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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: Ists and Isms

Monday 25 January 2021, 5pm. 

Event Description: 
Please join us for the first Spring term meeting of the Essaysisms reading group where we will be discussing the group's unwitting namesake, Brian Dillon's Essayism (2017).

What does it mean to use the tools of the essay to try to define the essay? Brian Dillon takes the formal definition of the essay as a trial or an effort and seeks to define what that kind of effort might mean, both in literature and in life. How can you be true to a form that is made up of contradictions? What would it mean to live essayistically? Fragmentary, lyrical, digressive, personal, distracted, evasive, polemical, illuminating, infuriating, Essayisms is an important aesthetic statement on the genre. In this week's session, we'll be reading Essayisms in its entirety. 

Brian Dillon's Essaysism (Fitzcarraldo Editions) is available as an ebook via the library. We have also included PDFs of specific sections for discussion in this google folder, for those who cannot read the full text. 

All are welcome! Please contact Dr Lola Boorman ( for access to readings or any questions about getting involved.

Location: Zoom (please register your attendance via the link provided)


What is an Essay?: A Roundtable 

Thursday 4th February 2021, 5pm 


  • Alexandra Kingston-Reese (University of York) - Chair
  • Kathryn Murphy (Oriel College, Oxford) co-editor On Essays (OUP, 2020)
  • Brian Dillon (Queen Mary) author of Essaysisms (Fitzcarraldo, 2017) 
  • Nicole Wallack (Columbia University) co-editor of The Edinburgh Companion to the Essay (forthcoming)
  • Kara Wittman (Pomona College), co-editor of the Cambridge Companion to the Essay (forthcoming)
  • Jason Childs (Independent Scholar), co-editor of The Cambridge History of the American Essay and the Cambridge History of the British Essay (both forthcoming)

Event Description: Famously defined through its etymological root 'essayer', meaning 'to try', 'to attempt', the essay is one of the most diverse and most evasive literary forms. Touching on cultural criticism, political and philosophical treatise, journalism, autobiography, observation, theory, fragment, aphorism, lectures, and academic writing, the essay is not only a dynamic, if undefined, art form, it is one that is fundamentally tied to the mechanisms and strategies through which we read and write about art and life. 

Despite the pervasiveness of the essay in literary culture, there has been a significant lack of scholarly work on the form. This roundtable brings together academics who are writing and editing exciting new research on the essay. Each panelist will give a brief position paper sharing their emerging research on the essay, followed by a discussion and open Q&A. 

Location: Zoom, please register your attendance via this link

ContactDr Lola Boorman (


Essayisms Reading Group: Modern Poets’ Essays

Monday 8 February 2021, 5pm

Event Description: Please join us to discuss essays by three modern poets: Tonya Foster, Susan Howe and William Carlos Williams.

In ‘An Essay on Virginia’, William Carlos Williams asserts that ‘[t]he essay is the most human literary form in that its always sure, it remains from the first to last fixed. Nothing affects it. It may stop, but if it stops that is surely the end and so it remains perfect, just as with an infant which fails to continue’ (Imaginations 321). In contrast to Williams’ emphasis on fixity, Tonya Foster’s essay ‘Continued…’ collages lively conversations about politics, identity and the nation. The online form of Foster’s essay further problematizes Williams’ definition, for the essay’s conversations continue in the comments section. Foster—like our third poet-essayist Susan Howe—provides space for other poets to contribute to the essay, such as when she evokes Emily Dickinson’s thoughts on the concept of ‘hope’.

In this reading group session we invite conversation on the ways in which poets write about writing: What does the poet gain from the essay form that she cannot find in poetry? How do these particular poets challenge our concept of the essay? 

All are welcome! Please contact Bryony Aitchison ( for access to readings or any questions about getting involved.

Location: Zoom (please register your attendance via the link provided)


Essayisms Reading Group: The Art Essay 

Monday 22 Februrary 2021, 5pm

Event description and details of readings to follow. 

All are welcome! Please contact Dr Alexandra Kingston-Reese ( for access to readings or any questions about getting involved.

Location: Zoom



Essaysisms Reading Group: The Personal Essay 

Monday 8 March 2021, 5pm

Event description and details of readings to follow. 

All are welcome! Please contact Ella Barker ( for access to readings or any questions about getting involved.

Location: Zoom


Just Us: A Conversation with Claudia Rankine

Thursday 11 March 2021, 6.00pm

Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, first published in 2014, offered an unwavering diagnosis of racism in American social life and became a powerful aesthetic statement of the Black Lives Matter era. Combining poetry, the essay, visual art, and cultural criticism, Citizen’s hybrid form tests the limits of poetic form in a way that has become a central component of Rankine’s political critique. As a testament to this dual focus, Citizen is currently the only book of poetry to be a New York Times bestseller in the nonfiction category. 

Rankine’s new book, Just Us: An American Conversation (2020) continues the affective and intellectual work of Citizen and Don’t Let me Be Lonely (2004) as Rankine turns her critical eye to the imaginative and discursive constructions of whiteness in American cultural and political life. Just Us continues to push formal boundaries, experimenting with essayistic forms as she combines anthropology, statistics, lyric, photography, cartography and, of course, conversation. Together, these modes explore ‘what it takes to stay in the room together’.  

In this exclusive event at the University of York, Claudia Rankine will give a short reading from Just Us, followed by a dialogue with Dr Lola Boorman (Department of English and Related Literature), and a Q&A with the audience. 

This event is jointly supported by the Centre for Modern Studies research strand, The Contemporary EssayWriters at York, and the Department of English and Related Literature’s Modern School. 

Admission is free and open to all but booking is required via this Eventbrite link

About the speaker: Claudia Rankine is the author of five books of poetry, including Citizen: An American Lyric and Don’t Let Me Be Lonely; three plays including HELP, which premiered in March 2020 (The Shed, NYC), and The White Card, which premiered in February 2018 (ArtsEmerson/ American Repertory Theatre) and was published by Graywolf Press in 2019; numerous video collaborations; and a collection of essays, Just Us: An American Conversation (Graywolf Press, 2020). She is also the co-editor of several anthologies including The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind. In 2016, Rankine co-founded The Racial Imaginary Institute (TRII). Among her numerous awards and honours, Rankine is the recipient of the Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry, the Poets & Writers’ Jackson Poetry Prize, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Lannan Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, United States Artists, and the National Endowment of the Arts. A former Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and current Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry at Yale, Claudia Rankine will join the New York University (NYU) Creative Writing Program in Fall 2021. She lives in New Haven, Connecticut. 

Location: Zoom. Please book via this Eventbrite link

Admission: Open to all staff, students, and the public. 

Contact: Dr Lola Boorman (


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