Brian Dillon

Published 7 June 2017, French paperback with flaps, 152 pages

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Imagine a type of writing so hard to define its very name means a trial, effort or attempt. An ancient form with an eye on the future, a genre poised between tradition and experiment. The essay wants above all to wander, but also to arrive at symmetry and wholeness; it nurses competing urges to integrity and disarray, perfection and fragmentation, confession and invention.   
     How to write about essays and essayists while staying true to these contradictions? Essayism is a personal, critical and polemical book about the genre, its history and contemporary possibilities. It’s an example of what it describes: an essay that is curious and digressive, exacting yet evasive, a form that would instruct, seduce and mystify in equal measure. Among the essayists to whom he pays tribute – from Virginia Woolf to Georges Perec, Joan Didion to Sir Thomas Browne – Brian Dillon discovers a path back into his own life as a reader, and out of melancholia to a new sense of writing as adventure.

New Yorker Books of the Year 2018

‘[A] wonderful, subtle and deceptively fragmentary little book … enjoyably roundabout and light-fingered … To borrow from one of Barthes’s titles, this is a lover’s discourse, the love object being writing, not only in the essay but in all its forms. It is also a testament to the consolatory, even the healing, powers of art. And at the last, in its consciously diffident fashion – Dillon is a literary flaneur in the tradition of Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin – it is its own kind of self-made masterpiece.’
— John Banville, Irish Times

‘It’s short, digressive, teasing, dilettantish, circular, and it reads like some delicate, wandering combination of Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida and E. M. Cioran’s longer aphorisms…. As [Dillon] examines his examples of essayism, and steadily reveals more of himself, so his own work joins those cherished selections, enacting in sentence after fine sentence the theory it modestly abjured.’
James Wood, New Yorker

‘It is somewhat unseemly for a critic to confess that their immediate reaction to a book is one of unremitting envy. But Brian Dillon’s study of the essay is so careful and precise in its reading of a constellation of authors – Derrida and Barthes, Didion and Sontag, Browne and Burton, Woolf and Carlos Williams, Cioran and Perec – that my overall feeling was jealousy…. A remarkable meditation on memory … above all he claims to admire style, and he is exceptionally good at defining the styles he likes…. His account of depression is reflected in thinking about the essay. Is it something composed of fragments and shards? Is it a coolly organised progression? Is it about confession? Is it about concealment? The book’s excellence lies in the way these paradoxes are held suspended…. The book, ultimately, is about how literature can make a difference. It is a beautiful and elegiac volume. I can give no greater compliment than to say that having read it, I re-read it.’
Stuart Kelly, New Statesman 

‘[W]ritten in lucid, exacting and unsentimental prose, Essayism is a vital book for people who turn to art – and especially writing – for consolation.’
Lauren Elkin, Guardian 

‘Brian Dillon could easily have written another book about the essay – its hallmarks, history, current role in literary turf wars, etc. What a relief, then, to find his Essayism navigating away, in its opening pages, from such a project, and turning instead toward this surprising, probing, edifying, itinerant, and eventually quite moving book, which serves as both an autobiographia literaria and a vital exemplar of how deeply literature and language can matter in a life.’
— Maggie Nelson, author of The Argonauts 

‘Erudite and elegiac … Essayism is a constellation of close readings, its arguments coming to the fore through the repetition and rhyme between its sections. Dillon can locate the single comma or dash whose placement somehow sums up a writer’s aesthetic commitments (he does especially graceful work with Hardwick’s sentences).’
— Will Rees, Times Literary Supplement

‘Dillon is a mournful, witty and original writer.’
—Parul Sehgal, New York Times

‘[A] beautiful and original book about “essayism” … Partly memoir, partly disquisition on mortal peril and how to read your way through (some of) it, this is a brilliantly adventurous, clever and moving book.’
— Joanna Kavenna, Literary Review

‘Dillon takes on the essay not only as a series of formal or technical expectations, or the natural system of delivery for certain kinds of ideas or information, but as the expression of an attitude, a willingness to risk, or even court, incoherence.’
Vinson Cunningham, New Yorker

 ‘Dillon’s brilliantly roaming, roving set of essays on essays is a recursive treasure, winkling out charm, sadness and strangeness; stimulating, rapturous and provocative in its own right.’
— Olivia Laing, author of The Lonely City

‘Brian Dillon has written a moving and vulnerable love letter to the essay as a genre – a region wherein fragmentation provides secret consolation. Depression and essayism, he brilliantly demonstrates, are twins. His own language has never been so sharp, suggestive, coiled – deliciously given over to idiosyncrasy. Interpretive treats abound: Dillon’s appreciations of Hardwick, Barthes, Sebald, and other fellow travellers are beautiful acts of critical generosity and acumen. All these wonders occur within a shattering account of literature’s power not to alleviate gloom but to justify (by illuminating) the fits and starts of consciousness.’
— Wayne Koestenbaum, author of Humiliation

‘This book may hover (inter alia) around Montaigne’s famous tumble from his horse; only, in Dillon’s hands, it’s the essay itself that’s tumbling, crashing through the strata of its history, all its previous landscapes (those of Woolf, Hardwick, Blanchot, Cioran…) fragmenting and spinning in delirious recombinations.’
— Tom McCarthy, author of Satin Island

‘A human brain stewed in the pits and pleasures of language is one committed to glorious and erudite disarray. A brain in love with the beauty of broad systems as equally as the algebraic minutiae of detail will move, like a carpenter, between hopeless wasted fragments and those startlingly hewn lattices of logic that launch ideas like spores in the wind. Dillon champions this gymnastic brain, and his own, here in Essayism, embodies the long shadows and descriptive delicacies of many essayist masters: it is a searing and addictive voice, ambitious to probe all corners of this condition called writing.’
— Helen Marten, winner of 2016 Turner Prize

Essayism is a quiet and forceful triumph, an attractive, smart defence of stylistic subjectivity and aestheticism, and its direct bearing on life, themes too often ignored or slighted in the wake of anaesthetizing theoretical framework.’
—Nicolas Liney, Oxonian Review

‘[A] wise, humane and stylish book.’ 
Joe Humphreys, Irish Times

Brian Dillon was born in Dublin in 1969. His books include Suppose a Sentence, Essayism, The Great Explosion (shortlisted for the Ondaatje Prize), Objects in This Mirror: Essays, I Am Sitting in a Room, Sanctuary, Tormented Hope: Nine Hypochondriac Lives (shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize) and In the Dark Room, which won the Irish Book Award for non-fiction. His writing has appeared in the Guardian, New York Times, London Review of Books, the New Yorker, New York Review of Books, frieze and Artforum. He has curated exhibitions for Tate and Hayward galleries. He lives in London.