Some Thoughts on the Essay Genre

The word essay comes from the French word meaning, “to try”.  In all instances, the genre is an attempt to write about any subject matter – relevant or mundane though maybe on the outset – in the hope to capture an interesting thought, experience and insight from it.  Compared to other genres in literature, essay is the least explored and may be considered to be the least popular, but the scope of this genre is huge, ranging from the formal, clear-cut essays popularized by Montaigne, Addison and Steele and Emerson to the informal loosely-constructed ones popularized by Scott Russell Sanders, George Orwell, EB White and other contemporary writers these days.

The history of the essay goes back to the works of Michel de Montaigne who is touted by many as the genre’s pioneer writer.  The genre became popular in 19th century through the works of Addison and Steele, William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.   By the 20th century, essay was redefined in the works of Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, EB White, James Baldwin and Joan Didion. As of the present, the genre remains stronger than ever. The prestige of the essay seems to be continually rising in many literary circles today because of the growing number of its practitioners lately.

Much of the essay’s rising popularity is due to the fact that the genre has undergone a huge transformation for so many years.

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There are two types of essays – the formal essay and the informal essay.  Formal essays are objective, rational and well organized when it comes to form.  The approach to the subject matter is very straightforward and the ideas presented are arranged in a very organized manner.  Conventional essay forms follow the thesis-topic-sentence-conclusion arrangement and in most cases the beginning, middle and end can be distinguished effortlessly.  The outline of the essay can be easily derived as well.

On the other hand, the informal essay type is what gives the genre its “malleable” form.  In the informal essay, there’s much experimentation as far as form is concerned.  While it is true that formal essays deal with the realms of fixed subject topics and relevant matters, informal essays are defined more by the personality of the writer – the presentation of the Self in his essay.  In the informal essay type, the definition of the essay is starting to get ambiguous because of so many close relations that are attributed to it – new journalism, literary nonfiction / creative nonfiction, feature articles, profiles, etc.

In Imaginative Writing, author Janet Burroway says that the most familiar forms of essay are as follows:  expository (imparts information), narrative (recounts events in order), descriptive (adds sense impressions) and persuasive (wants to influence us).  But what’s interesting in the realm of essay, as what Burroway has emphasized, is the development of literary nonfiction / creative nonfiction where the essay can now incorporate various elements in fiction in recreating a sense of “lived experience”.

In literary nonfiction / creative nonfiction, there is greater attention to the personal voice of the writer, stylistics and dramatic devices.  Works that are classified as creative nonfiction often have writers as characters in the essays.  In creative nonfiction, the writer has more freedom when it comes to form. At some point the genre borrows style and writing techniques both from fiction and poetry – refined language, dialogues, brevity, shifting voices – to bring out a purpose and meaning that will resonate all through out the piece.

Under the creative nonfiction genre, you have memoir (a story retrieved from the writer’s memory with the writer as the protagonist) and personal essay (an idea or an interest deliberately explored and is likely to give rise to meditation on some subject that the experience suggests).

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Very wide-ranging though the genre maybe, it all boils down to the idea that an essay is a genre that begins with a personal experience until it reaches out to a larger idea, insight or thought about the human condition, to which it should end.  In essays, anything is potential for writing.  The essay is a forgiving form, and the writer has the liberty on how to present the subject matter or experience in the most realistic and the most palpable manner possible.

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