Essayism by Brian Dillon

Debates about whether the digital world is shortening attention spans rumble on. School teachers now report that pupils can’t concentrate for long, and the likely cause is the constant distraction of digital gadgets and social media. University teachers report that year one is remedial work, an exercise in basic education. ( No doubt there is a whole raft of societal and educational problems behind this, over which readers of The Times Educational Supplement, teachers, parents, and government ministers agonise.

Dumbing down is paralleled by the trend in western culture for lives to be more frantically busy than ever. The incessant demands of ‘getting and spending’ (as Wordsworth astutely it observed in 1806,, making sure the neighbours see your conspicuous consumption, working longer hours than ever in history, and being shattered at the end of each day are all the norm. The sickness has run so deep that one is pitied if not scurrying around like an ant in the midday heat, making friends with other ants who are likewise trying to impress you. All this means that few people seem to have the time for sustained reading. Why, after all, should one enter into the life of the mind when one could actually be living? If this is a predicament you recognise, why not consider the format of the essay? The impossible demands of a whole book can be exchanged for one hour with some carefully crafted and concise thoughts.

Brian Dillon (Brian Dillon (Author of Essayism) ( is an articulate advocate for the literary form of the essay. Sometimes people claim the form is dead, but then people claim literary forms are dead all the time and they carry on regardless. Aldous Huxley described the essay as ‘one damned thing after another’; Virginia Woolf argued that its sole purpose is to ‘give pleasure’, leading to the inevitable caveat that one person’s pleasure might be another person’s pain, and so on. Yet Woolf also meant that the essayist must be deeply solicitous of the reader, like a charming dinner party guest. More recently we have seen the rise of the ‘personal essay’ – like a dinner party guest who tells you in great detail about their favourite sexual positions or, worse, their recent loft conversion. With the personal essay, everything must be ‘true’ or the writer may be found out and rebuked. To add to the fun, we have also recently witnessed the rise of fictional essays or essayistic fictions, in which nothing must be ‘true’ at all. Thus we might join Edward Hoagland in denouncing the essay as a ‘greased pig’ and leave it at that.

Dillon advises us that the essay is an ancient form with an eye on the future, a genre poised between tradition and experiment. The essay may tend to wander, but also strives toward symmetry and wholeness; it nurses competing urges to integrity and disarray, perfection and fragmentation, confession and invention.

Dillon’s book is a personal, critical and polemical look at this genre, its history and contemporary possibilities. It’s an example of what it describes: an essay that is curious and digressive, exacting yet evasive, a form that would instruct, seduce and mystify in equal measure. Among the essayists to whom he pays tribute – from Virginia Woolf to Georges Perec, Joan Didion to Sir Thomas Browne – Brian Dillon discovers a path back into his own life as a reader, and out of melancholia to a new sense of writing as adventure. I hope you may share that adventure with him.

Enquire at your local library. Check if this excellent work of literary criticism is in stock by consulting the online catalogue at

228 pages in Fitzcarraldo Editions

First published 2017

ISBN  978-1910695418

Brian Dillon

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