Journal of Alta California

The Art of the Essay

The essay is experiencing a renaissance. At the same time, there’s quite a lot of confusion about what an essay is and what it does. Often, when people talk about “an essay,” it’s actually an op-ed or some opinion-driven riff that employs the first person. Must a so-called essay truly be an essay? Does it matter if it’s some other form?

Such questions arise in regard to the work of Rebecca Solnit, who in recent years has published five collections of topical nonfiction. One, , was long-listed for a 2018 National Book Award. Their component pieces, originally published in venues, the , and , are mostly commentary written in response to current events. In book form, they feel tethered to the ephemerality of the news cycle. In the new , for example, Solnit writes about books on female anger; about unconscious bias and “electability,” apropos of the current crop of white male candidates; and also about Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh and Jian Ghomeshi—the Canadian radio commentator accused of sexual assault.

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