Why is it so doggone hard to talk sensibly about essays and to teach how to write them?
Definition Problem & Assumption
The difficulty is reflected admirably in a statement within Wikipedia’s coverage on the subject of Essays:
The definition of an essay is vague, overlapping with those of an article and a short story.
And the further we read in that discussion on Essays, the more we are lost in a muddling Valley of Vagueness, even though some specific historical facts are offered to give a false sense of definiteness and a falsely comforting sense of knowledge.
Here’s an equally telling definition of "essay" from an Internet dictionary:
A short literary composition on a single subject, usually presenting the personal view of the author.
If we take the strongest elements from each of those statements, we can come up with: An essay is a vague composition, usually presenting the personal view of the author. Let’s focus on the last part of that-the personal view of the author.
There’s a HUGE assumption in that phrase. Do you see it? Can you bring that out into the open in your own mind, before I do it for you? Think about it for a moment-and then read on, here.
It’s one of those assumptions that, when spelled out, makes all the difference in the world for truly understanding something. And I’m sure that when I point out the very obvious assumption, you’ll smack your forehead with your open palm and say, "Right! He’s nailed it! That’s it! Why didn’t I see it?"
Why haven’t you, personally, seen what I’m about to tell you? Don’t be too hard on yourself-the entire academic community hasn’t seen what I’m about to tell you, and they’ve been wrestling with this problem at least since 1580, when Michele de Montaigne published his two volume work, Essais (French for our English word, Essays; and the meaning of the word is the same in both languages: to try, to attempt).
In fact, as I see it, academics of Western Civilization have actually been struggling with this assumption since a Greek by the name of Gorgias introduced Rhetoric to ancient Athens around 425 B.C.
Hmmmmm. I could bore you with a lot of detail-oriented analyses of published essays and student essays that use the old view categories and the new view categories. But I’m not going to do that because it would take away from the idea-level strength of the major insight I’m expressing here. If you are interested in such proofs, go out and look up on the Internet some widely anthologized essays, such as these:
- Politics and the English Language by George Orwell
- The Abstraction of Beasts by Carl Sagan
- The Eureka Phenomenon by Isaac Asimov
- The Nature of Scientific Reasoning by Jacob Bronowski
- Thinking As a Hobby by William Golding
All the essays in the list above do unmistakably first state the old view very early on (in Sagan’s essay, it’s the very first sentence) and then follow up quickly with a statement of the new view (a new view reverse category of the old view value category; published essays practically always have a reverse new view). Then each of them follows with support of the new view in the form of stories, examples, and reasoning. That’s always the pattern.
A couple of these five essays play a little loosely with the pattern, but you can still see the pattern for all that. But the more closely and clearly an essay follows the pattern, then the more easy it is to follow and to understand. That’s always the case, too.
You simply can’t get away from the pattern of old view first, then new view reverse of the old view, and then support for the new view.
Interestingly enough, that very same pattern occurs in short stories, novels, and poetry-with an important twist that entices you to read through to the story’s end.
But that ‘twist’ should be the subject of another article or essay or book, now, shouldn’t it?
And it is.