On Form, Feeling, And Nonfiction, by Brian Dillon
When it comes to reading a book like this, you really have to care what the author has to say, and that was not always the case for me. To be sure, in reading this book I found plenty of similarities between the author and myself, but that is likely because there is some sort of similar mental raw material in people who engage in essays, a certain love of paradox, an appreciation of wit that approaches the epigrammatic, and a desire to assay subjects seeking to better understand them at a frame in time while recognizing that the shortness of one’s form guarantees that such a view will be partial and limited in scope, and to be okay with that. As someone who has been an essayist since my youth, these are all qualities that I have and anyone who writes about essayism is going to demonstrate at least somewhat similar quirks in their own nature as they reflect upon the genre of nonfiction that they have chosen to write. People who write essays care about what they think and want others to care about it to, but it might be with essays as well as with poems, especially in our own age, that there are more people who write them than those who want to read them.
And that is especially true of the author’s disorganized rambles here. You either have to be the sort of person who does not want to let a book remain unread, especially a short one, that one has begun reading or one has to actually care about and probably agree with the author’s preference for an effete and foppish aestheticism over more polemical writings to get through this book, even if it is just over 150 pages. In these pages we see the author’s love of lists, his thoughts on music and art criticism, his love of the essays of Oscar Wilde and Susan Sontag and Virginia Woolf and others. We see his thoughts about his genetic disposition for depression and his criticism of the books to be found in his parents’ libraries, where he makes implicit criticism of their religious life. We learn about how the author organizes his own writing material and how much or little of it it there is, and overall this book feels like the scraps of something that could be assembled out of the self-absorbed musings of many bloggers that currently write.
Why is this a book? Apparently someone thought this material would sell well, and truth be told I only read the book because it was listed as a book that one of my Goodreads friends wanted to read, and being an essayist I thought it would be worthwhile to reflect on someone’s thoughts about the genre as a whole. Yet even by the standards of essays these thoughts are inconsequential and scattered. It is hard for me to imagine someone who would want to read this material and would enjoy reading this material unless they were a lot like the author himself. Clearly the author is a dandyish sort of person who has some interest in queer culture, and clearly he has some massive struggles with mental health, but beyond these things it is difficult to tell very much except that he loves reading a lot of books and culturally-themed magazines and has things to say about what he has read. If that qualifies one to write books aimed at the mass market someone needs to sign me up for this so I can get in on this gig as well, because there are likely hundreds if not tens of thousands of contemporary essayists who have as much worthwhile to say about essays and their writing than this guy does.