‘all of them have stopped me in my tracks, glinting with the suggestion of meanings beyond the commonplace’
Hummingbirds Between the Pages
By Chris Arthur
Published by Mad Creek Books
Of all the literary genres, there’s one that is in a bit of a hole. About ten years ago, you’d occasionally come across poets worrying in private whether the next generation had gone missing, and short story writers wondering out loud whether the same thing had happened to their publishers. You don’t hear that quite so much nowadays. But spare a thought, as the year runs out, for the one kind of writer whose publishing habitat has all but vanished and who has become as rare as a snow leopard. I am talking, of course, about the essayist.
I know only one writer in all Scotland who chooses to publish nothing but essays. Because British publishers routinely assume essays are box office poison, our home-grown essayists often have to find a publisher in America, where a whole variety of university magazines still make room for them. Even there, though, essays masquerading as creative non-fiction, memoir, even meditation, all get the writerly foot in the editorial door a lot more readily anything that stays true to the dreaded e-word.
That at least is what Chris Arthur, the St Andrews-based essayist, says in the introduction to his new book, Hummingbirds Between the Pages, and maybe you could even add the odd bit of nature writing to that list. In one sense, then, his entire oeuvre – eight essay collections in such an uncommercial genre – is the very definition of a lonely furrow. In another, it’s the very opposite: unpredictable, meandering, tinged with wonder.
The title essay, for example, was inspired by something Arthur discovered in Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood. Writing about eighteenth-century settlers in Pennsylvania, she noted how they would press hummingbirds between the pages of heavy books, as if they were wildflowers, before posting them to relatives in Ulster or Scotland. Look, they were saying to those they’d left behind, you won’t have seen anything as perfect as this.
Robert Atwan, who founded the renowned Best American Essays annual anthology in 1986 and has been its series editor ever since, ranks Chris Arthur as “among the very best essayists in the English language today” and even though he doesn’t have a British publisher, he has won a shoal of awards in the US. When Atwan helped Joyce Carol Oates pick the ten best American essays since the Second World War (Baldwin, Mailer, Didion, Foster Wallace, Sontag et al) he said he made the task a lot easier by excluding non-Americans “so that such outstanding English-language essayists as Chris Arthur … are missing”.
So precisely what are they – or we, assuming you haven’t yet read Arthur – missing?
Let’s start with what his essays aren’t. Confusingly, because it’s the same word, they’re nothing to do with what you or I might, once upon a time, have written for homework. Even at university, essays were usually intended to be answered in predictable ways that had everything to do with proving that you had assimilated facts and interpretations and nothing to do with originality and self-expression.
That, though, is how the true essay started, with Montaigne sitting down in his tower and trying – essayer, to try – to put down his own thoughts – in his own words, “to follow a movement so wondering as that of our mind, to penetrate the opaque depths of its innermost folds, to pick out and immobilise the innumerable fluttering that agitate it.” Some of those flutterings could easily be that of hummingbird wings in the opening essay of Arthur’s book in which he recalls the thrill, as an eight-year-old, of watching hummingbirds dart around him in the walk-through jungle aviary in London Zoo. The essays in his collection are, he says, all rooted in similar feelings – “all of them have stopped me in my tracks, glinting with the suggestion of meanings beyond the commonplace”.
Somewhere in the best of them there’ll be that same kind of wingbeat switch from, say, Arthur’s boyhood memory of that day at London zoo to mentioning the Scots-Irish of 18th century Pennsylvania. Then the essay will dart off again, perhaps into poetry, or Buddhism – Arthur took a PhD in religious studies – or maybe back into a slice of memoir about growing up in Northern Ireland. The point is: a good essay is always on the move, always searching out links and currents of thought, because if it doesn’t it’s dead on arrival in the reader’s mind – a series of dull factoids, not “a contour map of consciousness” or a Rough Guide to the essayist’s inner life.
In June, Arthur was one of the guest speakers at an international conference on the essay organised by Kirsty Gunn and Gail Low of Dundee University’s English Department. Held at Hospitalfield, Arbroath, it attracted an impressive roster of essayists, including Philip Lopate, Gabriel Josipovici, Dan Gunn and Kim Kremer (publisher of Notting Hill Editions, who – uniquely – publish nothing but essays) and its aims were ambitious to match. Essentially, they boiled down to this: has the type of essay Arthur writes – individualistic, hard-thought – got any place within the academy or any future in journalism? What are its core values and how is it being developed? Can it be taught in schools – and if so, how?
These are all massive questions, each worthy of a full-length essay in reply. But it’s the last question that interests me the most – because the essays I most enjoy reading are by minds like Arthur’s (or, come to that, Richard Holloway’s or Kathleen Jamie’s) fuller and more wide-ranging than my own. And because such wisdom often comes with age, the heretical thought arises: can the essay ever attract the brightest minds of a younger generation? Can Arthur’s type of free-thinking essay really find its way into the university curriculum, alongside if not replacing the conventional type?
I don’t know the answer to that, but least the Dundee conference was a step in the right direction. Because in an age of empty popularism, when secularism has already squeezed out the reflective sermon and the Internet already bleached out so much long-form journalism, we need the contrariety, individuality, confidence and connectivity of the well-written essay more than ever.
Hummingbirds Between the Pages by Chris Arthur is published by Mad Creek Books, priced £21.75
Love this? You may love Waiting for the Last Bus: Reflections on Life & Death by Richard Holloway, published by Canongate Books, priced £14.99