Why do novelists write essays? Most publishers would rather have a novel. Bookshops don't know where to put them. It's a rare reader who seeks them out with any sense of urgency. Still, in recent months Jonathan Safran Foer, Margaret Drabble, Chinua Achebe and Michael Chabon, among others, have published essays, and so this month will I. And though I think I know why I wrote mine, I wonder why they wrote theirs, and whether we all mean the same thing by the word "essay", and what an essay is, exactly, these days. The noun has an unstable history, shape-shifting over the centuries in its little corner of the OED.
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