What is ‘The Essay’?

Lit Hub: “As accommodating as they are to subject matter and formal experimentation, essays permit no substitutes; every piece of short nonfiction prose is not an essay … the term ‘essay’ is ambiguous and thus allows those who use it to project onto it whatever it is that we either find most desirable or objectionable about certain kinds of nonfiction writing.”

“It is also easier to define the essay by insisting on what it is not. A habitual skepticism and self-awareness are qualities of mind we often associate with the genre’s most famous practitioners … essayists undo certainties almost as soon as they dare to appear in their own minds, or at least on their pages … genuine essays must not be confused with stories, and formulaic school writing … and worst of all, scholarly articles.”

“Michel de Montaigne … was the first to name his compositions “essais” when he first published them in 1580 … His titles reveal curiosity and reach: several of his most famous essays on topics with broad appeal, ‘Of friendship,’ ‘Of books,’ and ‘Of experience,’ find for company more unexpected foci, ‘Of the custom of wearing clothes,’ ‘Of smells,’ and ‘Of thumbs’ … With his own example, Montaigne offers his reader the possibility that the essay itself can protect us from our worst impulses—to ‘parrot’—and gives us something to do with what we know.”

“Montaigne seeks an education that would require students to examine ‘the relationship between individuals and the conventions by which their experience is defined and contained’ … ‘The true mirror of our discourse is the course of our lives’ … he is most concerned not that our language reflects our actions, ‘the course of our lives,’ but that we will shape our lives to fit the language we have learned to value; his essays model a use of language that encourages us to examine lies we are tempted to tell about those lives.”