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Essays Literary

Essay, an analytic, interpretative, or critical literary composition usually much shorter and less systematic and formal than a dissertation or thesis and usually dealing with its subject from a limited and often personal point of view.

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nonfictional prose: The essay

In modern literatures, the category of nonfictional prose that probably ranks as the most important both in the quantity and in the quality of its practitioners is the essay.

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Some early treatises—such as those of Cicero on the pleasantness of old age or on the art of “divination,” Seneca on anger or clemency, and Plutarch on the passing of oracles—presage to a certain degree the form and tone of the essay, but not until the late 16th century was the flexible and deliberately nonchalant and versatile form of the essay perfected by the French writer Michel de Montaigne. Choosing the name essai to emphasize that his compositions were attempts or endeavours, a groping toward the expression of his personal thoughts and experiences, Montaigne used the essay as a means of self-discovery. His Essais, published in their final form in 1588, are still considered among the finest of their kind. Later writers who most nearly recall the charm of Montaigne include, in England, Robert Burton, though his whimsicality is more erudite, Sir Thomas Browne, and Laurence Sterne, and in France, with more self-consciousness and pose, André Gide and Jean Cocteau.

At the beginning of the 17th century, social manners, the cultivation of politeness, and the training of an accomplished gentleman became the theme of many essayists. This theme was first exploited by the Italian Baldassare Castiglione in his Il libro del cortegiano (1528; The Book of the Courtier). The influence of the essay and of genres allied to it, such as maxims, portraits, and sketches, proved second to none in molding the behavior of the cultured classes, first in Italy, then in France, and, through French influence, in most of Europe in the 17th century. Among those who pursued this theme was the 17th-century Spanish Jesuit Baltasar Gracián in his essays on the art of worldly wisdom.

Keener political awareness in the 18th century, the age of Enlightenment, made the essay an all-important vehicle for the criticism of society and religion. Because of its flexibility, its brevity, and its potential both for ambiguity and for allusions to current events and conditions, it was an ideal tool for philosophical reformers. The Federalist Papers in America and the tracts of the French Revolutionaries are among the countless examples of attempts during this period to improve the human condition through the essay.

The genre also became the favoured tool of traditionalists of the 18th and 19th centuries, such as Edmund Burke and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who looked to the short, provocative essay as the most potent means of educating the masses. Essays such as Paul Elmer More’s long series of Shelburne Essays (published between 1904 and 1935), T.S. Eliot’s After Strange Gods (1934) and Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948), and others that attempted to reinterpret and redefine culture, established the genre as the most fitting to express the genteel tradition at odds with the democracy of the new world.

Whereas in several countries the essay became the chosen vehicle of literary and social criticism, in other countries the genre became semipolitical, earnestly nationalistic, and often polemical, playful, or bitter. Essayists such as Robert Louis Stevenson and Willa Cather wrote with grace on several lighter subjects, and many writers—including Virginia Woolf, Edmund Wilson, and Charles du Bos—mastered the essay as a form of literary criticism.

The author’s process is the keynote here. The season’s books discuss writing tools such as dream diaries, reading lists, and the painstaking process of revision, as well as distractions, ranging from noisy neighbors to political exile.

Top 10

The Annotated African American Folktales

Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Maria Tatar. Norton/Liveright, Oct. 31

Two acclaimed scholars expand the canon of African-American folktales with this collection of nearly 150 stories, some familiar and some long unread.

The Collected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick

Elizabeth Hardwick, edited by Darryl Pinckney. New York Review Books, Oct. 17

Pinckney, who studied with Hardwick, assembles 55 selections of Hardwick’s nonfiction, emphasizing her writing about society, places, and other authors.

From Holmes to Sherlock: The Story of the Men and Women Who Created an Icon

Mattias Boström, trans. by Michael Gallagher. Grove/Atlantic/Mysterious, Aug. 1

Boström traces the literary existence of Sherlock Holmes, from the author who created him, to the actors, fans, and others who kept him alive.

The Last Draft: A Novelist’s Guide to Revision

Sandra Scofield. Penguin, Dec. 5

Scofield (Plain Seeing), a novelist and longtime teacher, offers aspiring authors a handbook to a crucial stage in the process of writing a novel.

Letters to His Neighbor

Marcel Proust, trans. by Lydia Davis. New Directions, Aug. 22

Swann’s Way translator Davis presents Proust’s elegant yet urgent letters to another tenant in his apartment building, whose husband’s dental practice was disturbing his rest and work.

The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Vol. 1

Sylvia Plath. Harper, Oct. 17

The first volume of Plath’s collected correspondence covers her years at Smith as well as her summer internship in New York City, experiences in Europe, and early marriage to Ted Hughes.

The Secret Life: Three True Stories of the Digital Age

Andrew O’Hagan. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Oct. 10

O’Hagan plumbs the Internet era’s strangeness with profiles of the founder of WikiLeaks, the purported inventor of bitcoin, and his own invented identity.

The Tunnel at the End of the Light: Essays on Movies and Politics

Jim Shepard. Tin House, Sept. 12

The essays collected here, originally published in the Believer magazine during the George W. Bush administration, mine famous films for insights into America’s national character.

Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult

Bruce Handy. Simon & Schuster, Aug. 15

Handy revisits the classic books of American childhood, from fairy tales to The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and explores the backstories of their creators.

The Written World: How Literature Shaped Civilization

Martin Puchner. Random House, Nov. 14

PW’s review called Puchner’s survey of key moments in the history of literature a “gripping intellectual odyssey.”

Essays & Literary Criticism Listings

Columbia Univ.

Facing the Abyss: American Literature and Culture in the 1940s by George Hutchinson (Jan. 23, hardcover, $35, ISBN 978-0-231-16338-5) shows how prominent writers during the 1940s, now remembered as the era of the “good war,” responded to a pervasive sense of dread and alienation just below the surface.

Counterpoint

Don’t Save Anything by James Salter (Aug. 15, hardcover, $26, ISBN 978-1-61902-936-1). Gathered from lecture notes, obituaries, and magazine articles spanning the decades since the 1970s, this compilation presents previously uncollected nonfiction by this influential fiction author.

The Romance of Elsewhere: Essays by Lynn Freed (Oct. 10, hardcover, $26, ISBN 978-1-61902-927-9). The author, who grew up in South Africa and first came to the U.S. as a teenager on an exchange program, explores a quintessential question: what makes a home?

Ecco

Why Poetry by Matthew Zapruder (Aug. 15, hardcover, $24.99, ISBN 978-0-06-234307-9) is an impassioned call for a return to reading poetry and an argument for poetry’s accessibility to all readers, by the critically acclaimed poet. 15,000-copy announced first printing.

Faber & Faber

Ariel: A Literary Life of Jan Morris by Derek Johns (Oct. 1, hardcover, $22.95, ISBN 978-0-571-33163-5). Morris’s literary agent for 20 years has not written a conventional biography, but rather an appreciation of her remarkable work and life, published to coincide with her 90th birthday.

Crusoe’s Island: A Rich and Curious History of Pirates, Castaways and Madness by Andrew Lambert (Sept. 11, paper, $15.95, ISBN 978-0-571-33024-9). Acclaimed historian Lambert excavates the truth about a faraway place that still haunts our imagination and culture: the island of Robinson Crusoe in the South Pacific.

The Essential Paradise Lost by John Carey (Aug. 7, hardcover, $22.95, ISBN 978-0-571-32855-0). To bring readers back to Milton’s masterpiece, now little read, Carey has shortened it to a third of its original length, while providing new insights into the poem’s inspirations and key characters.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

The Secret Life: Three True Stories of the Digital Age by Andrew O’Hagan (Oct. 10, hardcover, $26, ISBN 978-0-374-27791-8). The essayist and novelist issues a trio of reported essays exploring identity and the Internet, and such hot-button topics as WikiLeaks and bitcoin.

Feminist Press

Translation as Transhumance by Mireille Gansel, trans. by Ros Schwartz (Nov. 14, paper, $14.95, ISBN 978-1-55861-444-4). Gansel, a translator whose projects include poetry from East Berlin and Vietnam in the 1960s and ’70s, conveys in her debut the estrangement every translator experiences moving between tongues, and how translation becomes an exercise of empathy between those in exile.

Graywolf

Sometimes I Think About It: Essays by Stephen Elliott (Nov. 7, paper, $16, ISBN 978-1-55597-775-7) gathers personal essays, reportage, and profiles written over 15 years to tell a powerful story about outsiders and underdogs.

Grove

Freeman’s: The Future of New Writing by John Freeman (Oct. 10, paper, $16, ISBN 978-0-8021-2729-7). This fourth installment in the author’s series of literary anthologies introduces a list—to be announced just before publication—of more than 25 poets, essayists, novelists, and short story writers from around the world who are shaping the literary conversation right now.

Grove/Atlantic/Mysterious

From Holmes to Sherlock: The Story of the Men and Women Who Created an Icon by Mattias Boström, trans. by Michael Gallagher (Aug. 1, hardcover, $27, ISBN 978-0-8021-2660-3). A Sherlock Holmes expert brings to life the history of one of the most enduring characters in literature, from the Victorian era to today.

Harper

The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Vol. 1 by Sylvia Plath (Oct. 17, hardcover, $45, ISBN 978-0-06-274043-4) marks the first entry in a complete collection of the known and extant letters of Plath, one of the most popular poets of the modern age. It includes her correspondence with over 120 people, including family, friends, contemporaries, and colleagues.

Harvard Univ.

Poet-Critics and the Administration of Culture by Evan Kindley (Sept. 18, hardcover, $35, ISBN 978-0-674-98007-5). After the 1929 crash, British and American poet-critics grappled with the task of legitimizing literature for public funding and consumption. Modernism, Kindley shows, created a new form of labor for writers and gave them unprecedented say over contemporary culture.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters by Ursula K. Le Guin (Dec. 5, hardcover, $22, ISBN 978-1-328-66159-3) collects thoughts on aging, belief, and the state of literature and the nation from the acclaimed author, with an intro by Karen Joy Fowler. 30,000-copy announced first printing.

A Secret Sisterhood: The Literary Friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney (Oct. 17, hardcover, $27, ISBN 978-0-544-88373-4). Famous female authors are usually mythologized as solitary and isolated. Midorikawa and Sweeney disprove this stereotype by describing a number of surprising collaborations.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/Mariner

The Best American Essays 2017, edited by Leslie Jamison and Robert Atwan (Oct. 3, paper, $15.99, ISBN 978-0-544-81733-3). Bestselling essayist Jamison picks the best essays from hundreds of magazines, journals, and websites, bringing her ability to “stitch together the intellectual and the emotional with the finesse of a crackerjack surgeon,” according to NPR, to the task. 30,000-copy announced first printing.

The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2017, edited by Sarah Vowell (Oct. 3, paper, $15.99, ISBN 978-1-328-66380-1). Working with the students of the writing labs 826 Valencia and 826 Michigan, Vowell assembled this year’s installment in the series, which includes new fiction, nonfiction, poetry, comics, and category-defying gems.

Library of America

Philip Roth: Why Write? Collected Nonfiction, 1960–2013 by Philip Roth (Sept. 12, hardcover, $35, ISBN 978-1-59853-540-2). The 10th volume in the Library of America’s Philip Roth series is the definitive edition of his statements on his own writing and others, including six pieces published for the first time and many others newly revised.

Melville House

Christopher Hitchens: The Last Interview, and Other Conversations by Christopher Hitchens (Dec. 5, paper, $15.99, ISBN 978-1-61219-672-5). From Hitchens’s earliest interviews to his final published interview with Richard Dawkins just before his death, this collection covers a brilliant career and tackles everything from atheism to Hitchen’s controversial support of the Iraq War and America’s march toward theocracy.

New Directions

Letters to His Neighbor by Marcel Proust, trans. by Lydia Davis (Aug. 22, hardcover, $22.95, ISBN 978-0-8112-2411-6). The translator of Proust’s Swann’s Way brings to English readers the French master’s tormented, touching, and often very funny letters to his noisy neighbor.

New York Review Books

The Collected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick, edited by Darryl Pinckney (Oct. 17, paper, $19.95, ISBN 978-1-68137-154-2) gathers more than 50 essays for a retrospective of this writer of moral courage, as Joan Didion called her.

Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Life in Letters by Patrick Leigh Fermor, edited by Adam Sisman (Nov. 14, paper, $19.95, ISBN 978-1-68137-156-6), is the first extensive collection of letters written by the war hero and travel writer, spanning 70 years, from February 1940 to January 2010.

New York Review Books/Notting Hill

Beautiful and Impossible Things: Selected Essays of Oscar Wilde, intro. by Gyles Brandreth (Oct. 24, hardcover, $18.95, ISBN 978-1-910749-06-7). Famous for his witticisms and aestheticism, Oscar Wilde had a humanity and deep sense of justice that have often been obscured. A new selection showcases the breadth and depth of his thinking.

Nightboat

Acker by Douglas A. Martin (Sept. 5, paper, $17.95, ISBN 978-1-937658-71-7) is a lyrical account of Kathy Acker’s career, informed by her evocative prose, public statements, and private archives. Martin follows Acker through New York’s downtown St. Mark’s Poetry Project scene, Black Mountain College, and the beats.

Norton/Liveright

The Annotated African American Folktales, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Maria Tatar (Oct. 31, hardcover, $39.95, ISBN 978-0-87140-753-5). Beginning with introductory essays and 20 seminal African tales as historical background, Gates and Tatar present nearly 150 African-American folktales, myths, and legends, including both familiar Brer Rabbit classics and many stories rarely seen before.

Pegasus

The Disappearance of Émile Zola: Love, Literature, and the Dreyfus Case by Michael Rosen (Sept. 15, hardcover, $27.95, ISBN 978-1-68177-516-6). In July 1898, world-renowned novelist Émile Zola fled France, having been found guilty of libel for his open letter “J’accuse.” Rosen presents the little-known story of Zola’s time in exile in England.

Penguin

Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, edited by Joe Fassler (Sept. 26, paper, $17, ISBN 978-0-14-313084-0). What inspires you? That’s the simple but profound question posed to 46 renowned authors in Fassler’s collection, which grows out of his online “By Heart” Atlantic series.

The Last Draft: A Novelist’s Guide to Revision by Sandra Scofield (Dec. 5, paper, $17, ISBN 978-0-14-313135-9). There are hundreds of titles on the market about writing fiction, but this is billed as the first by an acclaimed author to directly take on the challenging—but critical—process of revision.

Poisoned Pen

The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books by Martin Edwards (Aug. 1, paper, $15.95, ISBN 978-1-4642-0723-5) tells the story of crime fiction published during the first half of the 20th century. Edwards, a genre expert, discusses titles ranging from The Hound of the Baskervilles to Strangers on a Train.

Princeton Univ.

Insomniac Dreams: Experiments with Time by Vladimir Nabokov, edited by Gennady Barabtarlo (Nov. 7, hardcover, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-691-16794-7). Nabokov’s dream diary is published for the first time and placed in biographical and literary context.

Quirk

Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction by Grady Hendrix (Sept. 19, paper, $24.99, ISBN 978-1-59474-981-0). Take a tour through the horror paperback novels of the 1970s and ’80s... if you dare! Horror author and collector Hendrix offers shocking synopses, killer commentary, and dozens of reproductions of book covers from these lurid thrillers.

Random House

The Written World: How Literature Shaped Civilization by Martin Puchner (Nov. 14, hardcover, $32, ISBN 978-0-8129-9893-1). The power of literature to shape people, civilizations, and world history is explored through 16 key stories from more than 4,000 years of literature—from The Iliad‘s influence on Alexander the Great to J.K. Rowling today.

Reel Art

Frankenstein: The First Two Hundred Years by Christopher Frayling (Oct. 24, hardcover, $49.95, ISBN 978-1-909526-46-4) celebrates the 200th birthday of Frankenstein by tracing the journey of Mary Shelley’s creation from limited-edition literature to pop culture standby.

Rutgers Univ.

Thieving Three-Fingered Jack: Transatlantic Tales of a Jamaican Outlaw, 1780–2015 by Frances R. Botkin (Dec. 8, paper, $28.95, ISBN 978-0-8135-8738-7). From 1780 to 1782, fugitive slave Jack Mansong terrorized colonial Jamaica and became a legend. Botkin analyzes centuries of writing about “Three-Fingered Jack,” showing how his story traveled from the Caribbean to England and the U.S.

Scribner

Cleopatra: I Am Fire and Air by Harold Bloom (Oct. 10, hardcover, $24, ISBN 978-1-5011-6416-3). A famous Shakespeare scholar explores the playwright’s interpretation of Cleopatra, while also sharing his own relationship to the character, who has seemed dramatically different at different points in his life.

Simon & Schuster

Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult by Bruce Handy (Aug. 15, hardcover, $26, ISBN 978-1-4516-0995-0). Vanity Fair contributing editor Handy addresses a love letter, both nostalgic and clear-eyed, to great authors of children’s literature, from Louisa May Alcott and L. Frank Baum, to Eric Carle, Dr. Seuss, and E.B. White.

Tin House

The Journal of Jules Renard, edited by Louise Bogan and Elizabeth Roget (Sept. 1, paper, $16.95, ISBN 978-0-9794198-7-4), is a unique autobiographical masterpiece from the turn of the 20th century, which, though celebrated abroad and cited as a principal influence by writers as varying as Somerset Maugham and Donald Barthelme, remains largely undiscovered in the U.S.

The Tunnel at the End of the Light: Essays on Movies and Politics by Jim Shepard (Sept. 12, paper, $15.95, ISBN 978-1-941040-72-0). The first book of nonfiction from an acclaimed fiction writer argues that many of Americans’ most persistent—and destructive—ideas about themselves come from the movies.

Two Dollar Radio

They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib (Nov. 14, paper, $15.99, ISBN 978-1-937512-65-1). In essays published by the New York Times, MTV, and Pitchfork, among others—along with original, previously unreleased essays—Willis-Abdurraqib views our age of confusion and fear through the lens of music and culture.

Univ. Of Iowa

Thus I Lived with Words: Robert Louis Stevenson and the Writer’s Craft by Annette R. Federico (Nov. 15, paper, $19, ISBN 978-1-60938-518-7) collects Stevenson’s comments about his craft, including practical advice for aspiring authors and remarks on the writer’s duty to the truth.

Univ. of Pennsylvania

Playwriting Playgoers in Shakespeare’s Theater by Matteo A. Pangallo (Aug. 22, hardcover, $59.95, ISBN 978-0-8122-4941-5) views Shakespeare’s theater through a lesser-known group of early English playwrights: neither professionals nor aristocratic dilettantes, but middle- and working-class amateurs who learned about drama from going to plays.

Univ. of Texas

Books Are Made Out of Books: A Guide to Cormac McCarthy’s Literary Influences by Michael Lynn Crews (Sept. 5, hardcover, $35, ISBN 978-1-4773-1348-0) thoroughly mines Cormac McCarthy’s literary archive, which Texas State University acquired in 2007, to explore a subject McCarthy has been loath to discuss—how he has been influenced by other writers.

Univ. of Virginia

How Borges Wrote by Daniel Balderston (Dec. 1, hardcover, $65, ISBN 978-0-8139-3964-3). The renowned Borges scholar pieces together the Argentine master’s creative process through the marks he left on paper, consulting over 170 manuscripts and primary documents to show how Borges arrived at his final published texts.

Viking

Late Essays: 2006–2016 by J.M. Coetzee (Jan. 2, hardcover, $28, ISBN 978-0-7352-2391-2). A new collection of 22 literary essays from the Nobel Prize winner examines the work of some of the world’s greatest writers, including Samuel Beckett, Daniel Defoe, and Irene Nemirovsky.

Vintage

Magic Hours by Tom Bissell (Dec. 12, paper, $16.95, ISBN 978-0-525-43394-1) collects essays that explore the nature of creative genius, taking readers to the set of The Big Bang Theory, from the first novel of Ernest Hemingway to the final work of David Foster Wallace; from the films of Werner Herzog to the film of Tommy Wiseau.

Yale Univ.

The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn by Margaret Willes (Sept. 19, hardcover, $27.50, ISBN 978-0-300-22139-8) gives an intimate portrait of two pivotal Restoration figures, two of the most celebrated English diarists, as well as close friends.

A version of this article appeared in the 06/26/2017 issue of Publishers Weekly under the headline: Essays & Literary Criticism