by David Lazar

Let me known all at once for a queer fellow . . . –Steele, Spectator 442

Genre and gender are indissolubly linked, etymologically intertwined. Clearly the two words emerge from an intertwined root system that speaks to typologies, distinctions, styles—and they are almost homonyms, fraternal sound twins. Turn to genre in the dictionary, and you will be pointed to gender. Early uses of genre cited in the OED refer to distinguishing types of people; the first cited, interestingly, by Lady Morgan, says, “But what is the genre of character . . . which, if in true keeping to life and manners, should not be found to resemble anybody” (1818). How queer, that one of the first uses of genre suggests a person who is impossible to characterize. Genre is a category after all. So is gender. And the gender category difficult to characterize by normative standards is queer. The genre category difficult or impossible to characterize, the essay, is also queer. The essay is the queer genre.

The words have further etymological complexities when one considers that gender can be translated into genre in French, genero in Spanish and genere in Italian—the Latin stem form of genus, kind. The Greek root of gen means to produce which gives us genesis, oxygen, gene.

In Leviticus, God says, Thou shalt not let thy cattle gender with a diverse kind; thou shall not sow thy field with a mingled seed. We can imagine the result, a genre of hybrid calves, or worse yet, queer cattle mingling all over the place. They wouldn’t know what to call them.

The history of genre has evolved through western literature as a story of creating distinctions, discrete categories for the most part, and subdivision. Poetry and Fiction, and Drama with their various subgeneric extensions, period demarcations, stylistic innovations: Romantic Poetry, The Epistolary Novel, Kitchen Sink Drama, ad infinitum. But until now, one of our major genres, The Essay, has resisted classification. Has resisted genrification. To read through the history of essays on the essays is to a large and fascinating extent to see practitioners of the form struggling to articulate what the form is and refusing to keep the form stable, refusing to narrow its sense of possible performative and formal dimensions, frequently inverting commonly accepted conventions (idling is good and natural, sensibility and self-awareness are virtues, intense attention to the self leads to an enlarged perspective, eros is located profoundly in 20 friendship). Nancy Mairs, Rachel Blau DuPlessis and others have suggested a feminine affinity for the essay, feminizing Montaigne along the way, which is quite a trick when one considers the how excessively women are discounted in Montaigne’s overt discourse. But Rachel Blau DuPlessis suggests in “f words: An Essay on the Essay” that the openness, distrust of systems, skepticism, and transgressive nature of the form are reasons “why the essay has been summed up the by the term feminine.” And In “Essaying the Feminine: from Montaigne to Kristeva,” Nancy Mairs finds qualities in the “Montaignesque” essay that break or escape phallocentric discourse. At the end of “On Some Verses of Virgil,” Montaigne does say, shockingly, that “except for education and habit, the difference [between the sexes] is not great.”

I’d go a step further, suggest that the essay as a genre is doesn’t just resist classic gender binaries, but in many ways queers them. I’ll put the statement out of the rhetorical closet: the essay is a queer genre. What do I mean? I mean this in a most specific way. In the way that queer theory defines queer as a continuing instability in gender relations that undermines the traditional binary of gender, replacing it with indeterminate, transgressive desires. The desire of the essay is to transgress genre.

Queer and essay are both problematic, escapable, changeable terms. Both imply resistance and transgression, definitional defiance. But there is more; for example Judith Butler’s sense of performativity and gender and its importance to the constitution of gender through reiteration speak to the operation of persona in the essay. Much has been written about persona, but we know this: it is never fully controlled or calibrated; it is subversive, and always has been, because, like gender performance, it “is the kind of effect that resists calculation” to at least some extent.1

The most memorable essays are formally labile and so stretch our sense of what essays might be. All essays think, come to ideas, create lasting images, seem to have some association with their personae. The elasticity of persona itself is part of the essay’s queerness. I mean this in both a metaphorical sense and as it speaks to gender. Look at the queerness at the heart of the essay: Woolf and Baldwin, Rodriguez and Fisher, Barthes, Lamb.

The essay is not and has never been genre normative; this is essential to the nature of the essay. Calling the essay “lyrical” or even “personal” puts a generic leash on it, domesticates it under the guise of setting the essay onto to new territory. However, for four hundred and thirty years the (not so) simple noun “essay” has allowed us to resist the normalizing impulses that govern other genres, and led to Pascal and Sebald and M.F.K. Fisher. What is queer about the essay is its resistance to stability, categories—even the one I’m advancing in this essay. The best theories of the essay, Lukacs, Adorno, Montaigne, Emerson, DuPlessis . . . turn in on themselves, lose argumentative coherence in the direction of passionate, expansive thinking about the essay. Essays about the essay tend to be transgressively shapely as much as any other essay, if we think shapely and circuitous are lively and harmonious concepts, as I do.

Reda Bensmaia, perhaps the most compelling contemporary critic of the essay, writes in The Barthes Effect, that,

Among all the terms that relate to the literary genres, the word Essay is certainly the one that has given rise to the most confusion the history of literature; since Montaigne used the term to describe his writings, ‘essay’ has served to designate works that are so diverse from a formal point of view, and so heterogeneous from a thematic point of view, that it has become practically impossible to subsume a single, definitive type of text under this term.”2

Bensmaia goes on to note, and pay attention to the language, that until recently, the genre of the Essay, “A unique case in the annals of literature,” “is the only literary genre to have resisted integration . . . in the taxonomy of genres.”3 The language and connection to gender seem clear enough. The essay has been the queer genre, borrowing from, at times parodying other forms, constantly creating new unstable ones, but never–queerly–fully taxonomized, defined, institutionally appropriated.

Perhaps until now.

John Frow speaks of genre as a form of symbolic action.4 If this is the case, what have essayists enacted, symbolically spoken by writing essays. What has it meant, “to essay”? Has this question ever really been asked, other than formally? I would argue that to essay has frequently been a generically queer behavior, writing this form that resists and undermines other categories. It is also a form that asks for secrets to be exposed, feelings to be explored, has asked for memory to reconsidered, and gender roles to be stretched (think of the end of “Some Verses of Virgil”), for outlandish, strange, unsympathetic or merely whimsical ideas to emerge as we adapt or adopt personae, and extend the reach of our empathetic imagination.

Bensmaia argues that the essay, “Born practically and aesthetically with Montaigne . . . still had to be born theoretically [unlike other genres] . . . above all with Roland Barthes, this genre judged ‘unclassifiable’ for a long time was finally able to make its ‘theoretical entrance’ into the history of literature and the theory of literary genres.”5 As theory, the essay also retains its essence as a fragmentary book of the self. Clearly, with Barthes as the theoretical impresario, the queerness of the genre, the way it signifies its refusals, its openness, its difference, becomes both obvious and, to Bensmaia, approaches a kind of generically canonical status. If this is true, it may ironically undermine the essay’s queerness over time and also exactly explain why the taxonomy of essays is going on now. The essay, queerly, has always existed ahistorically. The development of “new” forms like the lyric essay may be an attempt to usher the essay into a more conventional evolutionary pattern, with the lyric essay as the postmodern phase of the form. The irony is that it makes the essay seem more taxonomically like other forms of literature, and therefore less queer, less resistant to typologies, and also that it may appropriate the form into the more conventional genres, like poetry. Of course, essays have always indulged in hybridic behavior, transgendered.

Are essayists queer? Yes, or they have been, I’d argue, because along with the great motto of the essay, Montaigne’s “Que sais-je” (which carries with it the duality of inflection: what do I know, and what I know), I’ve always thought the other great line that spoke to the heart of the essay, and perhaps I’m giving myself away as an essayist, but I believe this is reflected in the prismatically digressive attentiveness of the essay voice, comes in fiction, in Henry James’s The Art of Fiction, when he urges us to, “Try and be one of the people on whom nothing is lost.”6 Essays embody sensibility and a sense of self (think of Hazlitt’s “On Gusto”), and the feeling, embodied in style, of the essayist’s difference from everyone else, even when speaking of common things. I wish James had written expansive essays, in addition to the prefaces of the New York edition. In his famous letter to Henry Adams, he writes, “I am that queer monster, an obstinate finality, an inexhaustible sensibility.”7

Perhaps there is an element of queer desire in this very subject for me, my desire to be a queer essayist marking my sense of the genre itself, spilling over, if you will. But perhaps again this is my point itself. I want to betray my motives, want my sensibility to color the world I’m seeing, and the literary world I inhabit, and I want to lose nothing in trying to be aware of how this coloration is taking shape, even in its potential excessiveness.

In the case of Charles Lamb, we see an extreme version of the essay’s queerness most vividly, as Lamb, struggling with the intensity of his discourse, the sensibility of self-protective nostalgia in his self-maternalizing, ends up offering a series of resistances to masculinity, both directly, and through ironic self-degradation: he is “beneath manhood,” refers to “my infirmity,” his “mental twist,” the “symptom of some sickly discourse,” all addressed to the male reader (“a busy man, perchance”), to whom he both seems somewhat embarrassed and threatens to “retire, impenetrable [my italics] to ridicule, under the phantom cloud of Elia.” Time itself is feminized: the old year’s “skirts” and the new year’s birth. 8

Perhaps one of the reasons Lamb has been singled out as “dear” and “saintly” as what I think are unconscious cognates for queerness is not simply because readers have given him grief points, and responded to his whimsy, but have subconsciously allowed him a resistance to conventional emotional valences they might have found excessive in most male writers, writers working in genres that were, perhaps, less performative. I think this reaches an apotheosis in Lamb in his essay “New Year’s Eve.”

Whether the essay will become less queer the more it becomes typed, subcategorized, postmodernized, or avail itself of some continuing inner “heresy,” to invoke Lukács, is up for grabs. I worry about the essay’s domestication, a false sense of formal radicalization. Merely breaking up paragraphs or adding poetry to essays (Cowley did that in the mid-seventeenth century) doesn’t make an essay queer or politically resistant once that becomes one of the old bag of essay tricks that all beginning essayists must practice to construct barricades to the paragraph, within whose contours, Lamb, Woolf, Baldwin . . . Montaigne, wrote such wild, fascinating, queer words.

Essays on the essay never pin the essay down. A queer theoretical essay wouldn’t even want to. But it’s worth noting that the essay has always been a cite of resistance, a place where things have happened rhetorically as well as formally that haven’t happened elsewhere. Sir William Temple, anyone?

Notes and References

1. Judith Butler, “Critically Queer,” GLQ: A Journal of Gay and Lesbian Studies, 1.1 (1993): 25.

2. Réda Bensmaïa, The Barthes Effect: The Essay as Reflective Text (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 95.

3. Ibid. 129.

4. John Frow, Genre: The New Critical Idiom (Abingdon: Routledge, 2005), 2, 13, 154.

5. Bensmaïa, 99.

6. Henry James, “The Art of Fiction,” published in Longman’s Magazine, September 1884, and reprinted in Partial Portraits (New York: Macmillan, 1888). In Henry James: Literary Criticism, Vol. 1 (New York: Library of America, 1984), 53.

7. James to Henry Adams, March 21, 1914, in The Selected Letters of Henry James, ed. Leon Edel (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1955), 174.

8. Charles Lamb, “New Year’s Eve.” Elia and the Last Essays of Elia. Ed, E.V. Lucas. London: Methuen & Co, 1903.


David Lazar’s books include The Body of Brooklyn and Truth in Nonfiction (both Iowa), Powder Town (Pecan Grove); Michael Powell: Interviews and Conversations with M.F.K. Fisher (both Mississippi). Forthcoming are a new book of essays, Occasional Desire, and a new anthology, Essaying the Essay (Welcome Table Press). His essays and prose poems have appeared widely in magazines and anthologies, and five of his essays have been “Notable Essays of the Year” according to Best American Essays. He taught for sixteen years at Ohio University, where he founded the Ph.D. program in Nonfiction Writing and directed the creation of the undergraduate and MFA programs at Columbia College Chicago, where he now teaches. He is the founding editor of Hotel Amerika