Matthew Richardson

Unashamedly high-brow

Montaigne has acquired new followers, thanks to Sarah Bakewell’s award winning biography. This has inspired a breath of enthusiasm in the form; the essay is back in vogue.  Writing in the FT, Carl Wilkinson reviews recent efforts from Hanif Kureishi and Alaa Al Aswany. He also mentions the foundation of Notting Hill Editions, an imprint with a brief ‘devoted to the best in essayistic nonfiction writing’.

Lucasta Miller, Notting Hill Editions’ editorial director, explained this new venture to me:

‘Newspaper articles have got shorter and shorter, and more and more driven by an “instant comment” agenda…In the 19th century the periodical press offered scope for the long, considered essay – more than an article, less than a book. There are signs that the essay is poised for a revival, but today, as Zadie Smith (whose volume of essays, Changing My Mind, came out a year ago) has lamented, bookshops sometimes don’t even know where to shelve them. In the future, Notting Hill Editions is where readers should go for the essay.’

I asked her about her favourite essayists.

‘With such a rich, protean and individualist genre it’s hard to choose…The classic essay – if such a thing exists – is an expression of the writer’s individual voice. My favourites are the great Romantic essayists – De Quincey, Hazlitt, Lamb. They did more for this subjective and uncategoriseable form than anyone since Montaigne’.

Some original choices await. Lucasta gave me a taster of some of the writers they have lined up: work from Roland Barthes, a ‘graphic essay’ by John Berger with Selcuk Demirel on illustration duty, two essays from Richard Sennett and a volume overseen by Christopher Ricks called The Table Talk of Samuel Rogers, out of print since the nineteenth century and promising ‘a witty presentation of the great Regency gossip’.

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