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It’s that time of year again when we lucky judges look forward to reading the inspired long-form non-fiction submitted for The Bodley Head/FT Essay Prize.
But what is the genre, exactly? In a terrific piece of historical reflection published in The New Yorker in 2014, John Jeremiah Sullivan, who knows a thing or two about the essay, noticed that the original word, embodied in the fountainhead book, Michel de Montaigne’s Essais, had been much misunderstood. The etymological root may indeed be the French verb essayer, but the assumption that this means some sort of formless improvisation is way off the mark.
It is true that Montaigne’s essays are often marvels of sly digression and bounding free association, especially between classical literature and the mores of his own day in the 16th century. (Montaigne’s own first language was Latin.) But the primary meaning of essayer in the late 16th century was a trial or proofing, as in assaying metal. When applied to prose, it implied a test of rigour or value; something executed by apprentices according to protocols; in other words an exercise almost opposite from the dizzying experimental swerves we now associate with the form’s greatest practitioners such as William Hazlitt.
But as Sullivan neatly discovered, once the genre made the Channel crossing, which it did in very short order and long before the famous 1603 translation by John Florio became available (probably to Shakespeare, among others), the sense of an apprentice’s “stab” became paramount not least in the Essayes of a Prentise, first published in 1584 (before Montaigne himself had completed his volumes) by none other than the belletrist King James I (or VI of Scotland as he then was).
Not to be too Brexity, but the forms then seemed to go their own ways on opposite sides of La Manche. Pascal’s essays embody the tighter, more thought-through style, while Swift (and to some extent Addison) go for the mischief.
You know how this ends, though, don’t you? The most spellbinding practitioners — Orwell in particular — manage somehow to preserve the impression of impulsive self-discovery, illuminations proceeding as the piece unfolds. But this feeling of bravura owes its power to careful plot deployment; broad conclusions reached through closely examined particulars.
Ideally, then, the satisfying essay ought to reconcile these opposite pulls. It should be in close focus yet wide-ranging; experimental but also intricately, carefully designed; free and easy in its vernacular but somehow inheriting the stately wisdom of the classics. Piece of cake, right? So get cooking.
How to enter
The Financial Times and The Bodley Head, an imprint of Penguin Random House, are proud to launch our sixth annual essay prize. The prize aims to discover young talent from around the world in long-form essay writing, and has led to many exciting opportunities for winners and runners-up. Hedley Twidle, winner of the first Bodley Head FT Essay Prize, is now a regular contributor to the FT. Edward Posnett won in 2014 for his essay ‘Eiderdown’ and has his first book, Harvest, due for publication with The Bodley Head in 2019. And 2015’s winner, Laurence Blair, has also been signed up by The Bodley Head to write his first book, which expands on his essay, ‘Dreams of the Sea’, and will be published in 2020.
This competition is open to anyone between 18 and 35 years old. The judges will be looking for a dynamic, authoritative and lively essay of no more than 3,500 words in English. It can be journalistic, a case study, wide-ranging or minutely focused. In keeping with the ethos of both sponsors, it can address any topic — from finance and current affairs to history and scientific discovery. The competition closes at 10pm GMT on May 31 2018.
The winner will receive:
● £1,000 and an e-publication with The Bodley Head
● Publication in the FT and on the FT.com of their winning essay
● A mentoring session with The Bodley Head and FT
● A subscription to FT.com, and a selection of books from The Bodley Head
Two runners-up will win:
● £500 each and an e-publication with The Bodley Head
● A digital subscription to Weekend FT, and a bag of books from The Bodley Head