Collected Essays

Sometimes you find yourself flicking to that page in a book which lists all the other books by the author. The one nearest to me on the shelf, right now, is Brighton Rock by Graham Greene and it is a prime example. At the front is a list all Greene’s other books; Our Man in Havana, The Quiet American, The Captain and The Enemy, Travels With My Aunt. But then there is a small section at the bottom which says: Essays. Unlike some, these essay books have titles, Reflections, Mornings in The Dark… But one has that common denominator which you will usually see on such lists, especially lists by older writers and on lists at the back of ‘literary classics’ series, Collected Essays.

You see this title all the time and every older writer seems to have at least one book entitled Collected Essays or Essays. Sometimes they’ll be a bit more creative with the titling but, in eight cases out of ten, all of the big name novelists of times past have at least one collection to their name. Virginia Woolf had The Common Reader, Orwell had his Collected Essays and Greene, as I pointed out, also has his. Don’t get me wrong, essay collections are still being produced, but many of today’s big name novelists (especially those outside the US) never produce a single one. Even when they do the subject matter is often incredibly specialised (alright, so was Virginia Woolf with The Common Reader, but she had other collections besides.) The novelists of yesteryear used to be so much more, they used to be essayists as well.

Today’s novelists still write essays and non-fiction, when they have something important to say they will say it, but then it is usually thrown up on their website or in a newspaper and not in a book besides others. Every once in a while you might see an essay collection, but as I mentioned earlier these will often be specialised. The essays will have a theme. Much of Stephen King’s non-fiction work, for instance, concerns horror writing or writing in general. One collection, Secret Windows, is material gathered from various magazines and newspapers he’s been published in over a period of forty years. King, like many modern writers, prefers to stick to prose fiction.

Virginia Woolf (Photo by George Charles Beresford, public domain)

And why wouldn’t he? Prose fiction is, after all, easier to write than essay style non-fiction. Three thousand words of prose-fiction can take a good writer a few hours to do at most. Three thousand words of essay can take much, much longer, depending on the subject matter. It can take several days. There is not only the writing to consider, but the research too. Every fact has to be checked, every argument measured. Whereas fiction can be slapped up and moulded like play-doh, a good essay is more like a finely chiselled sculpture, one that has to be worked in just the right way to produce the right result.

It isn’t like there is any great reward for the work either. The essay is, today, the under-appreciated black-sheep of the writing world. Readers much prefer fiction, on the whole, and they tend to stay away from non-fiction unless they happen to either have a particular interest in the title or the subject matter or happen to be a fan of the writer. An essay collection by a well-known writer is likely to only appeal to fans of that writer and no more. Even then, some may stay clear owing to it not being in the author’s usual repertoire of work. They will steer clear due to it being non-fiction. From a publishers stand point an essay collection is not an economically viable option as sales will be limited. For a writer it is not worth taking the time away from fiction to pursue such a course. In the long run, there won’t be any benefits to producing an essay collection. They aren’t likely to garner any new fans and they can earn much more from a fiction that has been written in the same time it has taken to produce the essay collection. An essay collection, for all the good it will do, just isn’t worth the time to produce.

As a society we are far less cerebral than we were in the past. Yes, documentaries and visiting museums are still popular past times but when it comes to anything more cerebral, more taxing, it tends to be pushed to one side. Whereas, maybe fifty years ago, people might turn to an essay collection for an hour’s entertainment, for a way of taxing the mind, today people don’t go in for that sort of thing unless they need (or feel they need) what the essay argues. They may read a single essay if the subject matter intrigues them, but that will usually be on the internet or in a magazine. People aren’t likely to spend ten pounds on an essay collection just because one essay in there interests them. They will perhaps only pick up a collection if it is specialised and they need the information or if they are a fan of the author. They may pick it up if the title interests them, but few would even consider purposely browsing the non-fiction section for an essay collection to read for entertainment.

The other thing to consider is that many of the Collected Essays listed in the books of older authors were not originally intended as one book. Like Stephen King’s Secret Windows, many of them were gathered from a lifetime of newspaper columns, statements and articles. Often they were written over a period of forty years or more. Whilst some, like Woolf and Greene, did purposefully write essay collections, others like Orwell did not. Orwell was a prolific essayist and literary critic and whilst some of his criticisms were collected during his lifetime, most were originally published in newspapers like the Observer or the Tribune and only pieced together after his death in 1950. They were written piecemeal, over many years, and were never originally intended to be sold as one. Another example would be the essays included in The Salmon of Doubt by Douglas Adams (though this is less an essay collection and more a miscellany of oddments that were floating around when he died.) These were, again, never meant to be published in book form and were only put together posthumously.

It might be that after their deaths we see the collected essays of Stephen King or J.K Rowling, but I sincerely doubt it. The publishers will doubtless see there is little interest for such things. I doubt that, for most modern writers, there will be enough to form a decent sized collection anyway. Most modern writers aren’t essayists in the way that Virginia Woolf or George Bernard Shaw or George Orwell were. They may write a newspaper article occasionally, but that is not generally their thing. They prefer to stick to fiction.

I look at all this and I ask myself… Would it be worth putting out an essay collection of my own? After all, I have a fair number of them to my belt right now. Here, alone, my current post count registers as two hundred and ninety nine published. Though not all of those are essays, quite a lot of them are. I’ve covered topics from how casino owners stack the odds through to Walter Scott and how he became so popular. I even donated one thousand words to how the opening monologue from Star Trek is a lie. There’s enough to fill more than one essay collection. Two? Maybe even three! There are somewhere close to a million words here and, recently, as I’ve been going back through and giving everything a polish, I’ve noticed that they don’t make for some half bad reading. Putting them together would make for a fine collection (or three.)

But that could be like cutting off my own hand without purpose. What would collecting them together, in paperback form, do better for them than what can be done for them here? Here most of them get a comfortable and regular amount of views whereas in an essay collection the chances are that they would just gather dust. The internet is a better place for them. There’s no financial incentive for doing it, nobody is going to pay it much attention because most people don’t pay much attention to essay collections in this day and age. The only solid reason for producing it would be for myself, so I had a hard copy of all the wonderful things I’ve written about.

Has the essay collection had its day? The essay certainly has not. The internet has breathed new life into an ancient form and now everybody on the planet can try their hand at arguing a point, regardless of talent. Traditional media still produces their regular essays, or ‘long reads’ as they call them these days. The professional essayist still exists. But the days of finding that one Collected Essays title on a list of other works by an author? I fear that those days have gone forever.



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