The essay meanders towards an undefined end point, taking the reader along as a co-traveller. Often the that end point offers no more certainty than was possessed at the outset; it is the journey, and what revelations appear along the way, that matters to the writer. This approach distinguishes the essay writer from the polemicist or, what Ed Smith in a recent New Statesman piece terms, the ‘controversialist’:I determine nothing; I do not comprehend things; I suspend judgement; I examine.
While the rants of the polemicist are polarising and provocative, the essay is gentler and more inclusive—criteria Virginia Woolf, herself brilliantly accomplished in the art, thought essential:The essayist reveals his personal experience only when it leads to wider truths. The controversialist relies on shocking personal confessions because he has nothing else to say. The essayist is measured about which aspects of his personality can be made public, which must remain private.
In this e-age where everyone can find some forum to voice their opinions or claim to be an expert on this topic or that, the honest, ponderous medium of the essay feels ever more refreshing.A good essay must have this permanent quality about it; it must draw its curtain round us, but it must be a curtain that shuts us in not out (The Common Reader: First and Second Series).