James Wood on the essay
So the contemporary essay is often to be seen engaged in acts of apparent anti-novelization: in place of plot, there is drift, or the fracture of numbered paragraphs; in place of a frozen verisimilitude, there may be a sly and knowing movement between reality and fictionality; in place of the impersonal author of standard-issue third-person realism, the authorial self pops in and out of the picture, with a liberty hard to pull off in fiction. That these anti-novelistic tricks are all, in fact, novelistic tricks, often borrowed from the history of the novel, does not muffle the pleasure of watching this literary freedom in action.
Still, it’s worth remembering that the essay has its own inescapable conventions, its own formulas, too. The attempt to evade convention eventually becomes conventional. If there is “novelization” and its clanking machinery, then there will also be “essayism” and its clanking machinery. The current liberties of the essay will doubtless look mannered in thirty years’ time; its vaunted self-consciousness will look naïve, the fractured forms quaint rather than radical.