The Experimental Essay
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Division: The New School for Public Engagement
School: School of Writing
Department: Writing Program
Course Number: NWRW 3520
Course Format: Seminar
Permission Required: No
The experimental essay trespasses on poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. It evolves from trials, impulses, longings, and risks—often culminating in a form that is both surprising and inventive. It is a genre in which, as Emerson says, "everything is admissible, philosophy, ethics, divinity, criticism, poetry, humor, fun, mimicry, anecdotes, jokes, ventriloquism." We read a variety of experimental essays, spanning different time periods and cultures. Paying close attention to form as well as content, we study contemporary essayists including Susan Sontag, Anne Carson, Joe Wenderoth, and Annie Dillard. We also delve into the history of the essay by reading Seneca, Sei Shonagon, Montaigne, Pessoa, Barthes, and others. Students write several experimental essays, which are read and discussed in class. We also talk about experimental essays in the context of current literary publishing. Our aim is to discover how, because of its ability to engage with and mimic a variety of forms and genres, the essay is the most radical, experimental, comprehensive, and inventive, as well as the most forgiving, of the literary genres.