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What future has the essay in a social media age?

Unthinkable: Despite today’s fashion for talking in tweets, there’s life in the old art form

What’s the point of an essay? Photograph: Thinkstock

If you judged humanity’s literary output by clicks and outrage, you’d think the art of essayism is dead. Contemporary taste is for unadorned information, lists, bite-sized prejudice and more lists. Dialectics is as fashionable as table manners and corresponding in longhand.

Three old-fashioned hurrahs then for Brian Dillon’s wise, humane and stylish book Essayism (Fitzcarraldo Editions). The prolific, Dublin-born author has spent his adult life writing essays – in the past 15 years producing 1,174 pieces (yes, he counted them).

But what’s the point of an essay? Dillon is not the type to summarise it in a line (although he does do a neat side act in aphorisms). Rather, he suggests that having the patience and humility to engage with this artistic form says something about the way you think.

Since Dillon occasionally writes for this newspaper, it might seem like back-slapping to say that if you’re studying English and you want to ace your exams then read this book but if you’re studying English and . . . (well, you know how this ends). Dillon, who teaches at the Royal College of Art, London, is this week’s Unthinkable guest.

Is there a future for essayism in a world where political debate is being conducted in 140 characters?

Brian Dillon: “If by ‘essayism’ we mean telling hard, complex truths with elegance and precision and some daring, then I’d say the art is as hale as it’s ever been, just harder to find in the old places. Yes, politics is mediated – or, as you say, actually carried out – in grim and childish registers. (Though I’d argue good thought and expression could survive 140 or 280 character counts: what else are aphorisms?)

“I’m modestly encouraged by how many readers nowadays pay attention to voices – Rebecca Solnit, Maggie Nelson, Olivia Laing – you would have to call essayistic. It turns out that readers are still well able to engage with works of nonfiction that address the world urgently and at the same time try to reimagine what this venerable form, the essay, may be capable of doing in artistic terms.”

You came up with some great questions in a section of your book titled ‘On curiosity’, such as: “Were there rainbows before the Flood? . . . Did Jesus laugh?’ Is the secret of a good essay asking good questions?

“Those questions belong to the great 17th-century doctor and essayist Sir Thomas Browne. He’s one of those incurably curious writers (Robert Burton and John Evelyn are others) who are not yet properly of the Enlightenment and so are easily distracted by esoteric questions and odd bits of lore. They love the particular more than the general, and that seems important to the essay form.

“There are answers, but they’re not final, definitive or universal. In the 17th century, ‘curiosity’ meant among other things an excessive care for small or precise subjects – and I think the essayist still has to have the courage to say: look, look over here at this tiny thing you thought didn’t matter but really does.”

A thought that struck me reading the book is that it’s really about the meaning of life, or rather the meanings we give to our lives. Of the essay-writing life, you ask: “What’s it all for, exactly?” Have you come closer to finding an answer?

“Not at all, but predictably an answer of a sort might be in the search. Essayists, including essayistic philosophers, such as Michel de Montaigne, Friedrich Nietzsche or EM Cioran, seem allergic to those large questions and answers. My ambitions are smaller than theirs in turn.

I like the idea of a life in pieces

“As I say in the book, the very act of writing many essays over many years feels like a way of structuring your life: being interested in all manner of stories, places, individuals, works of art and literature, and then turning that attraction into something else – a way of making things and putting them modestly (or presumptuously?) into the world.

“Like most writers in any genre, I tend to call the things I publish ‘pieces’, and I like the idea of a life in pieces. If you write enough of them, and pay enough attention, the time seems to go slower.”

Some of the most powerful passages of the book relate to your own discussion of depression or “the Bad Thing”. Has the writer a duty to confess his or her innermost thoughts? (I recall Wittgenstein once writing: “If you are unwilling to know who you are your writing is a form of deceit.”)

“‘The Bad Thing’ is David Foster Wallace’s laconic term for depression – though he never wrote directly about his own. I’ve tried to say something about my experience, but I’m never sure ‘confession’ is the right word – annotation, more like.

“The interesting thing about that Wittgenstein sentence is that it’s not a clear demand for autobiographical writing – refusing or failing to know yourself might equally make you a deceitful poet, novelist or philosopher as personal essayist. I don’t think there are duties in essay writing other than telling some truth, and you can arrive at it obliquely.

“For better or worse, I admire those writers who confess enough about themselves to remain mysterious: Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag when she’s being (very infrequently) intimate. Even the best contemporary examples like Maggie Nelson and Wayne Koestenbaum are holding many things back. Confession in writing is an art, not an urgent act of over-sharing. You can confess all and end up knowing (and saying) nothing about yourself.”

What is your favourite aphorism?

“I’m not sure I have anything as precious as a favourite, but I can’t help admiring how well put together this line is that I just discovered in a short story by Susan Sontag, who’s channelling Pascal, La Rochefoucauld and EM Cioran all at once – ‘We would be glad of the world, if we were flying to it for refuge.’ It’s simple but beautifully made: nicely balanced, the alliteration not overdone. And it says something profound, tragic and ridiculous: because where else can we fly to?”

Is thought (or reasoning) in conflict with style - in the sense that the former lends itself to clarity and precision, while the latter lends itself to adornment?

“It’s such a cliché to say this, but - actually, style is thought. I think you have to believe that, as an essayist. There’s simply no room for the laborious or protracted elaboration of ideas, let alone a system of ideas.

“You have to make all the resources of your art - sound and structure, image and abstraction - work at once towards the end of convincing (or is it seducing?) your reader. And in any case clarity and precision are the products of hard aesthetic work as well as intellectual.

“The occasional philosopher who believes otherwise is definitely deluded, but may nor may not be a terrible writer.”