Is the literary essay an antiquated literary form -- in effect, a relic of the past rather than a vibrant genre that, even in an era of electronic media, will evolve, perhaps even thrive?
The suggestion that the era of literary criticism has or is in the process of ending is, to paraphrase an oft-repeated quote from Mark Twain, highly exaggerated. And, the introduction of electronic text and e-readers like the Kindle line and Barnes and Noble’s Nook have in no way threatened the future of literary essays and criticism. While the market for esoteric intellectual publications like Paris Review and Narrative Magazine remains limited (and it should be noted that the former has been around for 60 years), among the most popular sections of major newspapers, magazines and websites like the New York Times, the Huffington Post and Reason are the literary reviews and essays. Probably the most popular and accessible publication focusing on literary essays and criticisms is The New York Review of Books, which, as with some of the others, has an online edition that can be read without a subscription.
The line between what most people understand as a criticism or review on the one hand and an essay on the other can be very thin or even nonexistent. The essays one finds in the above-mentioned publications invariably involve far more than a straightforward recitation of the contents of an individual volume and the theme or main point the author seeks to convey. Placing a particular book, poem, or article within its broader context is essential to the writing of a good essay, and that is what the better literary reviews provide. A particular author may have a record of emphasizing particular themes in his or her work, or the subject matter may fall into a category or genre from which there has been a recent plethora of contributions from various writers.
The introduction of electronic storage devices for books and articles has in no way preempted the market for or role of literary essays. From an academic perspective, teachers and professors will continue to require the reading of certain books like To Kill a Mockingbird, A Separate Peace, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, among many others. The basic requirements for the study of literature have not gone away, and are unlikely to go away in the foreseeable future. Students continue to be taught how to analyze novels, poems, and articles, and the standard format remains the same irrespective of the passage of time and the introduction of new modes of accessing literature. Two good websites that provide templates for how to write literary essays are www.drakehs.org/staff/doherty/litanalysis.htm and englishbeat.saintmarksschool.org/free-write/formatessay-resources/literary/sample-literary-essays/literary-essay-examples/. The latter website provides good examples of literary essays on Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Susan Glaspell’s short story A Jury of Her Peers.
Literature is a form of art, and as with paintings, a full appreciation of a particular work can only be attained through the process of analyzing the work in question and understanding where the work of art fits into the broader context in which the author or artist lives and functions. The literary essay has not gone away, and is not going away.