What Makes an Essay an Essay?

by Kamm Prongay
published in Writing

An important question, for a column devoted to the essay. 

Also, it seems, a rhetorical question, as easily answered as what makes tea, tea. I love both tea and essays. One nourishes my body, the other my soul. I consume both, savoring flavors and words without much thought. Tea was the robust, brown liquid I consumed in my grandmother’s kitchen. Essays were non-fiction prose I read in the afternoon.

My realization that there was more to tea than brown liquid began at Brown’s Hotel in London. “You must go,” friends said. “After all, Agatha Christie and Rudyard Kipling wrote there. The ambiance might rub off.” I skipped a week of lunches and used the money for a high tea reservation.

The Drawing Room where tea is served has wood paneling and cozy arm chairs. Classical music drifts across discreetly spaced small tables adorned with white linen tablecloths, silver tea sets, and three-tiered pedestals of finger sandwiches, scones and pastries.  A tuxedo-clad waiter greeted me with a gracious, “Good afternoon, Madam,” and handed me a heavy, white menu.

I opened it, anticipating the list would include my favorite. Instead, I was confronted with names of 25 teas. Black, yes, but none I recognized. The beverage I’d consumed for years was one blend in a sea of other blends, including oolong, white, herbal, and fruit. All teas, just not ones I knew.

My journey to define the essay has been similarly humbling. Google “essay,” and you’ll come up with a potpourri of answers. My favorite is Wikipedia’s: “the definition is vague, overlapping with those of a letter, a paper, an article, a pamphlet, and a short story.” 

Marriam Webster calls it “a short piece of writing on a particular subject.” 

Some sources insisted the essay is a genre, others that it is merely a “categorization.” 

Most agree essays are non-fiction, prose, and subdivided into two flavors, formal and informal.

Formal Essay

Here I turn to William Harmon’s A Handbook on Literature, 12th edition, which defines a formal essay as “a moderately brief prose discussion of a restricted topic,” characterized by “seriousness of purpose, dignity, logical organization,” where “literary effect is secondary to serious purpose.”

My English breakfast tea is akin to the formal essay. Strong, stout, nothing personal or tampered with. No individual opinion. Research data, clearly presented, using agreed upon convention.

I am fairly certain I can recognize a formal essay when I meet one. I’ve written my share of 5-paragraph essays in high school, tedious pieces with a thesis, three paragraphs (each with topic sentence, supporting detail, and concluding sentence), followed by a conclusion supporting the thesis. Neat, tidy, and not the focus of this column.

Informal Essay or Personal Essay?

Things got trickier when I looked for a definition of “informal essay.” Harmon says these essays are characterized by “the personal element,” and “freedom from stiffness and affection.” 

Here, the reader is guided by a narrator who is intimate. The prose is conversational. Personal views and opinions are expressed.

That seemed clear, except most other references I consulted treat “informal essay” and “personal essay” as synonyms. 

Perhaps structure was the defining characteristic? Down the rabbit hole I went, and discovered definitions for 15 different categories of informal essay. With utmost respect to the splitters, the 15 all stem from argumentative, expository, or narrative essay.

Personal Essay or Journalism?

This led to another rabbit hole. Was journalism just another form of essay? 

Alison Hill’s excellent piece in Writer’s Digest was most helpful. She notes that journalistic reporting is “focused on the outside world and other people, objectively observing and reporting on who’s doing what, when, how, and why.” Personal essays, however, turn the spotlight the other way, toward the writer.

So personal essays can be considered a form of journalism, like opinion pieces.

Saying almost everything about almost anything

As I dove deeper into the “what makes an essay an essay” rabbit hole, I began to feel a bit like the Mad Hatter. 

Master essayist Aldous Huxley, in his preface to Collected Essays, says “…the essay is a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything.”

By that measure, almost any nonfiction prose counts as an essay. I read on. The best essays, according to Huxley, are built around three frames: personal and autobiographical, objective and factual, and abstract universal. Could those frames help me differentiate an essay from mere writing?

As a test, I explored Brian Doyle’s masterful “Joyas Voladoras.” The essay, published 15 years ago in The American Scholar, remains a must read for essayists. Doyle begins with three full paragraphs of detail about the flight, mating and migration of hummingbirds. At the end of the third paragraph, embedded with details about heart beats and metabolism, he moves from discussing a tiny bird to abstract and universal discussion of life and death. In the fourth paragraph, he moves back to detail, describing heart chambers, before moving back to universal “we.” Almost as an afterthought, in paragraph six, the “we” becomes personal and autobiographical, memories of a father making pancakes for his children.

Some call Doyle’s piece a nature essay. Some call it a science essay. Some say it is persuasive, others claim it is personal. In the end, all anyone agrees on is that it is an essay.

And perhaps that is definition enough.

Kamm Prongay is a writer and veterinarian whose essays intertwine science, nature, people, and place. A child of the South, raised in the Pacific Northwest, Kamm spent time at sea as a Naval Surface Warfare Officer before coming ashore to pursue veterinary school, clinical practice, teaching and research. Kamm lives with her wife, Liz, and two curious cats in Portland, Oregon.

You can find her on her website.

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