Friday, 23 May 2008
The Survival of the Essayist
Reading John Gross, author of The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters, in today's TLS, on the continuing role of the essayist (he was reviewing Stefan Collini's Common Reading collection of essays) at a time of high academic specialisation, I shared Gross's (and Collini's) uncertainty about the future of this phenomenon. As a non-academic writer (in the sense of not having any university affiliation) I have sometimes fallen into the trap of academic-baiting. But the old conflict between Grub Street and Academe now seems merely self-indulgent. All those who care about literature and its continuing life in modern societies need to pull together these days. Trying to think of a good example I decided that Primo Levi was a fine representative of the essayist and his "To a Young Reader" in Other People's Trades was one of his best. One of his pieces of advice in this essay was to show work to other people but: "Not another writer: a writer is not a typical reader, he has preferences and peculiar fixations, faced by a beautiful text he is envious." Levi also added that his stylistic goal was "that of maximum information with minimum clutter". That wouldn't have got him a job in a department of English in, say, 1990.