Getting familiar

First published 7 November 2012

To get myself through another period of chronic insomnia, I’ve been re-reading the American essayist Anne Fadiman, because she’s entertaining/popular enough for middle-of-the-night reading, yet a lovely writer with enough rigour to be satisfying. And the essay form doesn’t require the long-term commitment of a novel so if you do fall asleep again it’s not too disruptive to your reading flow.   

One grey dawn, feeling guilty about my neglected blog, and while my thoughts were perhaps not the most coherent, I got to pondering the relationship between essay writing and blogging. Is blogging, I blearily wondered, creating a new form of essay-writing? Or is that too grandiose a notion? Is in fact, blogging debasing the essay? Perhaps blogging is more akin to commonplacing? There are, certainly, several different forms of the essay genre, all with subtle differences, including critical, descriptive, narrative, personal, the more hard-edged essay form used in philosophy, the dialectic essay… and the one Anne Fadiman claims to prefer, the familiar essay.  

She defines the familiar essay as being a subset of the personal essay, written as though the author were speaking directly to a single reader. Although familiar essays are written from a subjective point of view, they are not just about the writer – they refer to subjects that the reader might be interested in  – that is, familiar topics – and which often require some sort of research.  “They are autobiographical, but also about a subject”.  She says that critical essays employ more brain than heart, personal essays more heart than brain, but familiar essays contain equal measures of both.  

The word “essay” comes from the French, and means “to attempt” or “to try”. So perhaps you can argue that bloggers are trying out their ideas on their readers, just as essay writers explore their subjects? 

I decided to see if I could find any reference to Anne Fadiman’s own views on the relationship between essays and blogging, other than the references in her books to using new technology.  It seemed pretty likely that she had either been asked for her views on this, or explored them herself somewhere. And, in a radio interview on American National Public Radio to promote the publication of her 2007 essay collection At Large and at Small, she was indeed asked by Rebecca Roberts whether, in the light of her view that the familiar essay is an evolving genre, she thought blogging was a form of it.  

Her answer: “I don’t know that it’s a form of familiar essay – but it’s an interesting literary genre… There are a lot of terrible blogs, because they don’t go through the usual filters… But many bloggers write beautifully and there may be some advantages to not being filtered through the editing process…a lot of bloggers I read do just one thing or just the other (ie, ‘regurgitate their innards onto the page’ or just write about the world), but not many combine the two”.  

Ummm. I think I agree with her up to a point. But a lot of the bloggers I read regularly –such as RSA Chief Matthew Taylor, Mark Robinson and his Thinking Practice blog – and Alastair Campbell on a good day – seem to me to combine the personal and the universal very well. Mind you, this interview is about five years old, and Anne Fadiman has been cheerfully self-deprecating in her essays about her tardiness in embracing technology and electronic forms of communication, so maybe she wasn’t terribly immersed in the blogosphere at that time. Or maybe blogs have become more sophisticated in the last few years? Anyway, you can listen to that interview in full here.  

Thinking about this some more over recent days, I have decided that, as I think that some blogging can be a modern form of familiar essay, although it has elements of commonplacing in that the best blogs contain links to electronic references the writer is blogging about, probably it’s Facebook that is the really the modern commonplace book. It’s the place where we are more personal – where we tell the world we’re having a bad day on the train, but just like the commonplace books of old it’s also where we collect and post the links to the articles, quotes, websites, news sources, books and opinions that matter to us, and help define us. (That’s why Facebook is so useful to advertisers.) 

But what about columnists in newspapers and magazines? Are they writing familiar essays too? I think some of them may be, but perhaps that’s a subject for another day.

My sources for this blog have been Anne Fadiman’s two collections of essays, At Large and At Small, Confessions of a Literary Hedonist, Allen Lane, 2007; and Ex Libris, Confessions of a Common Reader, Penguin, 1998,as well as the radio interview embedded in the link above.

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