Of old, the essay appeared here and there in some stately weekly paper. Then it dignified once a week some of the more solemn of the daily papers. Then it appeared in another, and another more vulgar. Then, not once a week, but twice a week, in these last: finally, every day. And now (say they) it is everywhere. And the enemies of the essay—or at least of this excess of essay, this spate of essays, this monstrous regiment of essays—are particularly annoyed by the gathering of the same into little books, which they think a further shocking sin against taste. It is bad enough (they say) to drivel away week by week, or even day after day, for your living, but you may be excused (poor devil!), for a living, you must get. What is quite unpardonable is to give this drivel the dignity of covers and to place it upon shelves.
The enemies of the modern essay go on to say that it cannot possibly find sufficient subject-matter for so excessive an output. And so on.
Now here let me break modern convention at once, and say that I am a good witness and in a good position also to plead in the matter. I have written this sort of essay for many weary years. I know the motive, I know the method, I know the weakness, but also all that is to be said for it. And I think that, upon the whole, the modern practice is to be supported.
I certainly do not say that with enthusiasm. It would be better for literature, no doubt, and for the casual reader (who reads a great deal too much), if the output were less. It would certainly be better for the writer if he could afford to restrict that output. But I know that, in the first place, the level remains remarkably high in this country (where there are a dozen such things turned to one in any other), and that it does so remain high is an argument in favour of the medium. For a sufficient standard maintained in any form of writing should be proof that there is material and effort sufficient to that form: that there is a need for that form to supply, and that it is supplied.
These modern essays of ours may be compared to conversation, without which mankind has never been satisfied, which is ever diverse (though continually moving through the same themes), and which finds in the unending multiplicity of the world unending matter for discussion and contemplation. It lacks the chief value of conversation, which is the alternative outlook—the reply. That cannot be helped. But I fancy the reader supplies this somewhat in his own mind, by the movements of appreciation or indignation with which he receives what is put before him. Indeed, sometimes his indignation moves him to provide free copy in protest; though I am afraid that the corresponding pleasure does not get the same chance of expression. I do indeed note, especially in the daily papers nowadays, continual letters from correspondents approving (usually) the more horribly commonplace pronouncements, or those which have been put in to order, as part of some propaganda or other undertaken by the owner of the sheet. These letters I suspect. I believe they are arranged for. But the letters of indignation are certainly are certainly genuine, and editors get a good many more than they print. When such letters are written in disapproval of what I myself have written, I nearly always agree with them.
I can also claim to give evidence as a reader of other people’s essays. For I can read this kind of matter with less disgust than any other in the modern press. Yes, I prefer it even to murders. And I cannot tell you how much I prefer it to ignorant comment upon the affairs of Europe or conventional rubbish upon the domestic: the presentation of little men as great, of falsehood as truth, of imaginaries as realities.
As for the dearth of subject, I see no sign of it at all. If I consider any one man of that half-dozen or so whom I read regularly, my colleagues in this same trade. I can name one except myself who tends to repetition. And there is no reason why a fairly well-read man, still active and enjoying occasional travel, let alone the infinite experience of daily life, should lack a subject. Stuff is infinite. The danger lies not in the drying up of matter but in the fossilization of manner. Nor do I find much trace of that in my contemporaries.
I have, indeed, the contrary fault to find with the English essay-to-day, and that is the restriction of matter. There are whole departments of the highest interest to man which are, by convention, avoided. For instance, until quite lately (when the ice was courageously broken by one group of newspapers) a discussion of the ultimate truths and of whether those truths could be discovered or stated—in other words, a discussion of what is generically called “religion”—was forbidden. Now that the ice has been broken, editors have discovered—a little to their astonishment, I think—that the pioneer was right—that there is nothing for which the public has a stronger appetite than theology.
Another form of restriction is the absence of a devil’s advocate, and that absence is more clearly marked and of worse effect here than abroad. The really unpopular, or the really unusual, point of view cannot get stated in pages of general circulation. And that means the absence of creative friction; for conflict is the mother of all things.
The opposition is, indeed, allowed to appear in small, obscure sheets which are devoted to nothing else. But that is of no great public service. What would be of public service would be eager and general discussion, and the perpetual presentation of argument and fact, which the public are not allowed to have.
Take such a simple point as that of Communism. It is a very living issue in our time. It is an active threat in the French commonwealth, a triumphant one in the Russian; it is a subject of immediate anxiety to every government in Europe, and though it has less place here than in any other industrial country, it does indirectly leaven a wide area of thought even here.
But to get it stated—to have said in its favour all that can be said in its favour—one must turn to small publications which are ignored by the principal newspapers and reviews. In these last you never get the Communist position fully and strongly put. You get it vaguely if violently abused—but without definitions and without concrete details; you feel that it was always there in the background, and you are never allowed to see it.
Let no one flatter himself that opposition can be hear because certain points of view supposedly unpopular are sometimes put in what are called “daring” or “paradoxical” essays. These are never true opposition. They are always a jest or that worst form of demagogic flattery which consists in telling people that what they really think but what they have not hitherto dared to day. Of true opposition in English letters we have to-day none. And English letters are badly worse for the lack of it.
~Hilaire Belloc (1929). Published in One Thing and Another (1955).