An Invitation, a Reply, and a Reflection: The Essay

An Invitation

Earlier this year, I was honoured to be asked to talk, read, deliver a writing workshop, and screen two short ‘essay films’ at TAKING IDEAS FOR A WALK: THE 2018 ESSAY CONFERENCE, convened by Dundee University Review of the Arts on 19 and 20 June of this year, and held at Hospitalfield House, Arbroath. On being asked to talk informally about my practice, specifically cross media essay form, I decided to prepare this as a series of short letters, as a reply to the invitation, and as a ‘speaking to’. This reply is posted below, together with a few new notes and qualifications, and the links to the two short films. This is followed by a two-part reflection on the conference. I must thank Dr Gail Low, Professor Kirsty Gunn, and Professor Tracy Mackenna for their generous and unexpected invitation.

Imagining Essays Panel. Left to right: Graham Domke, Emma Bolland, Gabriel Josipovici, Chris Arthur, & Kirsty Gunn (Chair). Picture, Lise Olsen 2018

A Reply

Sheffield, March 15th

I got an email today. ‘Hi – we’re running a conference up at Dundee. I want to have a panel on the diversity of essayistic forms. I wonder if we could tempt you to come up and speak to what you do, and the lovely, hybrid work—cross-media especially—that you do with the essay form?’
          I thought, kind words, and then, am I an essayist, now? [1] The email re-framed my ideas of self and practice. Not a re-framing as re-fixing, but re-framing as offering a different doorway, a different point of departure. Hybrid, cross-media essay forms. I’ll have that, I thought. When people ask me, what do you do?, I’ll say, me? I work with hybrid, cross media essay forms. And I thought about the movement of the ‘creative critical’, [2] not so much as a walk along a path, but more as an immersion in a mobile topography, where ideas and forms intersect, inflect.
         I thought about the wording of that email, which asked me not to ‘talk about’, but to‘speak to’. An elusive, but important difference. These letters then, are not just to you, but also to myself, and to the ‘what it is I do’.

Sheffield, March 30th

Did I tell you about my time at art college? I was on a course that had been at the cutting edge of performative, conceptual work, but that unbeknownst to me, in the months between applying and arriving, had undergone a coup of sorts, and was being transformed into one of those muscular material places, staffed by men who liked a pint, who had studied together at the RCA, headed back up North to continue their alliance.
The first week, I made my way up to the film and video unit, and nervously asked to come in. Prior to starting art college, I had been writing longish prose poems that were punkish collages of showgirls, traumas, dreams, and horses. A surreal auto-fiction, years before I knew the term, or considered its potential as a critical ‘I’. I would perform these words at gigs, sometimes just turning up at clubs on the night and asking if I could have ten minutes before the bands, perform them with soundtracks I had spliced together, played on a crappy cassette player I carried with me. I wonder now how I had the nerve, and feel quite proud of fearless, naïve me.      It seemed obvious that once at art college I would work across media, draw and paint perhaps, but also write, perform, make moving image—which I think even then, I saw as a kind of writing.
         So anyway, that first week I made my way up to the film and video unit. The lecturers, the techies—all male, this was the nineteen eighties, after all—looked down at me and said, do you know how to use a camera, do you know what kinds of films you want to make? No. They looked at each other, eyes metaphorically rolling—you can’t just come in here if you don’t know what you are doing. I left, shamed, and spent the next three years painting, because that meant I never had to ask for help. It would be nearly twenty five years before I had the nerve to pick up a camera. At the time it never occurred to me that  I could have said, mate, it’s your job to teach me.

London, April 15th

Those last letters I wrote you, I have to confess that they are a kind of self mythologising, a selection of incidents, a selection of me that serves another purpose, of telling a story that is also an analysis, a proposition, an exploration of a wider world than that of myself. If I have a signature, a marker for my work, it is that of the autofictive, the strategically subjective, what Anna Stetsenko referred to, when I heard her speak last month,—did I tell you how great she was?—as ‘s/objective’, s-slash-objective, subjectivity as objectivity. [3] Autofiction in simple terms does what it says on the tin: it combines factual autobiography with fiction. It is an approach that has been criticised as solipsistic, a form whose most ‘crushing weakness [is] historical amnesia’. [4] But maybe certain uses of autofiction might refigure the ‘I’ as ‘eye’, encompass a wider discourse, employ a networked ‘self’ as a ficto-critical tool. [5]

London, April 20th

I’m in the British Library, reading H.D, and thinking about the conditions of writing. How she wrote The Gift, a memoir of her childhood, under the conditions of war. I imagine her writing through the ruptures of the air raids, typewriter keys clattering away above the sound of shelling, writing in fragments; firing off volatile pronouns and tenses; shuffling the sense of who is speaking, of what, and when.

Sheffield, May 1st

A day spent thinking about the potency of the rupture, the break. There are writers, speakers, practitioners who I position as essayists, even though they might not do so themselves. Maggie Nelson, Lara Pawson, Nathalie Léger, Daniela Cascella, and the translator Kate Briggs. In Kate’s most recent book This Little Art (2017) she writes in patchworks and page breaks of translating Roland Barthes, of what it is to translate, of what it is to move between languages, the shifts that occur.
Kate spoke, a few weeks ago, of this book as being the first  in which she has written as the ‘I’, and of the possibility that it might be the last. [6] But who knows, she shrugged. Earlier that day there had been a discussion of the absence of the ‘I’ in academic writing. But we all know it’s there, right?—I said. It might not be written on the page but we all know it’s there. I’ve marked my copy of This Little Art with indigo page markers. I didn’t start reading it until they had arrived. I like to make my favourite texts into objects, and order the coloured markers from Germany. Kate has indigo, Lara scarlet, Maggie grey, and Nathalie a sepia brown. For Daniela’s latest, I think it will be orange, as the cover is dark and the title is Singed (2017).

Berlin, May 5th

I’m listening to a friend perform. They are so good I’m actually in pain with envy. I’m finding it hard to focus on the day, worrying that I’ve been asked to speak to you of what I do, to what I do. I’m happier using myself to speak about something or someone else; which is in fact what I do, so it shouldn’t be a problem, but the fact that it shouldn’t be a problem makes it so.
Anyway, I’ve made some notes about an effort, an essay, of  moving between dreams, fictions and facts, of employing critical and political histories, of using more than one language, of making bad translations, of elegance, of barking like a dog, of mangling syntax, of prose, poems, scripts, images, typographies, collages, objects, ruptures and breaks, of romances, of nonsense, of failure, of  inconclusiveness, of lack. Most of all, of making things up.

Sheffield, May 10th

I’m re-reading Nathalie Léger’s Suite for Barbara Loden (2015). It is  an account, more than an account, of her search for a the life of the actor, writer, and director Barbara Loden. It is cinematic, shifting between scenes and tenses, paragraphs switching from descriptions of Loden’s films, to descriptions of Léger herself as she moves through the same landscapes. A recurring motif is her repeated attempts to get access to the  kinds of materials that are commonly agreed to contain ‘the truth’: archives, press cuttings, letters, photographs, files, interviews with Loden’s surviving family. None of her efforts are successful, and in the end she turns to fiction as investigative method, asking a question of who is writing who,  piecing a speculation. Léger writes that she finds herself wavering between wanting to know nothing and wanting to know everything; writing only on condition that she knows nothing, or writing only on condition that she omits nothing.

Manchester, May 19th

I’ve just performed a text on the top floor of a car park at midnight, a piece I made last year that is violent and messy, that uses as its starting point Lacan’s essay on Edgar Allan Poe’s detective story ‘The Purloined Letter’, in which Lacan proposes that truth reveals its fictional ordering. My text, (which reads in its body as fiction, embeds its footnotes like fact-daggers, and veers off, in its postscript, into lighthouse engineering, Robert Louis Stevenson, and my father), is a bugger to read from the page. I have used different typefaces for different affects, a tactic that I regretted in that moment. Also, I hadn’t realised that the audience would be so young, and was editing out the filth as I went along.
Tomorrow I’m in London, reading a different piece of filth, which is both a consideration of Twitter porn, and a screenplay account of the time I punched a man, for real, on a rowdy train.

Sheffield, June 12th

More emails today. Hi, I wrote, I’m thinking it might be too complicated to show the short films at the essay conference. When you asked about showing work I just assumed (my bad) that the set up was in place, but it seems as though it is getting rather complicated. I imagine you have enough to sort out without all this. I am more than happy to just read. See you on Monday! A reply comes quickly. I’m still looking into this because I love those videos!
I’m pleased, and surprised because it’s hard for me to like my work, and these films were made a while ago. I’ve been told that, if you want to be professional, then to have doubt, ambivalence about one’s work, is not a good thing. Perhaps not, career wise, but doubt is often what I often want from work. Ambivalence and doubt are points of departure, they leave spaces for different kinds of thinking. I don’t ever want to be certain, I don’t ever want to write a surety, I don’t ever want to tell it straight, tell it ‘like it is’—who am I to say what it is like? An essay is—and now I contradict myself, by sounding sure—an essay is a conversation, a push and pull. An essay should not end when it ends.

See you soon, Emma


[1] For the purposes of my text, I am disingenuous—of course I know that the essay, among other things, is what I do.
[2] See Stephen Benson and Claire Connors (eds.), Creative Criticism: An Anthology and Guide, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press , 2014, for an introduction to and a range selections of creative critical approaches and essays.
[3] Anna Stetsenko, public lecture at Sheffield Hallam, University 26 May 2018 , talking about her book The Transformative Mind: Expanding Vygotsky’s Approach to Development and Education, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017.
[4] Elizabeth H. Jones, ‘Autofiction: A Brief History of a Neoligism’, in Life Writing, ed. Richard Bradford, Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009, 174–84, p. 174.
[5] I am in the process of thinking through these ideas, of politicising, weaponising, critically and theoretically positioning auto-fiction as a strategy that moves beyond the subjective. Chris Kraus, in asserting her rejection of the term, says ‘I would never use that term. It’s such a strange term. It’s applied to my work, and to a lot of other people’s work, but I would never use it. There are so many examples in the history of literature of a male first-person that’s used pretty closely to the identity of the writer, and we don’t call it that. The corny beat example, Jack Kerouac, we don’t call that autofiction. Herman Melville, do we call that autofiction? All of American realism that’s written in the first person – we don’t call that autofiction.’ (Quoted in Alex James, ‘Drawn from life: why have novelists stopped making things up?‘, The Guardian, 23 June 2018). James’s article, while largely positive about the genre, suggests that autofiction may be a term that has been used to undermine women’s writing because it emphasises the subjective. More than fifty percent of the writers she name checks are women. A Guardian article from 2010 by Sarah Crown asks ‘Is auto fiction strictly a boys game?‘, saying that ‘hardly any women’ have used the form. Even a cursory glance at say, French women writers of the twentieth century would expose the fallacy of this claim. Additionally, Cis and trans women (and trans men) employ autofictive strategies. Juliet Jacques explicitly positions autofiction as political, as the writing strategy which allowed her to write Trans: A Memoir (2015) and offers antecedents in Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues (1993):  ‘The best books on Autofiction: Beatrice Wilford interviews Juliet Jacques‘,   
[6] Plenary speech at Critical Reinventions, University of East Anglia 12 May 2018


Two Short Essay Films

Lectolalia (2015) was made for the Leeds College of Art & Design ‘Library Interventions’ residencies, wherein artists are invited to respond to the library and its collections. A companion text of the same name is available from Gordian Projects. In a performance of the draft of this text I invited the audience to annotate the manuscript, and these annotations are included in the publication as endnotes.


The IS of the Thing (2014) was made for the London stage (curated by David Berridge, writer and publisher at Very Small Kitchen, and writer and aartist Claire Potter) of Shady Dealings With Language, a series of four events curated around the intersection of art, writing and performance in Leeds, London, Manchester and Edinburgh, The London event was generously hosted by X Marks The Bøkship at Matt’s Gallery.



A Reflection in Two Parts

I. On Great Men

…the first use of education was to enable us to consult with the wisest and the greatest of all men on all points of earnest difficulty… Let us do this now. Let us see wether the greatest, the wisest, the purest-hearted of all ages are agreed in anywise on this point: let us hear the testimony they have left respecting what they held to be the true dignity of women, and her mode of help to man.

John Ruskin, ‘Of Queen’s Gardens’, Sesame and Lilies (1865)

During the excellent ‘Teaching Essays’ panel (Peter MacDonald, Elizabeth Reader, Mary Bovill, and Gail Low), Peter offered us the above quote as an example of the ‘victorian sage’, the essayistic device whereby the author calls upon an existing authority to underline his (I use this pronoun deliberately) own. [1] This device, whether on the page or from the mouth is—I feel this in my subjective, unmastered, unscholarly, unaccredited, johnny-come-lately, uppity gut—part of a wider and continuing politics of citation wherein great men cite great men cite great men cite great men cite great men. Thus the canon is defended and defined.

The Essay conference was ambitious, and international, and in this ambition had rightly platformed a number of great men, respected voices, major scholars. It was odd though, in these times, to note that these great men were actually all men, older white men to boot. (An aside: being old and white and male is not an excuse. Some of my favourite writers and thinkers are ancient, pasty-faced, and be-penised). It was odd to listen to their assertions and generalisations: that young people are ignorant—they dare to write without reading Proust or Montaigne (there are no other essayists, one would think)—; that academics have it easy (this from a journalist-publisher-essayist, seemingly uncaring that he maligned his hosts); that auto-fictive approaches are not rigorous; that if one was a GOOD writer then one wouldn’t need or want to write experimentally; that there are no good critical essayists under sixty to be found; that the internet is rubbish and no one reads anymore; that the fact that only 26% of the LRB’s contributing essayists are women was ‘a matter for a different conference’; to see the spectacle of one great man unabashedly comparing himself to Gore Vidal; to hear the dismissal of Susan Sontag as someone who ‘lacked the empathy or humour to be a novelist’; to witness a male respondent take up twenty minutes of a shared half hour slot (largely talking about himself, rather than doing the job of responding), leaving the other two respondents (both young women) with ten minutes between them; the indifference to writers of colour, to queer writing, to class, to contemporary political writing; the indifference to contemporary or non-mainstream platforms (both online and in print) for essay practice… it was odd… even more odd was the sense of affront when this generalisation, indifference, grandstanding, and gatekeeping were challenged, as if there was a fear that difference is annihilatory. Do not fear, great men. We are not like you. We seek only to broaden the discourse, not to silence yours. (Also, this is academia, mates. If you want to dish it out, be prepared to eat it up).

The good thing about being faced with the thin rhetoric of great men, is that one is heartened by the richness of one’s own abilities. Arriving at the conference nervous of my status as an outsider, of my background in an art-and-writing rather than a literary-writing world, I was surprised by how much I knew that they didn’t, how my critical ambition outstripped theirs. (is this arrogant? I don’t care. Nor do I care that I bang off these words with dodgy punctuation, with ‘thoughs’ and ‘thos’ and too many of them, and do not have the time to edit, rethink, restructure, refine).


II. On the Good Stuff, on the Actual Great (including the best picture I will ever have of myself, ever)

Reading a pornographic essay, watched over by a giant naked woman. She has my nose. (Thanks to Lise Olsen for the photograph).

And breathe. The thing is though, it was great. To meet new and interesting people, to catch up with old friends, to become aware of new work, to hear about constructive and creative pedagogies, to be so generously hosted… To Gail Low, Kirsty Gunn, Elizabeth Reader, Peter MacDonald, Chris Arthur, Graham Domke, Tracy Mackenna, Kenny Taylor (and others, forgive me, whose names I forget), it was my pleasure. To the participants in my workshop, likewise.

I left with the sense that the future of the creative, critical, lyrical, experimental (or whatever) essay form is healthy, situated across disciplines, affirming my knowledge of and belief in the already extant links between creative writing, academic writing, art-writing, artistic, journalistic, and experimental literature communities. Just one example of these relations is Critical Reinventions, a symposium held earlier this year at the UEA. Though hosted by the School of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing, two of the three keynote speakers, Kate Briggs and Daniela Cascella, have trans-disciplinary writing practices, and teach in art schools. The Critical Reinventions website states that

‘Recent years have been witness to a diversification in the forms and registers of literary-critical writing. Conventional practice continues to flourish, but alongside and in dialogue with an increasingly inventive field of non-standard criticism. The reasons for the emergence of this field are several. They include the so-called post-critical turn, contentious as it is, and the desire for ‘reparative’ as well as ‘paranoid’ orientations in critical practice; the long legacy of critical theory conceived as an ongoing provocation to the content of the form of critical writing; the continued health of small-press and open access publishing, where hybridized and innovative modes of critical writing can flourish; and a renaissance in the essay, along with renewed attention to its histories and formal possibilities. Critical Reinventions aims to mark the diversity of formal invention in contemporary creative-critical practice by focusing on the life, histories and potential futures of a range of types of writing’.

Taking an Idea for Walk: The Essay conference, though very different in feel to Critical Reinventions, was as important, as it opened up the space for conversation and debate, ‘expanding’ the panels through interstices of readings and performance, and through the physical interventions of artworks, curations, and workshops.

Finally, (for I have a deadline to meet, and a bad cold, and it so hot that I am writing in my undies), to the young woman who informed the great men that they would probably all be dead in twenty years, and that younger writers didn’t care about the cultural gatekeeping because they were making their own spaces, their own platforms, inclusive, radical, brave (at which point the room burst into applause), to that young woman I say ‘brava/bravo/bravx’.


[1] Peter emphasised that he made students aware of these kinds of traditions in the broader context of a diverse and critical history of and approach to the essay, mentioning, among other contemporary and near contemporary practitioners, Denise Riley and Amit Chaudhuri.


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