The essay, as everyone knows, is a dying art. The grand old days of Hazlitt, Lamb, Coleridge. Emerson, Chesterton, Shaw, Virginia Woolf et al - happy times when we could dip at will into the best thoughts of the best minds and draw out maxims for life, pausing only to restoke an aromatic pipe - have long since passed, Even the moralising Victorian tub-thumpers (Mill, Ruskin, Arnold, Bagehot) play to empty houses. These days, we rely on self-help manuals and astrology for that sort of thing. Essays? We don't really trust 'em: they too closely resemble sermons or lectures; they make us want to fidget or giggle. Essays are what we slog through at university, what we have crises over. They are preachy and didactic, forcing us to put ticks in the margin or shake our heads, or think twice about something - not popular activities. Essays can hardly avoid an over-confident sit-down-while-I'm-talking tone that we find, perhaps, hard to take, in short, the form seems out-of-date: in an age of fractured authority and multiple points of view, it is literature as whole-class teaching. Worse, it seems smug: Ben Jonson said an essay was "a few loose sentences, and that's all"; and whoever referred to it as "taking a line for a walk" conjured up, in that breezy and modest notion, the suggestion of something tame and bourgeois, something that would obediently leap into the boot of the Volvo with a wag of its tail.
In fact it is precisely the opposite that makes essays so engaging: the sense of risk. In medieval times an essay had a tournamental feel - knights essayed single combat - and the whiff of danger lingers on. A lightly- armed writer enters the lists with nothing but his (or her) wit to rely on. The theme can be resonant (truth, beauty, justice, etc) or winsome: Chesterton could write charmingly about the pleasures of chasing a hat down a windy street, or subtly about the colour of a piece of chalk, in both cases making teasing inferences about the nature of human life.
In a way, an essay is just a grown-up version of the tie-breakers in supermarket quizzes: Complete the line "I think history is bunk because. . ." in not more than 10,000 words. Essayists are preachers, but also the stand- up comedians of literature: there are no props to tall back on. Neither is there a plot. Novelists require their readers to sign an invisible contract promising to indulge their clever lies. But essayists tell the truth. They just say what they think, as nicely or as brutally as they can.
Or do we? As it happens, volumes of essays are tumbling from the presses in spectacular numbers. This summer sees the publication of collections by Nicholson Baker, JM Coetzee, Gary Indiana, Barbara Kingsolver, Mario Vargas Llosa, Cynthia Ozick and Octavio Paz. Out soon: Andre Brink and Bruce Chatwin. Still in the bookshops: spacious ruminations on life and art, on nature and science, on love and death, by, amongst others, Barthes, Bellow, Calvino, Brodsky, Umberto Eco, Gordimer, Toni Morrison, Susan Sontag, Gore Vidal, Updike and Camille Paglia.
One thing you can't help noticing about this list, though: none of these writers is English. It is tempting to cite immediately our famous lack of regard for authors, especially authors with the cheek to write outside their "fields" - what the heck has a poet to tell us about politics; what can a novelist know about science? But this doesn't quite wash. Many of our top writers - Rushdie, Amis, Barnes, Byatt, Steiner - have published collections of essays in recent years, and if most of them began life as book reviews, well, so what? Nearly all essays start out as something else: lectures, acceptance speeches, introductions, travelogues, memoirs, magazine features or newspaper columns. There have been some attempts recently to revive the pamphlet - assorted blasts and counterblasts on everything from the future of the family to the meaning of fairy tales. …