Reading Essays: An Invitation

By G. Douglas Atkins | Go to book overview

A Note on Writing the Essay
The Issue of Process versus Product
(with an essay by Cara McConnell)

‘Tis hard to say, if greater Want of Skill
Appear in Writing or in Judging ill;
But, of the two, less dang’rous is th’ Offence,
To tire our Patience, than mis-lead our Sense:
Some few in that, but Numbers err in this,
Ten Censure wrong for one who Writes amiss.

—Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism

INTRODUCING The Art of the Personal Essay, Phillip Lopate rejects the judgment borrowed from the Spanish philosopher Eduardo Nicol that the essay is “almost literature” and “almost philosophy.” I used these phrases as an epigraph in my Tracing the Essay and have modified and extended them in the present book. While apparently accepting Walter Pater’s description of the essay’s “unmethodical method,” Lopate, himself an essayist of no mean accomplishment, offers this claim about one of the most important, and most troubling, issues facing study, use, and incorporation of the essay: “From my perspective,” Lopate harrumphs, “there is no almost about it: good essays are works of literary art. Their supposed formlessness is more a strategy to disarm the reader with the appearance of unstudied spontaneity than a reality of composition” (xxxvii–xxxviii). Surely, though, the essayist engages in a ramble, such as has been brilliantly described by Lydia Fakundiny, introducing The Art of the Essay. The ramble is “a reality

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