Sunday, 28 December 2008

the return of the familiar essay

the belle vue is enjoyable for its passion and enthusiasm and for someone like myself its format: essays, yes good old fashioned essays, not short stories, not poetry, not critical texts in the academic style but personal essays, conversational writings of a type that seem thin on the ground nowadays. writing, like any other creative medium, is no stranger to the vagaries of fashion and movements of the day. where once there was the salon and the bluestocking circle there is now the creative writing course and the live mike night, whilst the explosion of collaborative blogs is surely just a variation on the serial newspaper ‘cliffhangers’ of dickens and conan doyle; the frequency with which manchester blog award winners have secured mainstream publishing deals bearing ample testimony to this.

but what of those of us who fall outside of this literary zeitgeist? as someone who is not a writer but uses the written word to communicate somewhat miscellaneous observations and ruminations it is easy to become intimidated by the cultural benchmark or yardstick. my intention is not so bold or brave as the novel or the poem but simply a desire to articulate a curiosity about the world, initiate a dialogue or conversation in order to understand more about these strange and often bewildering times.

the publication of the belle vue pamphlet coincided with a little book that i have recently been dipping into. at large and at small is anne fadimans 'confessions of a literary hedonist' and the heart of this little treasure is the familiar essay ‘the perfect balance between personal anecdote and intellectual curiosity’ – whose heyday was the 19th century. like the belle vue it presumes and recreates a conversation with just one reader, you, the two of you sitting side by side in front of a crackling fire, favourite tipple in hand and an evening of cosy conversation to look forward to. the interest of the familiar essayist was always presbyopic (at large) but its focus myopic (at small):

his viewpoint was subjective, his frame of reference concrete, his style digressive, his eccentricities conspicuous and his laughter usually at his own expense.

to this i have to confess a rush of recognition and affection, my occasional revelations being invariably the result of an exchange of ideas in the flesh rather than the result of solitary isolation in the garret. this natural loquaciousness, a tendency which has always plagued me as a frailty or fault, could in fact legitimately be interpreted as part of a noble tradition or literary form! as usual for a chronic anachronism like myself i find i am merely a century overdue. like fadiman my inclination is to embrace and celebrate this predilection rather than dismiss and constrain it like a recalcitrant child. as she notes rather sadly the preference nowadays leans either to the (very) critical or the (very) personal with the old familiar essay sadly neglected.

intriguingly she adds that this form had tended to be very much the preserve of the gentleman – so its adoption by a female and a bluestocking at that is perhaps timely, its absurd inappropriateness just the ticket!

so i hereby reclaim the familiar essay for our own times and shall endeavour from this day forward to do it justice and revive it for a new era….


knivesforksandspoons said...

i look forward to picking-up a copy of Belle Vue - sounds like exactly my kind of thing.

also: congratulations on the apartment show. unfortunately was unable to get to it due to one thing and another (coughs, colds, etc). from reading 'the diary', though, sounds like it all went very well. so, as i said, congratulations on that.

for myself, i found it difficult to keep away from blogging. have started a new one. hope you'll want to take a look.



Bluestocking said...

hey richard,

nice to hear from you. the life of was a bizarre experience but fun for those who nipped to see it hopefully. does seem like the whole citizenry has been affected by the Great Lurgy of 2008 - hope you are better!

i confess that i have already had a sneaky peek at the shiny new blog - i knew you wouldnt stay away for too long - and it feels very different from your last incarnation. a new you?! glad to have you back sir...

hope 2009 is all you wish for and more...