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Adam Phillips, The Art of Nonfiction No. 7
Issue no. 208 (Spring 2014)
An essay is a mixture of the conversational and the coherent and has, to me, the advantages of both. There doesn’t have to be a beginning, a middle, and an end, as there tends to be in a short story. Essays can wander, they can meander. Also, the nineteenth-century essayists whom I like, like Emerson and Lamb and Hazlitt, are all people who are undogmatic but very moralistic, though it’s not quite clear what that moralism is. That’s to say, they are clearly people of very strong views who are trying not to be fanatical. The essay is very rarely a fanatical form, it seems to me, partly because you’d just run out of steam. It would just be propaganda of the most boring sort. In order to write a compelling essay, you have to be able to change tone. I think you also have to be reflexively self-revising. It’s not that these things are impossible in other genres, but they’re very possible in essays. As the word essay suggests, it’s about trying something out, it’s about an experiment. From the time I began writing—although this wasn’t conscious—I think that was the tradition I was writing in.