The Marginalian
The Marginalian

What Makes a Great Essay?

Ah, the timeless power and joy of a great essay: Joan Didion on self-respect; David Foster Wallace on the nature of fun; Susan Sontag on courage and resistance; George Orwell on why writers write. But where, exactly, does that intangible magic of the essay reside?

Besides beautiful writing by such literary titans as Malcolm Gladwell (“Creation Myth”), Francine Prose (“Other Women”), Alan Lightman (“The Accidental Universe”), and Miah Arnold (“You Owe Me”), The Best American Essays 2012 (public library; UK) also offers a necessary meditation on the art and nature of the essay itself. Robert Atwan writes in the foreword:

Essayists like to examine — or, to use an essayist’s favorite term, consider — topics from various perspectives. To consider is not necessarily to conclude; the essayist delights in a suspension of judgment and even an inconsistency that usually annoys the ‘so what’s your point?’ reader. The essayist, by and large, agrees with Robert Frost that thinking and voting are two different acts.

In the vein of recent debates about how personal the writerly persona should be, Atwan echoes Vonnegut’s famous advice and advocates for fully inhabiting one’s own personality in writing:

From the start, [students] would need to understand that — as we know from all the great essayists — ruminating on a topic doesn’t mean that the writing will be impersonal. The essayist’s reflections will be indistinguishable from a particular personality or temperament.


Essays can be lots of things, maybe too many things, but at the core of the genre is an unmistakable receptivity to the ever-shifting process of our minds and moods. If there is any essential characteristic we can attribute to the essay, it may be this: that the truest examples of the form enact that ever-shifting process, and in that enactment we can find the basis for the essay’s qualification to be regarded seriously as imaginative literature and the essayist’s claim to be taken seriously as a creative writer.

In the introduction, David Brooks adds a historical context, suggesting that the internet has ushered in a new Golden Age of the essay:

The essay hit a bad patch for a little while. Yet today I think it’s coming back. The age of academic jargon is passing. The Internet has paradoxically been a boon to essayists. Yes, there is Twitter and blogging and hysteria on the Internet and all the things Jonathan Franzen says he doesn’t like. But the Internet makes far-flung essays so accessible [and] has aroused the energies of hundreds of thousands of intelligent amateurs.

Brooks ends with the perfect definition — part poetic, part practical — of what makes a great essay:

The self-improving ethos was something that was taken for granted in the mid-twentieth century, and now we’re fortified by the knowledge that the things that are most lasting and edifying are the things that lodge in the brain most deeply, which means they are emotional, enjoyable, and fun.

Dive into The Best American Essays 2012 for some empirical examples, then complement them with F. Scott Fitzgerald on the secret of great writing, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, and Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques for modern prose.

Published February 8, 2013




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