For those of us elders who went to school under the old dispensation, nothing was more surely calculated to make us detest the essay form than that stout textbook of English prose forced on us as part of the general memory test that in those days passed for education.
The piece from that ponderous compendium everyone remembers is Charles Lamb’s A Dissertation upon Roast Pig – children are always interested in food – but how many years had to pass before it dawned on us that the likes of William Hazlitt and Robert Louis Stevenson were surpassingly fine writers?
For Dillon, essays and essayists achieve ‘a combination of exactitude and evasion that seems to me to define what writing ought to be’
Stevenson and Hazlitt were masters of the essay form, but it is a question, of course, as to whether the essay is a form at all. Brian Dillon, in this wonderful, subtle and deceptively fragmentary little book, quotes Michael Hamburger from the dissident side: the essay “has no form: it is a game that creates its own rules”. Dillon himself is more affirmative, though ambiguously so; for him, essays and essayists achieve “a combination of exactitude and evasion that seems to me to define what writing ought to be”.