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Thursday, February 21, 2013

Modern Essayists


One of America's original Essayists.
When you read about many historical figures from the past few hundred years (particularly the Founding Fathers), one thing you notice when the historian lists the occupations of these people is the use of the term “Essayist.” What was an Essayist, exactly?

As a History major, you would think I would know how this worked. However, my focus is on ancient cultures, and my knowledge of history beyond the Middle Ages is pretty thin, and not much better than High School level.

That being said, I can postulate that these men (and let’s face it, the vast majority of them were men) probably published in small newspapers, and maybe later in scholarly journals. In short, they wrote for a limited audience. And yet, as their historical significance grew, these papers and musings have become canon for our (mostly) literate world.

This begs a question: What of today’s “Essayists?” Are there people who write and muse about important topics that may one day impact (or even create) whole schools of thought? One might be tempted to point to bloggers, to which I would humbly wave my hand and shake my head.

Bloggers, for the most part, are not essayists. We are public diary-ists (ok, that sounds kinda gross), armchair journalists, or, generally-speaking, attention whores. Even though there are probably tens of thousands of blogs out there, a relatively small portion have anything of “global” value to say. Most of us are either regurgitating what we read/heard/saw somewhere else, or discussing subjects that, despite being very personal to us, are generally of little matter in the grand scheme.

Then again, I could be 100% wrong on this, and could very well be pissing people off as I type this. Sorry for that!

All that being said, is there opportunity for modern Essayists to earn a living with their musings? One would think that getting published would be the answer. However, the publishing industry (even the non-fiction industry) has to guarantee some rate of return on their investment, so they have to pick and choose what to publish. Consequently, very few are willing to take the bet on someone with something radical and new to say. Or even someone with a radical way of presenting something old.

But then, there is self-publishing. Amazon’s Kindle program has opened a floodgate that allows anyone with a computer, and the know-how to operate it, to be a writer/essayist/novelist/what have you. And you know what? I love it! As you know, I have a handful of stories out there myself. I even have plans for more. And mine are just little escapist fantasies, yet they get great reviews, and I feel accomplished in doing them. Can you imagine if I had something important to say?

I have a friend who is a genius at politics and social issues. He and I differ in our opinions on some issues, but I am hard-pressed to find any fault in his logic. Though I may disagree, I can always completely understand why he thinks the way he does. This guy has a blog, but he has let it slip away. Personally, I think he’s missing an opportunity. And I intend to start pressuring him to self-publish some essays. I think he’d be surprised by the reception he would get.

Anyways, this was just some musings I had today, and I thought I would share them with you. This also illustrates why I don’t consider myself an “Essayist” as I tend to ramble along, and at the end, I usually find myself wondering if there was a point to all of this, and if so, did anyone get it besides me?

Oh, hey, look. There’s the Executioner novel I was reading…

1 comment:

Keith said...

Tom, I think we could be entering a new golden age of the essay. While I agree with your assessment of bloggers, I suspect that amid much of the froth and minutiae of daily life that gets posted, there are some gems out there. I enjoy a good well written essay as much or more than a good piece of fiction.

I have to wonder how long it took for some of the essayists from the past to be recognized for their essays. Many of them did a number of other things as well as write. It could be they are remembered for their essays not because their essays were necessarily any better than others written at the time, but because they achieved so much else that their essays have survived because of general interest in their lives. Other essayists are forgotten because they were never more than essayists, and as you pointed out, many essays were published in venues with limited circulation.