José Saramago, Portuguese novelist and winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature, once remarked, “In effect I am not a novelist, but rather a failed essayist who started to write novels because I didn’t know how to write essays.” I’ve always found his words both amusing and intriguing, a clever refutation of the assumption that people write essays because they are less difficult than novels. They are shorter, to be sure, and differently structured. But ease of writing is not necessarily one of their virtues, particularly when the so-called personal essay is involved.
I enjoy reading novels, but when it comes to writing I’d much rather explore the world around me than invent a fictional world from whole cloth. I’m intrigued by the challenges posed by attempting to communicate rich, densely-textured realities through the apparently simple essay form, and delight in the freedom to move from one topic to another as my curiosity is piqued and my attention engaged.
Alain de Botton, another prolific essayist whose The Art of Travel is one of my favorites, says, “I am conscious of trying to stretch the boundaries of non-fiction writing. It’s always surprised me how little attention many non-fiction writers pay to the formal aspects of their work.”
He goes on to add, “I passionately believe it’s not just what you say that counts, it’s also how you say it – the success of your argument critically depends on your manner of presenting it.” (more…)