Accessibility statement

The Contemporary Essay

Organisers: Dr Lola Boorman, Ella Barker, Bryony Aitchison, Dr Alexandra Kingston-Reese (Department of English and Related Literature)

In 2017 contemporary essayist Jia Tolentino proclaimed the “personal essay boom” in American literary culture over. But while the essay has seemed ubiquitous in contemporary American literary culture, its status as a major form has remained largely unexplored. While “the essay” may be familiar to readers of The Atlantic or the New Yorker, pinning down what its formal characteristics are—beyond its formal malleability—presents a serious critical challenge.

The Contemporary Essay seeks to address the critical vacuum in the study of the essay and its problems of aesthetic categorisation. What happens when we look at the essay historically? Or try to situate it within national literary traditions? Are the parameters of the personal essay at odds with its political valence in today’s literary landscape? How do contemporary essayists, such as Emilie Pine and Leslie Jamison, reshape a longstanding tradition of cultural criticism in the “program era”? The objectives of this strand are twofold: to stabilise an emergent field and to establish an international, interdisciplinary, and cross-period network of scholars.

If you are interested in joining our network or our programme of events please sign up to our mailing list here and check out our website.

Essayisms Reading Group

The Contemporary’s Essay’s reading group ‘Essayisms’ meets four times per term on Monday evenings at 5pm via Zoom. For each session we will choose an overarching theme and discuss a selection of essays related to this period or subject. We will pay careful attention to how we can historicize the essay or root it in a particular political, institutional or (trans)national culture as well as working together to generate a critical and aesthetic vocabulary for this elusive literary form. For further information or for access to the readings please contact either Ella Barker ( or Bryony Aitchison (


Forthcoming Events:

Essayisms Reading Group: Queer Kinship and Collective Essay Writing

Monday 10th May at 5pm
Online via Zoom
Please join us at the next instalment of Essayisms to discuss queer kinship and collective essay writing. This session will focus on two single-authored essays by queer writers, which nevertheless prioritise collective forms of being, and of writing. Syntactically obscure and freewheeling in its frame of reference, Hilton Als articulates a mode of black queer kinship—a “twinship”—that bears no linguistic precedent. Michelle Tea’s essay “Transmissions from Camp Trans” skirts the genre of oral history through her inclusion of scripted dialogue and through the deferral of her authorial voice to other attendants. In a deceptively accessible style, Tea provides an insight into the “protest camp” set up to counter, and with the hopes of changing, the transphobic policies of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival.
Readings available via Essayisms Google Drive:
  • “Tristes Tropiques”by Hilton Als from White Girls (2014)—this is a long (if sublime!) essay; if time-pressed, please focus on the opening section (pp11–46)
  • “Transmissions from Camp Trans” by Michelle Tea from Against Memoir (2018)
If you do not have an institutional York account, please contact Ella at for access to the Google Drive, or for any other queries.
Register here in advance.

Fact/Fiction: A Workshop on the Essay Film 

Thursday 13 May 2021, 4.30pm

  • Dr Michael Temple, Director of Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image and Essay Film Festival 
  • Dr Erica Sheen, Senior Lecturer in Film and Literature, University of York 
  • Sam Kaufman, Doctoral Candidate, Visible Institute at Kingston School of Art 
What happens when the essay moves on screen? How do its formal tensions translate into a visual syntax? Moving between documentary, photography, archive, home movie, performance art, the essay film interrogates the parameters of cinema. As Emily Apter writes, the essay film is a kind of 'filmed philosophy' that 'moves freely from fiction to nonfiction, a neutralizing zone where fiction is unfictionalized.' But what does this do to our understanding of filmic form and to our experience as viewers? How does the essay film assimilate the formal play of the literary essay? Is this an imported form or one native to cinema, with its origins in the early silent film of the 1910 and 1920s? In this roundtable we'll discuss the formal, structural and (inter)national dynamics of the essay film. 
Each panelist will give a brief 10 minute paper, followed by a discussion and open Q&A. Before the roundtable please browse the Essay Film Festival website including its March 2021 programme.  
This research seminar is part of the CModS research strand 'The Contemporary Essay’.
Please register your attendance via this link.

Location: Online via Zoom 



Essayisms Reading Group: Coercive Style 

Monday 24 May 2021, 5.00pm

Details and readings to follow. 
This research seminar is part of the CModS research strand 'The Contemporary Essay'

Location: Online via Zoom 



Essayisms Reading Group: The Essay's Political Styles 

Monday 7 June 2021, 5.00pm

Details and readings to follow. 
This research seminar is part of the CModS research strand 'The Contemporary Essay'

Location: Online via Zoom 



Previous Events

Monday 12 October 2020: Black History Month: Essayisms Reading Group

Monday 26 October 2020: The Transatlantic Lecture Tour: Essayisms Reading Group

Monday 9 November 2020, 5.00pm: Essayisms Reading Group: The Machine in the Garden
Wednesday 18 November 2020: Philip Coleman (TCD) A “denser, richer, warmer spectacle”?: Europe in the Nineteenth-Century US American Essay
Monday 23 November 2020Essayisms Reading Group: Beyond the Anglo-American Tradition 

Monday 25 January 2021: Essayisms Reading Group: Ists and Isms

Thursday 4th February 2021: What is an Essay?: A Roundtable 

Monday 8 February 2021: Essayisms Reading Group: Modern Poets’ Essays

Monday 22 Februrary 2021: Essayisms Reading Group: The Art Essay 

Monday 8 March 2021: Essaysisms Reading Group: The Personal Essay 

Thursday 11 March 2021: Just Us: A Conversation with Claudia Rankine

Monday 26 April 2021: Essayisms Reading Group: Essays on Film