NOVEMBER 2, 2018
GOING SOLELY BY its title, you could be forgiven for imagining that Brian Dillon’s Essayism: On Form, Feeling, and Nonfiction might be something like a manifesto. The “ism” of the title is playfully misleading; it suggests a simple unity, an ideological fixity, and perhaps a polemicism that runs contrary not only to the book’s own spirit, but also to its account of the essay. For Dillon, the essay’s essence is elusive — in fact, it’s not an essence that interests him at all, but something subtler. “Essayism,” Dillon writes,
is tentative and hypothetical, and yet it is also a habit of thinking, writing and living that has definite boundaries. It is this combination that I am drawn to in essays and essayists: the sense of a genre suspended between its impulses to hazard or adventure and to achieved form, aesthetic integrity.
In a series of short sections focused on various features, forms, and capabilities of the essay — “On Sentences,” “On Extravagance,” “On the Detail,” “On Diverging” — Dillon inquires into the inner workings of essays and essayists dear to him, from William Gass to Elizabeth Hardwick to Virginia Woolf. His explications are exacting and exhilarating. As Essayism unfolds, it reveals itself to be an essay not only on the essay, but also on its own author. Beyond being a work of unusually rich, imaginative criticism, the book becomes a moving yet unsentimental account of the relationship between literature and depression that illuminates the redemptive consolations of reading and writing.
Dillon spoke with me via Skype from his home in London.
NATHAN GOLDMAN: I wanted to begin with style. In the section “On Style,” you write, “Pushed to say what I value, what I love, in essays and essayists, I sometimes think it is nothing but style.” I love the way you save style from an understanding of it as superficial. You give it an almost metaphysical weight and even an ethical one. Can you tell me more about how you understand style and its importance?
BRIAN DILLON: I think that there’s something fundamental about the engagement with language, for me, because I never started writing from a sense of wanting (or being able) to mount a persuasive or coherent argument. I seem always to start from metaphors, from images, or from a sonic or rhythmic element. And in my reading that’s always what I latch on to as well.
Of course, as you say, it’s not merely something superadded to content or to meaning. I don’t know if “metaphysical” is the word, but yes, it’s certainly ethical. Even though I’m really attracted to an extravagance in style — so some of the people whom I admire, such as William Gass, or Wayne Koestenbaum, or the more gothicized elements of Elizabeth Hardwick’s prose style — it’s always an extravagance in the service of precision. That kind of exactitude is how I think about a certain ethics of style.
I’ve talked myself into something I don’t quite believe there, because I think that, actually, the extravagance itself is also a kind of ethics. There’s a great moment in one of Koestenbaum’s books, I think it’s his book about Harpo Marx, where he says, “We commit a cruelty against existence if we do not interpret it to death.” And I suppose it’s that sense that an excess of style could also be, at the same time, an attempt to exhaust the subject. To do a certain kind of violence to the subject, but in the name of its … truth, for want of a better word.
Also in that section “On Style,” you refer to style — or to a particular kind of it that interests you — as a “ruined poise.” That seems related to your description of the essay as “a genre suspended between its impulses to hazard or adventure and to achieved form, aesthetic integrity.” What did you mean by a “ruined poise”? How is that related to the project of the essay?
I’m trying to describe there two quite divergent attractions that I have to the essay, both as a reader and as a writer. One of them is to a kind of aesthetic polish: unity, completion, integrity, and so on. I like “well-written” essays — except when I don’t, in the sense that I’m also hoping, always, for the thing somehow to fall apart. This is one of the things that the book is about at a more fundamental level — and it might be what, I hope, links the more critical aspects of Essayism with the more personal side — which is, on the one hand, a need for a kind of aesthetic, stylistic, writerly control of one’s subject, whether that’s a kind of personal history that you’re telling or inventing, or whether it’s a critical object you’re trying to describe, and, on the other hand, a real distrust of that act of completion, of resolving through style. What I hoped to do in the book was to try and stage — in the essay, but also in my attitude to the essay and in the voice that I was trying to catch in the book — to stage the contradiction. Because I think the essay actually itself contains that contradiction.
In the section “On Sentences,” you talk about the Walter Benjamin formulation in which the virtue of a sentence is an imperfect perfection. It seems like you’re suggesting that what the essay is up to isn’t just about the structure of an argument or an inquiry, but can really take place at the level of the sentence. It can take place not just by means of prose, but in prose.
Yeah, absolutely. I’m writing a book, which is a kind of follow-up to Essayism, at the moment, that is about sentences. It’s a collection of maybe 25 or 30 essays, each of which is about a specific sentence. And I’m trying really hard not to keep saying that what I admire in this particular sentence is its perfection plus the element of it that is somehow corrupted, or botched, or imperfect. But it seems that I keep doing that. It’s really difficult not to admire excessively that sense that the sentence — or a prose style, or a person, let’s say — is always trying to hold itself together and flying apart at the same time.
One of the writers I pay closest attention to in terms of the actual sentences in Essayism is Hardwick. I’m intrigued, at a certain point in the book, about her comma placement, which often is just slightly off. It unbalances things slightly. And once that happens in a style, it can become a habit, and therefore, of course, it also becomes a means of polish, a way of having a kind of unity. But at the same time, it trips you up. I’m drawn to those moments where this icy perfection somehow slides, fractures.
My sense is that contemporary criticism, in its eagerness to engage with ideas, often discusses prose in a limited way, where it’s relegated to clichés or generalities. Or else it ignores language altogether. But in Essayism, you take great care with language. What draws you to that level of analysis?
Partly, what I’m attempting is a kind of very belated reaction to a moment in my education, my early formation as a writer and a critic, when what we rather naïvely called “close reading” was denigrated. Mine is essentially an education in the moment of high theory, but slightly belated, by having it happen in Ireland, rather than in the United States, or the United Kingdom, or France. And close reading was thought of, for a long time, as a sort of mock-neutral and conservative way of writing about literature. And I think there were really good reasons for abandoning that legacy of the New Criticism.
I suppose I came back to thinking at that level as a critic, as a reader, and as a writer not because I wanted to champion some sense of the thing itself, the text itself, the language itself, but because it seemed that — once I started writing outside of the academy, and once I started to pay attention to writers who hovered on the edges of the academy, but also in magazine publishing or in what you might kind of crudely call a more literary world — that hadn’t gone away. That sense of texture, that I was still getting from academic writers like Roland Barthes, for example, but that, as I started to publish myself, I was getting much more from people who presented themselves as essayists, journalists, people who set out to give you a kind of texture of a voice on the page, as much as argument. So I’ve been increasingly drawn back to that level of thinking.
Critics talk all the time, in academia and outside of it, about material, about wanting to be more grounded in “materiality.” I suppose, for me, the attention to the sentence is exactly what it would mean to be a materialist critic. So it’s not that an attention to the sentence, an attention to language, an attention to style, are a diversion from content, or from history, or from the political. But actually, this is the material. This is the level of materiality at which we ought to be working.
That’s putting it really grandly! At the same time, as I think it’s probably obvious in Essayism, it’s a matter of a desire for the sentence, as well.
How was Essayism conceived at the start? What was the project you intended to do, and what relation does it have to what the book ended up being?
A sentence from Benjamin’s One-Way Street pops into my head: “The work is the death mask of its conception.” I imagined a book mostly of the form that Essayism ended up having, which is that it’s a set of short pieces, each of which addresses an aspect of the form: “On the Fragment,” “On Lists,” “On Style,” et cetera. I didn’t imagine that this book — which probably was always going to talk about Gass, Hardwick, Sontag, Barthes, Benjamin, and so on — I didn’t imagine that it would be punctuated by these much more personal sections. So, in a way, the book, possibly in a nauseatingly easy way, mimics the forms that I’m most admiring of. Which is to say, Essayism kind of fell apart in the execution.
I never imagined writing a book that would function at a level of mastery of its subject, historically. The original project was to try and argue for the vitality of the essay now. But in a way, I don’t need to argue for the vitality of the essay now. The form exists in the world. It’s having what people like to think of as a renaissance, but I don’t know that that’s true … The book isn’t really defending the essay so much as trying to describe my particular investment — or maybe overinvestment — intellectually and emotionally, in the form.
So the short answer is that it became a much more vulnerable book than I’d ever imagined.
You explore the relationship between reading and writing and moments of personal cataclysm, including struggles with clinical depression. But literature doesn’t take on the therapeutic role that I think it often does in writing on this subject. Instead, literature acts as some other kind of salve, having less to do with identification or catharsis than a certain kind of aesthetic experience of the self. How do you understand the consolations of reading and writing?
What I was hoping to describe is the simultaneous sense that writing was working, and has probably worked for me, since adolescence, as both consolation in a quite conventional sense — in the sense that reading helps one get through certain things — and a ruinous, debilitating attraction. I’m embracing those aspects of the essay that perform a kind of melancholy or disarray. And one of the things that the book’s doing is a kind of self-accusation: to say that, as well as being consoled by particular kinds of writing, I’m clearly embracing a certain model of melancholic essayism that is not all that helpful, to put it mildly …
This goes back to what I was saying about being attracted, at the same time, to stylistic achievement and to disorder. The essay functions emotionally in similar ways. To put it in the most practical terms: one of the things I describe in the book is this absurd hope that I have always nurtured, that if I can just write, if I can just carry on producing, turning in my copy, then things will be okay. That’s not an unusual thing for writers to feel, I think. But for me, it’s really connected to the sense of the serial production of essays, of short texts. That if you can keep up this series, if you can keep writing one damn thing after another, then somehow you will keep something at bay. Clearly, this is a myth. But it’s a personal myth that I want to hang on to, because otherwise — what?
You said that the project wasn’t conceived as a personal project. That makes me wonder how those sections came about. It sounds like maybe thinking about the essay in your life made those concerns come to the fore — is that right?
It was quite unthinking, actually. Usually, in writing any book, or essay, or article, I plan and overplan, and so have a quite detailed sense of where I’m going in terms of chapters and the overall structure. This time I had a list of subdivisions of the essay as a topic and writers whom I would cover in specific sections, and at some point I just threw up my hands and thought, “This book is clearly also about me, so I’d better have a go at trying to describe what that is.” So the sections that are called “On Consolation,” of which there are several — originally I think I had just one of those in mind. And they just grew. It sounds awfully naïve and crude to say, but at some point that element of the book … not exactly took over, but ran a little bit wild, within obvious constraints.
A few minutes ago, you mentioned the vitality of the essay and this idea of a renaissance of the essay. We’re in a moment now where there’s a lot of energy focused on the essay and on certain other forms under the heading of “nonfiction,” or under a phrase that you sort of jokingly deride in the book, which I also dislike: “creative nonfiction.” Could you say more about your sense of — and maybe your ambivalence about — that as a phenomenon?
This is hard to describe, because the question has, in very recent years, sort of evanesced. A few years ago, it did seem as if there was a cusp moment, where the question of the essay was very much being at least posited. There was that brief controversy around the idea of the personal essay, and there were books such as David Shields’s Reality Hunger, delineating a particular approach to nonfiction. In Essayism, I don’t enter into that discussion at all. And that was quite deliberate, because I think that — and maybe the phrase “creative nonfiction” is a kind of indicator of this — a lot of that controversy is extremely short-lived, confected, often by the literary world (by publishers, by editors, et cetera) and I don’t really have any interest … I’m surprising myself in saying this, now, but I don’t really have any interest in whether the essay is having its moment, or whether that moment has passed, or whether it’s in need of revival, and so on.
There are certain things I think are obvious, such as: publishers seem now to be more interested in serious literary nonfiction, in a way that, at least in this country — where I’m speaking from, in the United Kingdom — wasn’t the case a decade or so ago, when I started publishing. It would have been strange for me in, say, 2005, when I published my first book, to say, “I am an essayist,” or “I aspire to be an essayist.” That would have seemed a rather precious thing to say. Now, it seems perfectly normal. In the meantime, there’s been a moment of — not exactly overpraising the essay, but pushing that word, that term, into places where it seemed to be simplified, to be doing a little too much work.
[But,] you know, there’s a whole counterargument here, of course, which is to say: it’s a good thing that the essay is having this particular phase, in part — and I hope this is at least clear in my book, if not obvious — that the current moment of the essay is dominated by women, and one of the things that even the perhaps slightly unthinking publishers’ enthusiasm for collections of essays does at the moment is to remind us of the lineage of female essayists. So these localized historical moments, where suddenly the literary world has a kind of passion for a particular form, are not without value, right? So one of the things that writing Essayism was, for me, was partly a way of constellating a number of writers who had been vastly important for me in my writing life over the past decade and a half, and that includes Virginia Woolf, Maeve Brennan, Hardwick again.
Essayism’s title, which comes from Robert Musil’s novel The Man Without Qualities, subtly suggests that, though it’s a book about the essay, it also exceeds the essay. At various moments, you allude to being interested in essayism as a tendency that the essay might exemplify, but which can be present in other forms. Many of the essayists you discuss in the book are also novelists; in fact, some of the works you discuss — Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn — get called novels, or even “essayistic novels.” This is an overly general question, but what do you think about the essay’s relationship to the novel? And what do you think of the idea — which gets talked about a lot lately — of essayistic novels?
This is a vast set of questions, isn’t it? Just to stick with a couple of specifics, first, I think that in some circumstances it would be absurd to talk about Sleepless Nights or The Rings of Saturn without foregrounding the fact that these are inventions, that these are fictions, and their narrators are novelistic characters. And, at the same time, it’s certainly the case that they are partly, or even largely, essayistic.
The basic point that the essay can be present in many other types of writing is surely uncontroversial. I’ve been writing recently about George Eliot, and Middlemarch, for example, has a number of collections of essays contained within the baggy monster of the novel. Eliot is also, to some degree, one of the greatest essayists of the 19th century — it’s just that her essays, unlike those of someone like, say, [Thomas] Carlyle, are contained within the novel. So it’s not unusual to say that essayism might be elsewhere.
The contemporary question — the question about the essayistic novel — is, well, in a way it’s not a question for me to answer, because I haven’t written any sustained fiction. But isn’t what we’re describing when we say that there seems to be a current moment in which novels propose themselves as essays, or include essays, or adopt essayistic tones — aren’t we actually describing what has been the case all along? I’m slightly suspicious of the current arguments about the novelistic essay, or the essayistic novel, just as I’m a little bit suspicious about current propositions about what is being called “autofiction,” which of course has been around for a long time and under precisely the same label.
I don’t want to start guessing about what the motivations for that are, why it might be that we seem to want to describe novels in that way. I can only really think about it as an essayist and as someone who learns from novels, and maybe learns from novels in a different way in the moments when they propose themselves as arguments or direct addresses to a reader. But I guess I also learn — as an essayist, as a critic, as a writer of nonfiction — from the construction of an “I” in the novel. And maybe that is the reason why I’m particularly attracted to novelists who seem to be interested in the particular drift of consciousness. And here Woolf would be the obvious example. Sebald would be a distant version of this. And somebody like Hardwick would be another facet of that.
All of this stuff is on my mind at the moment, partly because I have begun to admit in public that I might be thinking about writing a novel.
Is there anything you’d share about that at this stage?
[W]hat I’m interested in trying to do is to turn away from the elements of memoir, or confessional, or not exactly confessional writing in some of what I’ve done, and to try and invent a voice that comes from somewhere completely else. And, at the same time, I know that all of these questions about the essayistic novel and about autofiction are not going to suddenly leak away, so I cannot predict what this thing is going to be, but I suspect that it will have a relation to the essay, to nonfiction, to the real, in ways that are unplanned.