Oxford Today editor Richard Lofthouse talks to Rosalind Porter of Granta about recovering the lost art of the essay.
Rosalind Porter, deputy editor of Granta magazine
By Dr Richard Lofthouse
Rosalind Porter (Christ Church, 2002), deputy editor of Granta, leads a panel of judges for a relatively new but quickly maturing literary prize, the Notting Hill Editions Essay Prize. We thought that the prize would be of wide interest to Oxonians given how many wonderful pieces of writing we receive here at Oxford Today, and not forgetting the £20,000 bounty for this biennial non-fiction prize (plus five runners-up prizes of £1,000 each). With a deadline in the New Year there’s plenty of time to wet your nibs.The Notting Hill Editions Essay Prize encourages writers from a broad range of disciplines to submit stimulating essays
Not wanting to sound as if we have unlocked the secrets of success, nonetheless we spoke to Rosalind to elicit a bit more detail on what might constitute, in her view, a great essay.
She notes at the outset that book publisher Notting Hill Editions was founded, in 2011, by Tom Kremer with the express intention of trying to re-ignite the forgotten art form of the essay. Incidently, Kremer is also the man responsible for discovering and licensing the Rubik's Cube, and is so passionate about reviving the art form of the essay that he funds the prize himself.
Kremer reflects, ‘The essay is brief but it allows the writer to explore ideas deeply and personally.’ The forty-odd titles so far published by his team have already garnered a great deal of admiration for their compact size, linen-clad beauty and high production values, quite apart from the words. Topics have spanned subjects as diverse as Tory MEP Daniel Hannan’s (Oriel, 1990) reflections on why Britain and Europe are A Doomed Marriage (so it now seems!), to King’s College English lecturer and ex-cycling courier Jon Day (St. John’s, 2003) who penned the zeitgeisty title Cyclogeography: Journeys of a London Bicycle Courier.David Bradley was 2015’s winner for his essay A Eulogy for Nigger
Porter notes how the French word essayer means ‘to try’, or ‘to attempt’. ‘The essay is an attempt; it is dynamic and fluid. It is not meant to be a dull thesis put across and ‘proved’ in three or four points, then recapitulated and tagged with a conclusion – which might be what we think of when we recall our school homework.’
Neither is it (necessarily, any longer) ‘stridently didactic in that older tradition of, say, Addison and Steele’, she adds.
‘It’s simply a rhetorical attempt to articulate, explore and perhaps explain something.’
While emphasising that the quality and execution of the writing is of paramount importance in the judging of the prize, Porter insists that the subject of any contender essay could be virtually anything. In style it might be academic and earnest; or highly rhetorical and lyrical. She acknowledges that the genre of the essay overlaps (potentially) with reportage and memoir, noting again that its job is not to ‘prove’ something. ‘I suppose it’s safe to say that all great essays should achieve something of what they set out to achieve, even if they end up deviating from their original purpose along the way, as Geoff Dyer often does.’ She likes the late David Foster Wallace’s 2006 New York Times essay about tennis player Roger Federer and also cites an essay in Granta by Mary Gaitskill called ‘The Lost Cat’ as a personal favourite.
Founded in 2013, the Prize’s first winner was Michael Ignatieff (right), the Canadian author, political ethics expert and sometime student and biographer of Oxford intellectual historian Sir Isaiah Berlin. In the second edition of the prize in 2015, when it adopted its current name (in the first year it was called the William Hazlitt Essay Prize after the great essayist), the winner was David Bradley whose striking and brilliant essay was titled A Eulogy to Nigger.
When Kremer founded Notting Hill Editions, he was (of course) told that he was mad to start publishing hardback books in a digital age. But he has already confounded his critics and many of his titles have already sold out or been reprinted.
What’s going on here? Porter suggests that newspapers, through commercial desperation, have lurched towards life style underpinned by ‘reader offers’ of cheap handkerchiefs and foreign exchange services, while online fare, which is too often ‘here today gone tomorrow’, is typically very short form journalism or, more probably, ‘re-purposed’ material whose primary goal is to score cheap traffic leading to pay-per-click ad revenue. ‘There’s a real hunger for intelligently conceived, well thought out original writing that sits between academia and journalism.’ The short, small volumes that Notting Hill has pioneered also sit aside from full fat books, which have also boomed. ‘It’s [the essay] somehow neither journalism nor is it news, and is unique for often benefitting from jumping genre fences.’
Details of the prize at:
Images © Granta magazine