I spent a vast amount of this summer reading essays – partly for academic reasons, partly because I bloody love them. (And partly because I also happen to write quite a few myself.) Normally something of a novel-gobbler, the last few months have involved an unusual level of straying into non-fiction territory. It’s been wonderful. There’s something intensely delightful about a good essay; a sensation akin to the kinds of conversations that leave you buzzing from the thrill of new ideas to contemplate.
However, the minute you begin to stray back into the history of the essay, the same thing happens as with every other area of literature… As the decades roll back, the list of notable names becomes ever more overwhelmingly male. Big surprise. That’s not to discount how excellent Montaigne, Hazlitt, Lamb, Addison etc etc etc can be (or, to give some slightly more more recent examples, Laurie Lee, Alan Garner, George Orwell, Al Alvarez and Philip Larkin, who have all produced stunning essays). It’s more of a nod to the fact that in my brick-sized edition of The Oxford Book of Essays, there are a mere handful of works by women.
I wanted to readdress the balance here, and focus in on all the collections by female essayists that I’ve adored reading recently. I tried to stick to writers who are still alive and kicking and working, but with a few others thrown in who were too ideal to resist. It was meant to be a top ten, but somehow an extra one snuck in - so it’s my top eleven, for the time being…
Siri Hustvedt – Living, Thinking, Looking and A Plea for Eros
I picked up Living, Thinking, Looking on a whim in Blackwell’s, thinking it looked potentially interesting. I then spent several days completely rapt, snatching every spare moment I could to immerse myself in the workings of Hustvedt’s clear, engaging thoughts. It was the same experience with A Plea for Eros. In both cases, the topics (books, psychology, family etc) are approached with a kind of decisive, penetrating directness.
Anne Fadiman – At Large and Small and Ex Libris
At Large and Small is one of those delightful collections I just want to foist on friends and family. “Look!” I want to say, “an essay that uses the phrase 'The Emperor of Ice-cream'! Another on the history of coffeehouses! Lots on things that aren’t to do with food too. Read it, read it, read it.” Well, something like that. It’s delightful and life-enhancing Oh, and Ex Libris is a glorious little morsel of a collection – one that approaches the topic of books in a number of wonderful ways. Expect everything from the perils of re-shelving to her literary upbringing.
Marina Keegan – The Opposite of Loneliness
I’ve already written about Marina and her work here. To reiterate what I said then, 'Whether she’s talking about generational hubris, food allergies, empathy for animals, or the contents of her car as the “physical manifestations of… memories”, she’s kind of dazzling. To me, the best essays pluck at the thread of something, no matter how simple, and hold it up to the light - making you stop, think, respond. Here the fine filaments of analysis and honesty are strong and flexible. She weaves them with care.'
Ali Smith – Artful
A series of essays on topics from ‘time’ to ‘form’ to ‘edge’, each is a compelling, page-turning ramble or meander through various ideas, creators, and possibilities. Yet this is isn’t a straightforward series. These essays are embedded within and woven around a quietly devastating (fictional) narrative of an individual whose lover has died. I’d love to read more collections that play with form like this.
Jeanette Winterson – Art Objects: Ecstasies and Effronteries
Like much of Winterson’s writing, this is a slightly dizzying and very exhilarating gallop through topics from sexuality to the power of Virginia Woolf’s prose. I sometimes end up feeling slightly breathless or overwhelmed by the intensity of her sentences.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – We Should All be Feminists
This is cheating, as it's a single essay. But it's worth including. Brilliant in the first place and popularised further by Beyonce, this concise piece is not so much a cogent argument (I mean, it is) as a necessary call to arms. Adichie is coolly precise and powerful in every sentence, in the kind of way that makes you simultaneously wish you could express yourself as beautifully as her, and also feel like she’s making points you’ve always known FOREVER and really needed to hear articulated.
Margaret Atwood – Curious Pursuits
A mixture of book reviews, autobiographical pieces and general reflections, this is an incredibly satisfying collection to dip in and out of at will. As with her novels, Atwood has a keen sense of vivid scene-making and telling details.
Susan Sontag – Illness as a Metaphor and Against Interpretation
I found Sontag a struggle at first. Her sentences can be dense, her ideas requiring a little bit of time to unpack and truly ‘get’. It’s worth the legwork though – her observations are brisk and brilliant, whether she’s (almost literally) dissecting our cultural use of the word ‘cancer’, or discussing cinema as “a new language.”
Zadie Smith – Changing my Mind
Worth it alone for her glorious, glorious essay on Katharine Hepburn and Greta Garbo – as well as 'Ten Notes on Oscar Weekend', which feels like reading a gossipy magazine article with actual solid substance seamed throughout. Her literary essays also have the conspiratorial tone of a good conversation with a smart, savvy friend.
Virginia Woolf – A Woman’s Essays/ A Room of One’s Own/ every essay she ever wrote
Just do it. She’s the mistress of essays. I love her work unreservedly, and get excited/ overwhelmed all over again whenever I remember that I still have lots of her work left to gobble up.
Angela Carter – Nothing Sacred and Expletives Deleted
Carter is witty and sharp, always. Nothing Sacred holds what is possibly my favourite of her essays: Notes for a Theory of Sixties Style (predictable, me?) There she writes, “Clothes are our weapons, our challenges, our visible insults.” Expletives Deleted focuses in on book reviews and discussions of authors, but becomes the launchpad for interrogations of topics from fairytales to the snobbery of food choices.
And here’s a quick list of the essayists I’m yet to discover, but have been told (in no uncertain terms) that I should investigate: Joan Didion, Roxanne Gay (who I know for her writing online, but am yet to read Bad Feminist), Rebecca Solnit, Janet Malcolm, bell hooks, Cynthia Ozick, Audre Lorde, Anne Carson (I know her poetry), Sheila Heti, Hermione Lee… Let me know if you have any others to add to my ever-growing, ever-tottering ‘to read’ list.
Of course it had to be icecream-sundae shades of pink (and plenty of roses) for this post.. What else to celebrate women?! I joke, I joke.. However, I did enjoy picking out all the books I could find in our house with vaguely similar-tinted covers, shading through from magenta to baby pink. The dress is vintage. I've been meaning to shoot it for the blog for years now.
Oh, and if you like this combination of reading recommendations + pink clothes (which somehow I seem to have turned into a formula), see this blog post here for some suggestions of individual essays.