Is The Familiar Essay Getting Too Familiar?
The “familiar essay” is a term usually applied to a work of prose characterized by the personal nature of the writing and the presence of the author (or persona) as a distinct voice. It is like having someone speak to you personally.
It was back in 1590 that Montaigne published his Essais, what is often considered the first major work of familiar essays. It is a genre that has become very “familiar” to us in the common usage of that word. Clearly opinion pieces like editorials or most blogs fall into that category. Not counting instructions or news reports, it is probably what constitutes the majority of most people’s reading.
That may be unfortunate. There are two reasons.
One is that most people’s opinions aren’t worth one’s attention or time. You don’t spend a lot of time with people whose company you don’t feel worth your time.
Two, there is a tendency for people to confuse opinion with factual information. (We know fiction is fictional.) We tend to pay more attention to people that share our opinions, and so this confusion is almost to be expected. But it is not good.
Of course there are writers who are very much present in their writing, but whose writing is factual. (And whose writing is interesting because of both characteristics.) Here I have to give credit to an author of several books (full of solid science and imbued with her charming personality) on everything from sex through digestion to the dead. Plug for Mary Roach.
Also here: interesting and insightful remarks on the essay and a master of the form: Annie Dillard.