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? A new book by the American novelist-essayist David Shields (to be published here by Hamish Hamilton early next year) makes the case for irregularity. In Reality Hunger: A Manifesto Shields argues passionately for the superiority of the messy real – of what we might call “truthiness” – over the careful creations of novelists, and other artists, who work with artificial and imagined narratives. For Shields it is exactly what is tentative, unmade and unpolished in the essay form that is important. He finds the crafted novel, with its neat design and completist attitude, to be a dull and generic thing, too artificial to deal effectively with what is already an “unbearably artificial world”. He recommends instead that artists break “ever larger chunks of ‘reality’ into their work”, via quotation, appropriation, prose poems, the collage novel . . . in short, the revenge of the real, by any means necessary. And conventional structure be damned.
more from Zadie Smith at The Guardian here.