What are literary essays?

And what is the purpose of writing literary essays?

Postmodern Bookworm
5 min readAug 24, 2022
Photo by Gabriella Clare Marino on Unsplash

I discussed writing with my friend. A person I know joined the discussion and asked: Postmodern Bookworm, what do you tend to write? I answered him: Informal essays.

I like to write about thoughts inspired by books I have read. Though, I do not know if my writings meet the criteria of literary essays. As a bookworm, I wanted to find out.

The history of essays

The history of essays has its roots in French renaissance philosopher Michel Montaigne. I looked at some of his writings, and wow. Those essays are not easy to read. And that is not an opinion but a fact. Just look at the first sentence of one of Montaigne’s essays. (No, you don’t have to read it if you don’t worship boredom. In that sentence, Montaigne explains how he is the right man to write someone’s last words.)

As to his last words, doubtless, if any man can give good account of them, it is I, both because, during the whole of his sickness he conversed as fully with me as with any one, and also because, in consequence of the singular and brotherly friendship which we had entertained for each other, I was perfectly acquainted with the intentions, opinions, and wishes which he had formed in the course of his life, as much so, certainly, as one man can possibly be with those of another man; and because I knew them to be elevated, virtuous, full of steady resolution, and (after all said) admirable.

That one sentence has 107 words. That is more words than most of my chapters have.

The definition of an essay

According to a Wikipedia article about Montaigne, the purpose of essays is not to teach or prove but to question. An essay is thinking through writing. More specifically, essays are thinking about a specific topic from a certain point of view.

You can define things according to what they are not. It is beneficial to consider how essays differ from other kinds of texts. I will go through some examples.

What is not an essay?

An essay is a thoughtful text that examines a topic from different perspectives. Essays are not about subjective opinions. Therefore, an essay is not an opinion piece.

An essay has its foundation in the writer’s thoughts. If someone was to write a literary essay about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, it is not enough to write about the plot of the book. Instead, the writer could reflect on whether Frankenstein’s monster was evil since its creation or if the cruel world made him a monster. Therefore, an essay is not a summary.

While writing informal essays, writers can use creativity. Essays might, and in my opinion, should have distinctive voices. You can use some elements of fiction in essays, like metaphors, parables, and symbolism. Still, essays belong under the umbrella of non-fiction. Therefore, essays are not stories.

The purpose of literary essays

An essay is a text that a writer writes based on their thoughts, having its introduction, discussions, and conclusion. We can approach the definition of literary essay from the viewpoint of the definition of essay. A literary essay is an essay in which the topic is some question related to a book or literature. For example, these would be questions for a literary essay:

  • Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale in 1986. As a dystopian novel, how does it describe our reality?
  • Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman use biblical references. How do these references express that the book belongs to the postmodern era?
  • What kind of attitude did George Orwell have towards politics based on the novel 1984 he wrote?

I hope the examples I came up with paint a picture of the purpose of literary essays. It is crucial to pick a specific thing from a book that gives enough food for thought. The writer makes observations from the book. Based on these observations, they think through writing. In an ideal situation, the writer can end up with a conclusion about the question they had in mind. A literary essayist can compose a clear picture that answers their question.

Some thoughts about the purpose of literature

I am going to use two metaphors. The first one is:

Books are the playground of thoughts.

One could describe speculative fiction as what-if literature.

  • The Hobbit asks, what if there lived a hobbit in a hole in the ground?
  • Movies by Marvel Universe ask what if the comic heroes and villains were real?
  • The Wizard of the Earthsea by Le Guin asks what if there was a boy who discovers he has magical powers and goes to a school for wizards?

Genres under speculative fiction, like sci-fi, fantasy, and horror, set a what-if question and then answer the question of what would follow.

Stories set in speculative fiction are the easiest to see as playgrounds for thoughts. Still, every piece of fiction is a playground for thoughts.

  • What if a girl and a boy fall in love, but their families do not let them be together?
  • What if two girls fall in love but face difficulties because society does not accept their love?
  • What happens to the conscience of a murderer when they murder someone?

Every piece of fiction represents the ability of an author to tell a story. At the bottom level, stories are a composition of mind games.

Books are the playground of thoughts but also the mirror of our society. Authors cannot avoid the influences of the surrounding world while writing. Even though fiction is a lie, as Neil Gaiman wrote, fiction is a lie that tells us true things, over and over. The truth of fiction is not what happened but what it says about us as humans. A mirror does not picture the world perfectly as it is and does not show but a small piece of the world. Such are books, as they do not mean to describe the world perfectly.

Writing about literature

The purpose of literature is to describe a narrow part of our society like a mirror. Then, what is the point of writing about literature? The original purpose of essays was, according to Montaigne, to question, for example, to ponder if something we consider the truth is correct. An essay for Montaigne was a tool of skepticism. Hundreds of years later, essays play the same role for me. By writing essays I try to analyze my thought process about something. Let us narrow this down to literary essays. There are four levels in understanding the point of writing a literary essay. They are

  1. The mind and understanding of the writer
  2. Our world and society
  3. Literature
  4. Literary essay
screenshot of something made on the author’s laptop

Let us make a simplification. A person writing a literary essay is like a machine. The input is literature. The output is a literary essay. The writer’s understanding of the world defines what kind of essay there will be as a result.

A literary essay is a writer’s written work of how they understand how literature mirrors a limited part of how our world works.