Essay, essay, essay again

What has become of the once-glorious art of the essay? And why aren't the British any good at it?

The essay, as everyone knows, is a dying art. The grand old days of Hazlitt, Lamb, Coleridge. Emerson, Chesterton, Shaw, Virginia Woolf et al - happy times when we could dip at will into the best thoughts of the best minds and draw out maxims for life, pausing only to restoke an aromatic pipe - have long since passed, Even the moralising Victorian tub-thumpers (Mill, Ruskin, Arnold, Bagehot) play to empty houses. These days, we rely on self-help manuals and astrology for that sort of thing. Essays? We don't really trust 'em: they too closely resemble sermons or lectures; they make us want to fidget or giggle. Essays are what we slog through at university, what we have crises over. They are preachy and didactic, forcing us to put ticks in the margin or shake our heads, or think twice about something - not popular activities. Essays can hardly avoid an over-confident sit-down-while-I'm-talking tone that we find, perhaps, hard to take, in short, the form seems out-of-date: in an age of fractured authority and multiple points of view, it is literature as whole-class teaching. Worse, it seems smug: Ben Jonson said an essay was "a few loose sentences, and that's all"; and whoever referred to it as "taking a line for a walk" conjured up, in that breezy and modest notion, the suggestion of something tame and bourgeois, something that would obediently leap into the boot of the Volvo with a wag of its tail.

In fact it is precisely the opposite that makes essays so engaging: the sense of risk. In medieval times an essay had a tournamental feel - knights essayed single combat - and the whiff of danger lingers on. A lightly- armed writer enters the lists with nothing but his (or her) wit to rely on. The theme can be resonant (truth, beauty, justice, etc) or winsome: Chesterton could write charmingly about the pleasures of chasing a hat down a windy street, or subtly about the colour of a piece of chalk, in both cases making teasing inferences about the nature of human life.

In a way, an essay is just a grown-up version of the tie-breakers in supermarket quizzes: Complete the line "I think history is bunk because..." in not more than 10,000 words. Essayists are preachers, but also the stand- up comedians of literature: there are no props to tall back on. Neither is there a plot. Novelists require their readers to sign an invisible contract promising to indulge their clever lies. But essayists tell the truth. They just say what they think, as nicely or as brutally as they can.

Or do we? As it happens, volumes of essays are tumbling from the presses in spectacular numbers. This summer sees the publication of collections by Nicholson Baker, JM Coetzee, Gary Indiana, Barbara Kingsolver, Mario Vargas Llosa, Cynthia Ozick and Octavio Paz. Out soon: Andre Brink and Bruce Chatwin. Still in the bookshops: spacious ruminations on life and art, on nature and science, on love and death, by, amongst others, Barthes, Bellow, Calvino, Brodsky, Umberto Eco, Gordimer, Toni Morrison, Susan Sontag, Gore Vidal, Updike and Camille Paglia.

One thing you can't help noticing about this list, though: none of these writers is English. It is tempting to cite immediately our famous lack of regard for authors, especially authors with the cheek to write outside their "fields" - what the heck has a poet to tell us about politics; what can a novelist know about science? But this doesn't quite wash. Many of our top writers - Rushdie, Amis, Barnes, Byatt, Steiner - have published collections of essays in recent years, and if most of them began life as book reviews, well, so what? Nearly all essays start out as something else: lectures, acceptance speeches, introductions, travelogues, memoirs, magazine features or newspaper columns. There have been some attempts recently to revive the pamphlet - assorted blasts and counterblasts on everything from the future of the family to the meaning of fairy tales. And at least one new magazine (Prospect) is dedicated to an essay renaissance. As a stand-alone form, essays have been partially invaded and absorbed by the novel. Writers such as Milan Kundera, Nicholson Baker and Julian Barnes write novels that impersonate non-fiction. The all-seeing "I'' of the essayist can easily become the unreliable narrator of a first-person novel.

One of the nicest things about essays is that they have a point to make, and this polemical edge sharpens an aphoristic tendency, Pope's essays on Criticism and Man are famously productive of one-liners - "Hope springs eternal... A little learning is a dang'rous thing... What oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed... To err is human, to forgive divine." Essays use rhetoric in an old-fashioned way: to persuade us, to give their arguments the crunch of a knockout blow, Here are some examples from the crop of new titles:

Barbara Kingsolver: "Plenty of psychologists have studied the effects of parents' behavior on the mental heath of their children, but few have done the reverse."

Mario Vargas Llosa: "Roger Scruton is that rara avis of our time: an intelligent conservative without an inferiority complex."

JM Coetzee: "Jane Austen finds sex as demonic as Sade does. She finds it demonic and therefore locks it out."

Cynthia Ozick: "In the long run, fiction bruises character."

Gary Indiana: "You know you are in trouble when the lyrics of popular songs start making you cry before breakfast."

Well, not everyone can be Pope. Apart from their shared desire to give us the benefit of their wisdom, there isn't much to connect these writers. Cynthia Ozick is a literary critic of terrific refinement: she writes of Henry James and TS Eliot as if they had just been staying for the weekend, and ponders the significance of such related matters as memory, envy, ethics, language and sloth with energetic delicacy.

Gary Indiana, meanwhile, is a reporter from the front line of the sexual- political playground of American life. His essays are trips to Disneyland, tours of the porn industry or jolly put-downs on class enemies. Coetzee takes a less larkish, more theoretical interest in the mazy issues of censorship and liberty and is, of course, majestically long-sighted; leaving Mario Varga Llosa to skip earnestly from Che Guevara and Andre Breton to Maradona and the John Wayne Bobbitt affair. Barbara Kingsolver writes lovely flowing letters about her house and family, while Octavio Paz ransacks the library for historic references to the philosophy of love.

I didn't include one of his bon mots in the above list, because quips are not really his line. He prefers to filter lofty abstractions into a grand-sounding lyric: "In the face of the logical and ontological impossibility of deducing being from nothing, Plato posited a demiurge who mixed together pre-existing elements to create, or more exactly, recreate the world." Paz is a great and distinguished writer with great and distinguished interests - love, for instance. He has won the Nobel Prize and heaven knows what else. But at times he can seem merely stuffy, out to impress us with long words. It's not my cup of tea; but you have to give him credit for essaying.

'Making Waves' by Mario Vargas Llosa, Faber pounds 15.99

'Giving Offense' by JM Coetzee, Chicago

'The Double Flame' by Octavio Paz, Harvill pounds 14.99

'High Tide in Tucson' by Barbara Kingsolver, Faber pounds 9.99

'Let it Bleed' by Gary Indiana, Serpent's Tail pounds 11.00

'Anatomy of Restlessness' by Bruce Chatwin, Cape pounds 15.99

'Portrait of the Artist as a Bad Character' by Cynthia Ozick, Pimlico pounds 12.50 (pub. 19 July)

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