Zadie Smith in The Guardian:
Suffering from 'novel nausea', Zadie Smith wonders if the essay lives up to its promise.
Why do novelists write essays? Most publishers would rather have a novel. Bookshops don't know where to put them. It's a rare reader who seeks them out with any sense of urgency. Still, in recent months Jonathan Safran Foer, Margaret Drabble, Chinua Achebe and Michael Chabon, among others, have published essays, and so this month will I. And though I think I know why I wrote mine, I wonder why they wrote theirs, and whether we all mean the same thing by the word “essay”, and what an essay is, exactly, these days. The noun has an unstable history, shape-shifting over the centuries in its little corner of the OED.
For Samuel Johnson in 1755 it is: “A loose sally of the mind; an irregular undigested piece; not a regularly and orderly composition.” And if this looks to us like one of Johnson's lexical eccentricities, we're chastened to find Joseph Addison, of all people, in agreement (“The wildness of these compositions that go by the name of essays”) and behind them both three centuries of vaguely negative connotation. Beginning in the 1500s an essay is: the action or process of trying or testing; a sample, an example; a rehearsal; an attempt or endeavour; a trying to do something; a rough copy; a first draft. Not until the mid 19th century does it take on its familiar, neutral ring: “a composition more or less elaborate in style, though limited in range.” Which is it, though, that attracts novelists – the comforts of limit or the freedom of irregularity?