Best Literary Essays Ever

Harry Mount is a journalist, author and editor of the Notting Hill Editions Journal, which commissions a new essay every week. The latest series of essays are published this month.

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"There's not much point in trying to define an essay. Its parameters are so broad and slack that they encompass practically any shortish passage of non-fiction which makes a general argument.

"As a rough rule of thumb, I'd say anything that creeps over 40,000 words is entering book territory; and anything too autobiographical strays into memoir. But, still, you could write 50,000 words about yourself, and it could be an essay in every regard.

"It sounds banal, but all that matters is quality of writing and thought. Here are 10 that are exceptional in both departments."

1. George Orwell, Why I Write (1946)

Not an original choice of writer, or of essay. But it would be churlish not to include the man who, more than any other writer over the last century, fine-tuned the form. He applied his essayistic touch to an extreme variety of subjects – the ideal pub, school stories, what makes England England - but this one, on how he became a writer, is my favourite.

The word "intellectual" often brings a lot of dull baggage with it. But Orwell's honesty and humour mean that you're never in danger of being bored. His four reasons for writing - aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, political purpose, sheer egoism - still seem unassailably true today.

2. Martha Gellhorn, Eichmann and the Private Conscience (1962)

You might call Gellhorn's account of Adolf Eichmann's trial in Jerusalem reportage. But that just shows up the flexibility of the essay. A routine bit of reportage remains reportage; brilliant reportage leaps its chains and becomes an essay.

Gellhorn's essay begins with a straight description of the conditions in the court, albeit an atmospheric, closely-observed description: "The air conditioning was too cold, and yet one sweated." But she constantly jumps from factual observation to general, philosophical thought. The seamlessly stitched combination of facts and thoughts becomes a compulsive essay.

3. Evelyn Waugh, A Call to the Orders (1938)

Evelyn Waugh considered life as a printer, cabinet-maker and carpenter before becoming a novelist. He maintained an interest in the visual arts throughout his life; this plea in defence of the classical orders of architecture appeared some time after his literary success began.

The essay is full of angry argument, deep architectural knowledge and lyrical description. "The baroque has never had a place in England; its brief fashion was of short duration; it has been relegated to the holidays – a memory of the happy days in sunglasses, washing away the dust of the southern roads with heady southern wines."

You don't have to agree with the argument to be compelled by it – a rare thing in an essay.

4. Michel de Montaigne, On the Cannibals (1595)

Montaigne is regularly wheeled out as the father of the essay. Debatable, I'd say – the baggy definition of the essay includes much older works.

Still, as well as being early on the essay scene, Montaigne was a natural essay-writer. His essay on cannibalism introduces devices that crop up again and again among the essayists that followed through the centuries. Taking the cannibalism of the Tupinamba tribesmen of Brazil, he uses it as a general analogy for barbarism. "Every man calls barbarous anything he is not accustomed to," he writes, expanding the subject into a discussion on the ideas of primitivism, natural purity and perfection.

5. JM Barrie, Courage (1922)

If you thought Steve Jobs's address to the graduating class of Stanford in 2005 was impressive, prepare to be even more deeply moved by Barrie's speech to the students of St Andrews University in 1922, where he had been voted rector.

Ostensibly about courage, the essay is really about how to deal with the loss of friends and brothers in the first world war; it's aimed at those "who still hear their cries [of the war dead] being blown across the links".

It opens up from the particular to the general, to the qualities needed to deal with such loss, and all with astonishing prescience: "By the time the next eruption comes it may be you who are responsible for it and your sons who are in the lava."

6. Truman Capote, The Duke in his Domain (1957)

Capote is best remembered for his novels, but his non-fiction was exceptional: acidly witty, to the point of nastiness; hyper-observational, to the point of even deeper nastiness. But what is more enjoyable – or, often, truer – than nastiness?

This is the essay-as-interview - in this case with Marlon Brando, at the height of his fame. There's a good deal of nastiness, and racism – "You come see Marron?" says Capote's Japanese guide. But it also gives a rare insight into the perils of celebrity: of too big an entourage, of isolation, of too many appetites being too readily satisfied.

For dinner, Brando, on a diet, orders soup, beefsteak with French-fried potatoes, three supplementary vegetables, a side dish of spaghetti, rolls and butter, a bottle of sake, salad, and cheese and crackers.

7. Jonathan Swift, A Modest Proposal (1729)

Extremely well-known, but that doesn't take away from the effectiveness of Swift's satirical suggestion that the way for the Irish to beat their poverty was to sell their children to the rich as meat and leather.

The best essays, like Swift's, use wit – not just to sugar the pill of heavy prose, but also to ramp up the argument beyond the merely prosaic statement of a thesis.

8. Thomas Paine, Common Sense; Addressed to the Inhabitants of America, on the following interesting subjects (1776)

Paine's pamphlet, anonymous at the time of publication, had a direct effect on the Declaration of Independence.

An argument in the real sense of an argument, it's as if Paine is shouting at you as he rips into the unfairness of a king on one island ruling a continent on the other side of an ocean: "If we will suffer ourselves to examine the component parts of the English Constitution, we shall find them to be the base remains of two ancient tyrannies, compounded with some new Republican materials."

The course of a couple of centuries often turns writing a bit Olde Worlde and quaint. Not here.

9. Isaiah Berlin, The Hedgehog and the Fox (1953)

For all his reputation as the planet-sized brain of the 20th century, Isaiah Berlin was better at the short sprint than the magnum opus. His lectures stick in the minds of those who heard them half a century ago. This essay is just as memorable.

The inspiration came from the Ancient Greek idiom: "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing."

Berlin then sifts through his storage room of a brain to divide writers into one or the other category. Tolstoy, who forms the heart of the essay, wanted to be a hedgehog but was really a fox. Other foxes include Aristotle, Montaigne and Shakespeare. Plato and Proust are hedgehogs.

All a bit reductive perhaps, but really enjoyable, and a useful boilerplate when it comes to considering the ideas of other writers.

10. AN Wilson, In Defence of Gay Priests (2003)

Normally, a newspaper comment piece would never be long, or substantial, enough to constitute an essay. But this article – justifying the appointment of Jeffrey John, the Dean of St Albans, as Bishop of Reading – went way beyond tomorrow's-chip-wrapper material. The personal anecdote and light, jokey manner disguise serious thought and a deeply convincing argument; and the article becomes an essay.

If there’s one topic that writers can be counted on to tackle at least once in their working lives, it’s writing itself. A good thing too, especially for all those aspiring writers out there looking for a little bit of guidance. For some winter inspiration and honing of your craft, here you’ll find ten great essays on writing, from the classic to the contemporary, from the specific to the all-encompassing. Note: there are many, many, many great essays on writing. Bias has been extended here to personal favorites and those available to read online. Also of note but not included: full books on the subject like Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Stephen King’s On Writing, and Ron Carlson’s Ron Carlson Writes a Story, or, in a somewhat different sense, David Shields’ Reality Hunger, for those looking for a longer commitment. Read on, and add your own favorite essays on writing to the list in the comments.

“Not-Knowing,” Donald Barthelme, from Not Knowing: the Essays and Interviews of Donald Barthelme. Read it here.

In which Barthelme, a personal favorite and king of strange and wonderful stories, muses on not-knowing, style, our ability to “quarrel with the world, constructively,” messiness, Mallarmé, and a thief named Zeno passed out wearing a chastity belt.

“The not-knowing is crucial to art, is what permits art to be made. Without the scanning process engendered by not-knowing, without the possibility of having the mind move in unanticipated directions, there would be no invention.”

“Fairy Tale Is Form, Form Is Fairy Tale,” Kate Bernheimer, from The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays From Tin House. Read it here.

Bernheimer is a constant champion of the fairy tale and its influence on literature at large (not least as editor of The Fairy Tale Review), and a writer we couldn’t do without. This essay unpacks the formal elements of fairy tales, and does a fair bit more than hint at their essentialness to writers of all kinds.

“Fairy tales hold a key to the door fiercely locked between so-called realism and nonrealism, convention and experimentalism, psychology and abstraction. A key for those who see these as binaries, that is… Every writer is like a topsy- turvy doll that on one side is Red Riding Hood and on the other side the Wolf, or on the one side is a Boy and on the other, a Raven and Coffin. The traditional techniques of fairy tales—identifiable, named—are reborn in the different ways we all tell stories.”

“Reflections on Writing,” Henry Miller, from The Wisdom of the Heart. Read a few excerpts here.

A characteristically wonderful exploration of Miller’s own emotional, psychological, and technical struggles with writing.

“I had to grow foul with knowledge, realize the futility of everything; smash everything, grow desperate, then humble, then sponge myself off the slate, as it were, in order to recover my authenticity. I had to arrive at the brink and then take a leap in the dark.”

“The Figure a Poem Makes,” Robert Frost, from Collected Poems. Read it here.

A gorgeous mini-essay from an American giant that is equally relevant to writers of poetry or prose, and is almost a poem itself.

“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”

“On Style,” Susan Sontag, from Against Interpretation. Read it here.

As much about criticism as it is about writing (and perhaps more), Sontag dissects style versus form versus content versus the conceptions of all these things that we have in our heads.

“In other words, what is inevitable in a work of art is the style. To the extent that a work seems right, just, unimaginable otherwise (without loss or damage) , what we are responding to is a quality of its style. The most attractive works of art are those which give us the illusion that the artist had no alternatives, so wholly centered is he in his style. Compare that which is forced, labored, synthetic in the construction of Madame Bovary and of Ulysses with the ease and harmony of such equally ambitious works as Les Liaisons Dangereuses and Kafka’s Metamorphosis. The first two books I have mentioned are great indeed. But the greatest art seems secreted, not constructed.”

“Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T.S. Eliot, from The Sacred Wood. Read it here.

Whether or not you subscribe to Eliot’s “impersonal theory” of poetry, or his conception of the artist’s inevitable “self-sacrifice” to the past, there’s no arguing that this essay is a barn-burner.

“If you compare several representative passages of the greatest poetry you see how great is the variety of types of combination, and also how completely any semi-ethical criterion of “sublimity” misses the mark. For it is not the “greatness,” the intensity, of the emotions, the components, but the intensity of the artistic process, the pressure, so to speak, under which the fusion takes place, that counts.”

“The Ecstasy of Influence,” Jonathan Lethem, from The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, etc.. Read it here.

Here, Lethem discusses not just the shifty concept of plagiarism in fiction, but the anxiety of appropriating pop culture, copyright, Disney, the power of a gift economy, the idea of a “commons of cultural materials,” art of all forms. A must-read for any contemporary creator, especially if you’ve ever nicked a line from a favorite book.

“Most artists are brought to their vocation when their own nascent gifts are awakened by the work of a master. That is to say, most artists are converted to art by art itself. Finding one’s voice isn’t just an emptying and purifying oneself of the words of others but an adopting and embracing of filiations, communities, and discourses. Inspiration could be called inhaling the memory of an act never experienced. Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void but out of chaos. Any artist knows these truths, no matter how deeply he or she submerges that knowing.”

“How to Write with Style,” Kurt Vonnegut, from How to Use the Power of the Written Word. Read it here.

Vonnegut is an enduring treasure trove of literary advice — everyone you know has seen this excellent video of the man explaining the shapes of stories — and this little essay is no different: clever, whip-smart, and told with joy.

“Why should you examine your writing style with the idea of improving it? Do so as a mark of respect for your readers, whatever you’re writing. If you scribble your thoughts any which way, your reader will surely feel that you care nothing about them. They will mark you down as an ego maniac or a chowderhead — or, worse, they will stop reading you.”

“Why I Write,” George Orwell. Read it here.

It’s hard to put together a list of great essays without including something from Orwell. So why not this one, forever quoted by anyone who has ever tried to write a novel, or wanted to?

“All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane. I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed. And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.”

“On Keeping a Notebook,” Joan Didion, from Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Read it here.

But of course: the essay that has launched a thousand notebook-keepers.

“Why did I write it down? In order to remember, of course, but exactly what was it I wanted to remember? How much of it actually happened? Did any of it? Why do I keep a notebook at all? It is easy to deceive oneself on all those scores. The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself. I suppose that it begins or does not begin in the cradle. Although I have felt compelled to write things down since I was five years old, I doubt that my daughter ever will, for she is a singularly blessed and accepting child, delighted with life exactly as life presents itself to her, unafraid to go to sleep and unafraid to wake up. Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.”

George Orwell    Henry Miller    Joan Didion    Jonathan Lethem    Kurt Vonnegut    robert frost    Susan Sontag    T.S. Eliot

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