Recommended Reading – Essays

I love essays. My favourites I read again and again, letting whole chunks of text leech into my blood. Many of the writers on this list are, or would rather have been, known as great novelists but for me, the mixture of unfiltered insight and immaculate prose found in their essays sings higher.

Joan DidionSlouching Towards Bethlehem I am baffled by the hostility Didion rouses in many commentators. She is berated for writing about silk curtains and sundresses from Madeira, accused in so many words of being brittle and elitest. Reading Slouching I am sure there is no potential criticism, just or otherwise, Didion failed to consider. Her outstanding characteristic is gleaming honesty, and her ruthlessness begins at home.

Hunter S ThompsonThe Great Shark Hunt HST is so much more than Fear & Loathing and I love this collection of his early writings. The dispatches he filed during his year in South America have all his acid humour and righteous outrage, along with a keen moral sensibility that was later blurred by drugs and frustration.

EM Forster – Two Cheers for Democracy Reading Forster essays in bulk is like eating ice cream, there is a point where it gets sickly, but its so delicious you press on. What shines through is his refusal to accept “how things are” and his absolute prioritisation of the personal over the ideological. If it is a choice between betraying my friend or my country, he writes, I hope I have the guts to betray my country.

Virginia WoolfA Room of One’s Own Simply one of the finest essays about writing ever written. Beautiful, biting, and superbly argued. The image she evokes of an Oxford dinner is one of my favourite pieces of descriptive writing.

George OrwellFacing Unpleasant Facts Forster, a contemporary of Orwell, noted that George found many things to be unhappy about with the world, and wanted to share them. Something for which the world should be grateful, because Orwell’s ire was never expressed in less than astonishing prose. Who else could write that the Christian conception of heaven resembles “choir practice in a jewellery shop”?

Truman CapotePortraits and Observations Truman Capote is a descriptive genius and an unsparing chronicler of human emotion. Reading his essays is like watching Muhammad Ali warm up. The profile of Marlon Brando is particularly audacious and brilliant.

Natalia GinzburgThe Little Virtues I only “met” Natalia in a writing seminar last year, but she is already an old friend. The essays collected here include Silence, Human Relationships and the title piece, which is probably the best child-rearing advice I’ve ever encountered.

Martha GellhornThe Face of War Gellhorn was a heroic war correspondent. She covered every major 20th century conflict from the Spanish Civil War to the Central American conflicts of the 1980s. Fierce, fearless, and apolitical in the best way, she excoriates war without sloppy pacifism or jingoism.

Germaine GreerThe Madwoman’s Underclothes Germaine Greer is so provocative people feel the hard edge but tend to miss the sparkle of her diamond sentences. These short pieces are more personal than the majesterial The Female Eunuch, but equally blunt, polemic and rewarding.

Michel de MontaigneComplete Essays Last but far from least, the daddy of all essayists, Michel de Montaigne. I picked him up on the recommendation of Virginia Woolf and there was an instant flash of recognition. He writes about love, fear, sex and death with remarkably modern, mordant glee.


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You Say Failure, I Say Evolution

Over at Harvard Business Review Jeff Stibel writes about embracing failure. His office is home to a “failure wall” where employees are encouraged to: “(1) describe a time when you failed, (2) state what you learned, and (3) sign your name.” He concludes by saying: “If we hadn’t hired people who cherish failures, my entries on the failure wall would be very lonely. Often when interviewing, I poke around and see if I can get the candidate to acknowledge a failure.”

Kudos to Stibel for being several shades more enlightened than most anxiety-ridden American execs but I am puzzled by his persistant use of the word “failure.” Stibel got the failure-wall ball rolling by admitting to his “most memorable (and humbling) failures.” So these so-called “failures” were essential. Without them there would have been no wall. No learning, no growth, no progress.

If you take the long view, all life on earth is the product of failure. What, after all, is evolution but a series of failures? The aim of sexual reproduction is to create a faithful, functional replica. Nothing changes. Evolution happens when sexual reproduction fails, when a gene splices in the wrong place, when a burst of hormones creates a novel set of characteristics. Would you rather be a successful swamp creature than the walking, talking, cognating product of several hundred million years of nature fucking it up? I wouldn’t.

It isn’t just self-defeating to dwell on failure, it’s presumptutious. What do people really mean when they talk about failure? In a work context “failing” to make a sale, get a promotion, or get the numbers in that report aligned in a certain column simply means that a task or event did not play out according to one’s preconceived notion. Choosing to define that as failure privileges the individual’s view as objective reality. If I apply for a job and the role is offered to someone else so I say “I failed” (or, if I feel snubbed: “they failed”) I assume my perspective is the only one that matters; that the stars must align for me. What an arrogant nonsense!

An artist once told me, sincere as anything: “I’ve never, ever failed.” This, in the course of a conversation where he talked about selling LSD to his classmates, getting arrested for making a bomb threat, contemplating suicide, and going bankrupt at least twice. At the time, I thought he was a little crazy. Now, I understand what he was getting at: it’s only “failure” if you fail to learn. And it is crucial to understand that the lessons aren’t always obvious. One of my long-standing professional regrets was that I “failed” to ever write a feature for Q. If I had “succeeded” I would have likely spent the last five years in an office in central London instead of living in Ibiza and Mexico, travelling in Europe, driving across the western United States, getting a Master’s degree, learning Spanish and working at everything from production editing to project management.

That’s the problem with taking the word “failure” seriously: our definition is limited by our imagination, which is puny. “The universe is wider than our views of it,” Thoreau noted. We waste our time and work ourselves into frenzies over “failure” but the truth of it is we rarely, if ever, know enough to say what is, or isn’t, for the greatest good in the long-term. When it comes to work, we should jettison the notion of “failure” and replace it with something useful like “evolution.”

Higher Education Academy Winning Essay

In the spring I won the Higher Education Academy Student Essay Competition, which paid for my Kindle. Hurrah! Anyway, below, my winning essay on “What do English or Creative Writing have to say to an age of austerity?”

When the recession first bared its teeth a literary friend of mine was blasé. Writers are used to being poor, she said, what’s new? She was right. The age of austerity is simply the rest of the world getting a glimpse of life as lived by “lifetime English majors” (as Buddy Glass called us) and creative writers since – oh – just about forever. Writers ranging from George Orwell to Hunter S Thompson, Oscar Wilde to Mavis Gallant, have lived in – and written some of their most exquisite, lacerating prose on the subject of – abject poverty.

You will have to have another job, Italian novelist and poet Natalia Ginzburg noted matter-of-factly in her essay, My Vocation, a love-letter to the art of creative writing. Few writers are fortunate enough to be able to prove her wrong. Even when times were good for the rest of the world: when hedge funds grew into dense money-thickets and credit was easy, when house prices rose and investment portfolios swelled with promise, writers shared little of the bounty. There were – and are – exceptions, of course. Some writers sell enough to buy a house in the country, a few nab movie deals, or churn out novels regularly enough to enjoy life in a certain style. Once in a while, a six-figure publishing deal makes headlines. For most, though, the act of writing, even for publication, is so remote from any prospect of financial reward as to render money virtually meaningless. The best advice I can give you, a literary agent told my course-mates and I, is to marry someone with money. She was only half joking.

Writers take for granted that talent, education and dedication do not necessarily lead to material success. This particular reality has come as an ice-water shock, however, to those who followed the beaten path from A-levels to university assuming it would lead them right into a secure job in their chosen field. During the boom years this progression seemed irrefutable; like two-plus-two equalling four. All you had to do, in order to have a comfortable life, was learn something useful like business, banking, marketing, or management, and then sashay into a comfortable office, regular paid holidays and the eventual promise of a respectable three-bedroom semi somewhere on the commuter belt. When there were plenty of well-paid jobs available choosing to pursue English or creative writing was seen as at best frivolous, and at worst a dangerous brand of stubborn, self-defeating stupidity. Writers, like other artists, were asked: “Why don’t you get a proper job?” Now, there is no such thing as a “proper job”. Graduate unemployment is at a record high and it isn’t just humanities students who can’t find jobs. According to the BBC more electrical engineers are unemployed than are modern languages graduates, and fine arts is no worse a course, in terms of employment potential, than economics or civil engineering. The promise of the proper job turns out to be hollow.

Because English students and writers have never really participated in the collective fantasy of eternal satisfaction through consumption we are uniquely placed to help our stunned compatriots make necessary adjustments. Creative writers and English students don’t make calculations based on salary packages; we choose differently. We don’t talk about how much money we will be earning in five years, but about the novel we’re writing, our next article, or the screen-play we are going to adapt. Since we have no corporate ladder to climb, no water-cooler politicking to do, we spend our time reading, writing blogs, publishing journals, running workshops or teaching. We define ourselves by what we create in a world where the phrase “creative type” is commonly used as a pejorative. Compelled to question the petty orthodoxies about what we should or shouldn’t do with our lives, creative writers develop the habit of asking questions, of deciding for ourselves – day by day – who we are and how we want to live. “Freedom is a choice,” Hunter Thompson said, “You decide who you are by what you do.” Because writers have typically fallen outside of society’s casual assumptions about money and success we have learned the art of self-definition.

Writers have valuable truths to share in an age of austerity. We can encourage people to stop chasing illusive financial gains and focus on building a life around work they love. We are here to testify that creative work is a vital and satisfying life choice, not a privilege of rich dilettantes. Most of all, writers are proof that poverty is not fatal. We know from experience that there are many ways to take the sting out of a scant bank balance. Our leisure time is different: most writers don’t spend Saturday afternoons shopping, or own the latest flat-screen TV. Instead of going to restaurants we have friends round for dinner. We cultivate gardens, learn to sew or cook, take the time to bake home-made Christmas treats or make our own marmalade. We are familiar with frugality, with library cards, discount vouchers, charity shops, battered trainers and hand-made gifts. Rather than feel deprived, writers and “lifetime English majors” embrace the challenge of freedom and creativity, and can help show society that there is more to life than scrambling up the property ladder, or wearing the latest fashion. As Henry David Thoreau, a writer who knew a great deal about austerity, so beautifully articulated: “It is life nearest the bone where it is sweetest…. Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only. Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.”