A Dissertation on Rare Essays

Presentation to ‘First Loves’, a session at ‘Reader’s and Writer’s Week, 17 March 2002.

Keywords Miscellaneous

Sometime in middle school – between Standard Three and Form Four – my class was read Charles Lamb’s Dissertation on Roast Pork. It may have come from a school journal, because others of my age have a similar memories, whereas commonly those who are a little younger dont know the essay. …

… Whether it was the decision of a teacher or a journal editor – both I suppose – I was transported into the realms of gold by the essay form. I still read essays, but they are typically from overseas journals – The New York Review of Books, say.

Consider a recent London Review of Books essay on escalators, by their art editor Peter Campbell. It opens, oh so seductively, ‘stepping onto an escalator is an act of faith’ – like beginning to read an essay – and then goes through much detail on the escalators in tube stations to move onto a discussion on the privatisation of public transport. The romp around the London Underground finishes that ‘one would scamper down a stalled escalator once in a while.’ completing the circle to the essays opening. I learned this trick of starting from one issue and concluding almost on another from Lamb. The Listener column I filed on Friday is an example of the technique, although its title – ‘Guard Dogs that Fail to Bark’ – misleads about the size of the gap between the column’s opening bark and the tail which wags it.

Yes, the columns in our dailies and weeklies are the modern New Zealand essay. Sadly, many are not crafted, but hurriedly ripped off on a predictable topic with predictable content, to meet an editorial deadline. Their one merit is they fill the space set for them. Few of the columnists are subtle or deep or sophisticated – the best tend to be humorous. Even fewer capture that indolence that Lamb used to conceal his craft. The biggest contemporary influence on my short essay or column is The (London) Economist: style that is, we dont agree on policy.

Columns are short, and opportunities for longer essays are very limited. The great venue was Landfall under the editorship of Charles Brash. But alas that vision has disappeared. Why are short stories still acceptable, but the essay hardly at all? They are closely related forms, differentiated by notions of truth: the essay has an ongoing external truth, the short story’s internal truth being part of a larger external one. Lamb on roast pork embodies much of a short story, which perhaps enabled me to reach out from the form I already knew, to the elegance of the essay.

I enjoyed Michael King’s Tread Softly, and I am looking forward to reading Greg O’Brien’s After Bathing at Baxters launched a couple of days ago. Many readers have treated my The Nation Builders, as a series of essays. In a way each biographical chapter is, but they are intricately and independently linked, so it is also a thesis – a book. But be it King, O’Brien or Easton, these essays are generally written for A SERIOUS PURPOSE. The joy of writing an essay for the sake of good writing, for the sharing with the reader, for amusing and informing her or him – the joy kindled by that first love from the reading of Dissertation on Roast Pork – is, alas, a charm from a distant era.