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‘My style and my mind alike go roaming’ 

- Montaigne

‘The essay is the only literary form which confesses, in its very name, that the rash act known as writing is really a leap in the dark’ 

-  G. K. Chesterton

 ‘the essay as the universe at the second/before its dispersion, an impacted point prior to the flying off of matter into planets, fragments into texts, and all over a sense of volatile incipience’ 

- Rachel Blau Duplessis

 ‘the peculiarity of the essay is plural, multiple’ 

- Jean Starobinski

The essay has turned and returned. Again. In having done this, it has reignited interest not only in its present state (what is the essay, today?) but also in its histories (what has it been?) and its futures (what will it become?). 

The essay has always been a form that is averse to simple definition, taking elements from other discourses and reinventing itself continuously, while at the same time retaining something which makes it recognisable as ‘essay’. If there is what may be described as a tradition of the essay, it is conceived differently at different points in time and is exemplified by texts that may be personal or impersonal; formal or informal; fragmented or structured; embracing doubt or opinionated; extremely short or as long as a novel; poetic or pedestrian; humorous or deadly serious; and anything else in between these and several other characteristics.

This fluidity remains today with the essay being variously associated with the lyrical, the theoretical, the journalistic, the visual, the critical. With the multimodal realities of our times, one would expect this heterogeneity to intensify even further. 

Over the last thirty years, the essay has flourished, despite having repeatedly been described as dead, or as approaching its demise – Michael Hamburger, for instance, spoke for many when he declared that ‘the essay ha[d] been a dead genre’ since G. K. Chesterton and Virginia Woolf (‘An Essay on the Essay’ (1975)). It has made a notable return not only in numerous successful anthologies that canonize chosen examples from its history (John Gross ed. (1991); Philip Lopate ed. (1995); John D’Agata ed. (2009); Robert Atwan and Joyce Carol Oates gen. eds. (1986—2017)), but also in influential new collections by contemporary essayists like Annie Dillard, Lisa Robertson, Joan Didion, Susan Howe, Claudia Rankine, Rebecca Solnit, Brian Dillon, and Eula Biss, among many others. 

However, it can also be said that, as Klaus and Stuckey-French put it, notwithstanding the recent ‘extraordinary growth of interest […], the essay has largely been ignored in the world of criticism and theory’ (2012, p. xi). Often thought of as part of a fourth genre whose relation to literature is primarily that of providing a thinking space about literature, the essay has not benefitted from the critical attention devoted to the central genres of literature, even though prominent essayists have often been literary figures like Woolf, T. S. Eliot, Borges, D. H. Lawrence, and Orwell. 

In spite of this relative paucity of critical interest in the essay, essayists have always written about the essay, and it is indeed a primary characteristic of the form to be introspective. Montaigne, for instance, does not only provide us with the first modern ‘essais’ (trial, attempts) that conceive of themselves as such, he also formulates what would become the often repeated conception of the essay as a form marked by the roaming of ‘style’ and a ‘mind’ exploring itself. Montaigne sets the tone for many others who think of the essay in terms of a peculiar combination of experimentation, reflection and an apparent looseness of form so that, ironically, the most common definition of the form is that it escapes definition. Adorno writes: ‘As the essay denies any primeval givens, so it refuses any definition of its concepts. [It] proceeds, so to speak, methodically unmethodically’. Or, for Chesterton, the essay ‘is full of the future and the praise of experiment and adventure’.

This ironic tension at the heart of the essay – its being defined by its indefinability and its questioning of generic norms – may partly explain why it has been declared dead and revived so often in its history. It is a form that singularly combines modes, tones, and styles that recur through time (what may be called the essayistic) with a fundamental, foundational, and continuous questioning of itself as a genre. William Carlos Williams captures some of this tension when he writes that ‘whatever passes through it [the essay], it is never that thing. It remains itself and continues so, pure motion’.

This conference positions itself within this ironic tension as it seeks to explore, on the one hand, what may be described as the writing of the history of the essay as a genre and, on the other hand, that which Duplessis calls its ‘volatile incipience’ or what Starobinski describes as the ‘inchoative aspect of the essay’.   

Call for Papers

Within this context, we invite papers that engage with the following suggested topics. This list is by no means exhaustive and other proposed topics will be considered.

- Developing a poetics of the essay
- Developing a theory of the essay
- The contemporary essay
- The essay’s relation to literature and literariness
- The essay and the poetic
- The essay and philosophy
- The essay and literary theory
- The essayistic
- The essay, mode, and modality (print, film, digital, etc)
- The histories and traditions of the essay
- The relation between the essay and specific national literatures
- The essay in the Mediterranean region 
- The futures of the essay
- Individual essayists and their contribution to the poetics/theory/history/tradition of the essay
- Recurring motifs in the essay tradition
- Intertextuality in the essay
- The essay and creative nonfiction
- The institutionalization (or lack of it) of the essay
- The essay and its publication contexts.

      Proposals for 20 minute papers (200-250words) may be submitted on the Online Abstract Submission Form by 21 May 2018 and should include a short biographical noteNotification of acceptance of Abstract will be given by 30 June 2018.

      For further information about the conference, send an email to Dr Mario Aquilina.

      Last Updated: 10 July 2018

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