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In 1910, about 25 years before Dale Carnegie got going, Arnold Bennett (1867-1931) published one of the first and finest works of self-help ever written, “How to Live on 24 Hours a Day”. Since then, self-help has become a dismal literary genre dominated by emoting Americans; yet, here, the British writer proves it is possible to tell people how to run their lives in a way that is funny, erudite, and snooty – as well as entirely persuasive.
The essay’s argument goes like this: most people waste a lot of time. It would be better if they found half an hour every morning, and 90 minutes three days a week, for improving reading. Given the simplicity of the idea, 12,000 words might seem rather a lot in which to express it; yet the message is not the half of this essay – its splendour lies in its technique.
Bennett begins by demolishing objections to the thesis with mockery that masquerades as helpfulness. So, to the complaint that it is impossible to get up any earlier in the morning, he replies that all that is needed is a manservant who leaves out a tray at night with “two biscuits, a cup and saucer, a box of matches and a spirit-lamp; on the lamp, the saucepan; on the saucepan, the lid – but turned the wrong way up; on the reversed lid, the small teapot, containing a minute quantity of tea leaves”. With such deadpan pedantry, he silences further objection.
The essay is written as if to an obstreperous, slightly dim reader – another stroke of genius, as it flatters the actual reader into thinking how smart they are by comparison: “ ‘But I hate music!’ you say. My dear sir, I respect you . . . ‘I hate all the arts!’ you say. My dear sir, I respect you more and more.”
Yet the best trick of all is the taunting simplicity of his words, which stand in frightening contrast to the task he is proposing. “I suggest – it is only a suggestion – a little chapter of Marcus Aurelius or Epictetus. Do not, I beg, shy at their names.” Bennett ends by cautioning readers who follow his plan never to become boring about it: “The terrible danger of becoming that most odious and least supportable of persons – a prig”. It’s a warning that no self-help book should be without.
Finally, he notes that people should read something they are interested in. “If you happen to have no liking for philosophy, and to have a liking for the natural history of street-cries, much better leave philosophy alone, and take to street-cries.”
History does not relate how many people took to philosophy – or street-cries – as a result of Bennett’s efforts. But I defy any modern reader to finish this essay without guiltily wondering whether they should leave off Twitter and to read, if not Epictetus, then at least a book of poetry instead.
Lucy Kellaway is an FT columnist
There are certain constants that make for a fine essay: the elegance (or urgency) of its prose, say, or a certain spirit of inquiry (essays being more persuasive when the author is pursuing something at least somewhat elusive, rather than setting out a conclusion already reached). However, there is one special quality, one constant, whose absence provokes a sensation not unlike disdain. It is not that risks must necessarily be taken, nor does an essay have to be radical, as such, but I do like to feel that, at some point during the process of composition, the author surprised himself. When that happens, I am persuaded to think very differently about a question, to take a leap, as it were.
The master of such leaps was Gore Vidal (1925-2012). Re-reading his “(The Great Unmentionable) Monotheism and its Discontents”, from 1992, I find nothing with which I would not concur, yet there is something about the way he sets out what I thought I had already understood that renews my will to live; or rather, to live in this world, enduring all the nonsense that goes on in it. At last, someone is saying what needs to be said, in sentences so perfectly judged that, even if they were recounting a detailed recipe for huckleberry jam, they would still hold me rapt.
An example: “The word ‘radical’ derives from the Latin word for root. Therefore, if you want to get to the root of anything you must be radical. It is no accident that the word has now been totally demonised by our masters, and no one in politics dares even use the word favourably, much less track any problem to its root.” Vidal takes on race, religion and American imperialism and everything he says is as urgent today as it was then; what he also offers, however, is an object lesson in how to write a great essay. What is most remarkable about him is that the more openly civil he is, the more biting is his critique, and the more he cares about something, the less obvious emotion he shows. This is the mark of the true master: he is always in charge but he never makes you feel it and by the time you reach the end, you seem to have been sitting in an empty room all along, discovering beautiful ideas all by yourself.
John Burnside’s most recent book is ‘I Put a Spell on You’ (Jonathan Cape)
When twentysomethings come to me for advice on how to become a journalist, I say 1) Don’t, because the industry is dying; and 2) If you must, then first read George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language”. It’s only 16 pages long, and it will teach you how to write. Orwell (1903-1950) starts his essay by observing: “Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way.” We are trapped in a vicious cycle, he explains. Our “foolish” orthodox political thinking stops us writing clearly, and because we can’t write clearly, we can’t think clearly. He then quotes five imperishable examples of bad writing, which every journalist, academic and bureaucrat today should be forced to read.
From there, he offers some helpful advice: “A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I have put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?” The beautiful concision of the essay itself sets the example.
Orwell ends with his famous six rules, which include, “Never use a long word where a short one will do”, and “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.” One effect of his rules is to force you to interrogate every word you write to make sure it’s clear, necessary, and suited to humans.
Bad writing has changed since his day. Journalism has become clearer, thanks partly to Orwell’s luminous example. He, rather than St Francis de Sales, is the true patron saint of our profession. Moreover, social media have encouraged lively jargon-free writing that is almost like speech – an ideal Orwell aspired to.
In politics, the orthodoxies that he was attacking have died. In fact, since the death of free-market orthodoxy in 2008, few political writers hold many unquestioned orthodox beliefs at all. Misleading euphemisms such as “international community” and “western values” are falling out of use. Right or left or plain confused, few of us are quite sure what we believe any more.
But bad writing survives elsewhere. Academic prose is clogged with jargon-ridden, paragraph-long sentences. An academic friend once explained to me that she had to use the jargon because otherwise her colleagues would suspect she didn’t know it.
Other realms use jargon in a semi-conscious effort to keep outsiders outside. People in the financial markets sold bundles of risky mortgages and called them “collateralised debt obligations” and, as a result, few regulators or critics and certainly no ordinary people understood what these things were. The dull incomprehensible jargon of Brussels deters the uninitiated from taking an interest. Orwell’s essay does not date.
Simon Kuper is an FT Weekend columnist
James Baldwin’s “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation” (1963) is elegiac and, like all Baldwin’s essays, and novels, profoundly moving. Writing to his brother’s young son during the dark days when America’s civil rights movement was still a struggling experiment in equality, Baldwin (1924-1987) speaks of the people who, even in their innocence, have rendered the author and his namesake nephew invisible. Writing about liberty, Baldwin understands that condemning your oppressors may be vital but so, too, is forgiveness. “You must accept them,” Baldwin writes of the whites who cast out generations of African Americans, “and accept them with love.” Though the essay is angry, Baldwin’s anger does not diminish his kindness or compassion. He is right to be angry at a country that separated men by colour and that justified segregation through religion and politics. Yet Baldwin’s anger doesn’t resemble anything so crass as bitterness or vengeance. What his anger reveals is pain.
“I know what the world has done to my brother,” he writes, “and how narrowly he has survived it and I know, which is much worse, and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.”
Few essayists can write like Baldwin. His prose is always intimate, he writes openly and without guard. His fury, his poetry, his experiments with form are all evidence of the fact that he never hid his discontent with his country and the society he lived and travelled in; rather, he meditated upon it.
I discovered Baldwin’s books in my grandfather’s library in Karachi. And rifling through the shelves in the dark room, which smells faintly of mothballs and old books, I came across The Fire Next Time (1963). I stood reading “My Dungeon Shook”, which is one of its two essays, and when I had finished, took the book to read the essay to my mother. And when I had finished, to my brother. And then I found a copy of the essay online and emailed it to my friends.
Baldwin writes how one feels. He doesn’t skirt around anguish and he doesn’t care to disguise the intensity of his convictions.
The only duty of a writer, in my mind, is to observe the world around them and to speak of it truthfully and without guise (sorry, using guise is a sort of a guise-y thing to do). Baldwin, and this essay in particular, embodies that more than any writer I have come across.
Fatima Bhutto is author of ‘The Shadow of the Crescent Moon’ (Viking)
Death is the full stop before which comes the sentence of life. And your words should be full. I was floating in “The Sin of Height” before Julian Barnes said: “The aeronaut could visit God’s space – without the use of magic – and colonise it.” That’s where I want an essay to take me. Give me your everything. Take me high and, like Seneca advised, let me live wide. I want your secrets, don’t hide.
Then Julian took me down through the ground to “The Loss of Depth” and if you haven’t been there with him, go, and know that “pain is a proof of love”, know this is all there is, is us. “But where are we being taken?’” he asks. I read the truth to feel something real. In my study of writing, I read Glyn Maxwell’s On Poetry and asked myself what it takes to be this good. I don’t have that answer yet. He made me fall for Emily Dickinson – “she always seems to have just come back to her desk from her little bed and lit a candle, having seen the whole of Creation” – then when he said: “All a man’s youth and adulthood went by there, streamed through in that centimetre,” I knew the power of a sentence, of words, the black versus the white – “Call them sound and silence” – that writing is life.
Ezra Pound’s essays in ABC of Reading pushed me not to be the “weak-hearted reader” who “usually sits down in the road, removes his shoes and weeps.” Ezra knew how serious writing was. That it is life, that it carries life on. “If an animal’s nervous system does not transmit sensations or stimuli, the animal atrophies. If a nation’s literature declines, the nation atrophies and decays.” I like the fear. When we’ve scraped our depths and punched the sky, felt everything there is in the moment with someone, we should be scared that we might lose it for ever if we can’t gather it together, scared we may not have the words to put it to the page. It takes bravery to examine our vulnerability and transmit it. I want the writer who dared.
In Mortality, Christopher Hitchens is clear and clinical – “get these false hopes behind one quickly” – but it’s the piece at the end by [his wife] Carol Blue that bangs with life for me: “It was the sort of early summer evening in New York when all you can think of is living.” I kept reading the line and could hear fingers beat on a piano. Maybe you need his words before to feel that, or it may be that you need to be the one left behind to write like that. I’m in love with words, and when they are used to surround the ones who we loved I know the full stop doesn’t stop us, that we can jump into that black tunnel and go on for ever.
‘A showcase for some extraordinary talent’
“The Bodley Head/FT essay prize, now in its third year, offers the best, most concentrated way to find new writers, gauge what is on the minds of literary millennials and to showcase extraordinary emerging talent in the pages of FT Weekend.
As Adnan Sarwar, our brilliant winner last year, put it: ‘The prize kept me going, being a writer isn’t easy and winning this one in particular was wonderful since I’ve long read the FT Weekend and my parents were proud to see their son on the cover’”
Caroline Daniel is editor of FT Weekend and a judge for this prize
Win £1,000 – and have your work published. How to enter the 2014 Bodley Head/FT essay competition
After the success of the second Bodley Head/Financial Times essay prize in 2013, which attracted hundreds of entries and uncovered outstanding new talent, we are proud to announce the launch of the 2014 competition.
Entries will be judged by a distinguished panel, including Simon Schama, historian and FT contributing editor, Tom Weldon, chief executive of Penguin Random House UK, Stuart Williams, publisher at The Bodley Head, Dan Franklin, digital publisher at Random House, Lucy Tuck, editor of FT Life & Arts, and Caroline Daniel, editor of FT Weekend.
The judges are looking for dynamic, lively and authoritative non-fiction essays of no more than 3,500 words, which must be written in English and can be on any subject.
The winner will receive £1,000, epublication by Bodley Head, and a mentoring session with Bodley Head/FT editors. Two runners-up will receive £500 each and have their work published as an ebook. The three top-placed entrants will receive a selection of Bodley Head books and a year’s free digital subscription to FT Weekend.
Entrants must be aged 35 or under and the closing date is November 30 2014.
For an entry form, full terms and conditions and to read essays from previous winners, visit ft.com/essayprize2014
Illustration by Andy Martin
Photographs: Magali Corouge/Documentography; Ulf Andersen; Brijesh Patel/The Kalory Agency
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