As an essayist who dabbles in journalism, I should know what essays are, but sometimes it’s hard to tell where they end and articles begin.
After pitching an idea to one of my favorite glossy magazines recently, an editor there suggested I contact another editor. “I’d emphasize as well that this is an essay in form rather than a straight reported story,” she said, “since I think we’d like to run more essay content.”
As thrilled as I was to see them making room for my preferred literary form, the story I sent wasn’t an essay. It was an article built around a profile. I reported on site, and no ‘I’ narrator appeared in it, but she seems to have classified it as ‘essay’ because it was narrative nonfiction. Of course, I didn’t mention that. I wanted them to publish the story. They could call it whatever they wanted, and maybe my assessment was wrong. Maybe it was an essay. This was an experienced journalist at an esteemed publication whose circulation probably totaled more than all the literary magazines I’d written for combined. She might have some unique perspective that I lacked. Which is to say, her comment left me questioning myself. Did I even know what I was writing half the time?
I don’t think about what my pieces are as much as what they say and how best to say it. Contacting magazines forces you to consider form – essay or article? Column or op-ed? Finished submission or pitchable idea to develop? – but labels have never been one of my central concerns. Writing isn’t mycology. It’s cooking to taste. Yet the exchange got me thinking. Then I quit caring about the distinction and moved on. What’s in a name? Everything and nothing. To me, that seemed like something Montaigne would say.
I’ve actually never read much Montaigne.
(Of the great French essayist, author Nick Hornby wrote: “I had never read Montaigne before picking up [Sarah] Bakewell’s book [about Montaigne]. I knew only that he was a sixteen-century essayist, and that he had therefore willfully chosen not to interest me.” Hornby is an absorbing essayist himself, which goes against the notion that we must build our abilities on our knowledge of a form’s history.)
I should mention that I drink a lot of tea. That sounds like a non sequitor, but it’s meant as transition. I frequently fall back on tea as a metaphor lately. Eventually the habit will get old, but for now, it works.
When people ask me about the difference between an essay and article, I often say something along the lines of: “Articles convey information, where essays are more concerned with questioning than answering.” If I’m really feeling clear-headed and they seem interested, I’ll tell them: “Articles convey information, and some subscribe to the who, what, where, when, why approach to storytelling, while others employ narratives with scenes, characters and action. Essays can mix narrative and exposition, be first-, second- or third-person, contemplative, tangential, linear or nonlinear, and they aren’t compelled to inform readers as much as masticate and digest.” Few people want a dissertation. They want a quick definition, some basic understanding. I try to keep it simple, even though there’s no simple answer. (I often add, “Essays are definitely not anecdotes,” because that confusion drives me nuts.) I do the same at my dayjob at a tea shop.
“What’s the difference between black and green tea?” customers ask me. Rather than drown them with details about oxidation versus fermentation, the vagaries of caffeine content, varietals, taste and appellation, I just say: “On the spectrum of oxidation, greens are oxidized for less time than blacks, and that process gives blacks a stronger, less leafy flavor than greens.” That usually does the trick.
Like tea, much narrative nonfiction exists on a continuum. Sometimes the boundaries between forms are more gradations than distinctions. You can tell one piece is different from the piece one unit over, but you still can’t say exactly how. And that’s fine if it reads well.
What’s an essay? Maybe this? Maybe not. You tell me.
I sell tea for a living.