We recently posted about the lengthy essay Losing the War, and it set me to thinking about the essay itself as a form. We’ve talked about lengths and forms before, but in the context of fiction: what makes a short story a short story, versus a novelette, or a novella, or a novel. It might just be my impression, but it seems like essays have been largely relegated to the past. We read essays from figures in history, like the Federalist Papers, but there is a dearth of modern essays. That may be primarily because we call them articles now, perhaps because of the looming specters of our high school English teachers with their frustrating and limiting obsessions for five paragraph formats, thesis statement formulae, and contrived opening lines. Yet I am convinced that the venerable essay tradition does have a place beyond ritualized English classes.
We’ve posted essays here on the site, but we’ve never taken the time to define what separates an essay from a generic blog post. Is this post itself an essay? How is an essay different from an article? Are my book reviews essays? The context will have some influence on what constitutes an essay, but these days I consider an essay to be a long-form, written analysis or reflection on a particular topic that can be primarily expository, but should have an element of persuasion or assertion. It need not have five paragraphs, it need not have a precisely formatted first paragraph with a thesis as the last sentence, and it need not have all of the points the essay will cover neatly laid out therein.
I was reading an article recently (not an essay) on a website, and I noticed that it had a progress bar at the top with an estimate of how long it would take me to finish reading the article. Aside from being vaguely insulted at the tedious pace at which the site assumed I could read, I found the whole concept disconcerting. If I find an article interesting enough to start reading, I will almost always finish it; I’m not so impatient and rushed that I need to be given a sort of temporal permission to read. This, I think, is why the essay has fallen out of favor. We are so interested in the digest version, the short version, the bottom line, the summary, that we wouldn’t want to take the time to read a whole essay on a single topic. Sometimes, this is called a “bottom line up front,” and we’re even taught to put this at the top of emails, so that people will just have to read the first line, and not bother with the rest. It’s enough to make me start implementing BLOBs (bottom line on bottom) just so that people will be obligated to actually read what I took the time to write. Or at least they will have to scroll through it.
It’s true that we live in a supersaturated information age, but I don’t believe that’s a reason to abandon longer form expression. The world is too complicated to be effectively reduced to sound bites and two sentence summaries. I wonder how many debates and arguments and disagreements could be resolved, or at least tempered, if the participants took the time to really reflect upon the topic and think about it, explore it in detail, instead of leaping to conclusions and looking for a dramatic line. Not everything we say needs to strive to compete with the Spartan king’s response to being told that the enemy’s arrows would blot out the sun. There is a time to dramatically proclaim “then we will fight in the shade,” and there is a time to dig into a topic and consider it in a more reasoned matter. The essay is a form through which to accomplish the latter.
Most people, I acknowledge, will continue to look for the short thing, the easy thing. Shorter, they will say, is easier to digest. I would argue that at some point it becomes so short that it will pass right through without being digested at all. If a topic is really worth knowing about, it’s probably worth taking the time to chew on it a little. Essays can help you do that.