFAIK). Chris Sarra’s Armed for Success tells of the author’s passion and dramatic success in improving indigenous kids’ school attendance and literacy levels in outback Queensland. Like Noel Pearson, Sarra is a refreshing voice in a mostly depressing Aboriginal policy landscape.
Crikey’s Margaret Simons also figures here at the factual pole, with an interesting essay about the pros and cons of sending kids to high school in the public system in Victoria versus the attractions of private schools flush with funds from the Howard government. Simons makes a strong case for her local public high school, though she’s frank enough to concede that her kids probably won’t end up going there because all their (very middle class) primary school friends are being sent to high school elsewhere. It’s a decision Jen and I are soon facing for her daughter Jessica, and one Jenny Parish and I wrestled with for Rebecca only a few years ago, so I can identify with the issues Simons discusses.
Mark McKenna’s essay Writing the Past also engaged my interest. McKenna argues that the History Wars have caused readers to lose faith in the authenticity of historians’ writing, and that many instead are tending to rely on works of ‘fictive history’ like Peter Carey’s The True History of the Kelly Gang or Kate Grenville’s The Secret River as providing a “truer” albeit fictionalised picture of Australia’s past. McKenna’s evidence for this assertion isn’t all that convincing, but it’s interesting just the same. If only Chris Sheil was still blogging; I’d be keen to read his reactions to this essay.
I also really enjoyed Hazel Rowley’s essay about Sartre and de Beauvoir’s trip to Brazil in 1960, and Sartre’s unconsummated affair with a beautiful and mysterious young Brazilian journalist. Robert Hughes’ essay The God of Realism, about Rembrandt, is also excellent. Alfred W. McCoy’s Outcasts of Camp Echo is also worth reading, if only as a fairly detailed exposition of issues surrounding David Hicks and American practices at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere. It doesn’t tell you anything you can’t as easily read in the mainstream media (or the blogosphere) with a quick Google, but it’s quite well written.
At Huxley’s abstract/universal pole, Nicholas Gruen’s Adam Smith essay stands out, and I also enjoyed philosopher Raimon Gaita’s Justice and Hope, although just about any extended blog post written by Club Troppo’s own Don Arthur is as good or better. If Modjeska had chosen to draw on the rich resources of the blogosphere, BAE 2006 would almost certainly be a far better book. Maybe Missing Link and the “best blog essays of 2006” anthology that Laura is threatening to write might help next year’s BAE editor to produce a more consistently high quality anthology.
I won’t dwell on the numerous dud essays in BAE 2006, except to comment that Modjeska appears in places to have made her selections based more on the fame of the author than the quality of his work. Clive James’ Starting With Sludge (about his childhood reading habits – Biggles, Sherlock Holmes, Bulldog Drummond etc) is a shallow and vapid piece of work; Clive doing it by the numbers. It has no place in any anthology bearing the label “best”. The same goes for Robert Drewe’s Prison Diary, about his experiences as a writer in residence in a British prison, and JM Coetzee’s Roads to Translation, arguably the most turgid and boring essay in the book. No, wait a minute, I forgot about Robert Manne’s Little America, which regurgitates every cliche ever written about the Great Satan Hegemon at inordinate length and with a breathtaking lack of insight or originality.