On essaying a change
By Toh Hsien Min
I was speaking with someone one recent weekend when he said that he hadn't very much of concept of what our Essays section was about, what made it stand out from either Criticism or Extra Media. I explained how Criticism was book reviews, and Extra Media was other (non-literary) arts, but the comment was extraordinarily timed, because I had been having a running conversation with the Essays editor, Ruihe, about the focus of the section. She was "sick of academic essays", she said, and of people recycling work that they had done in university. I tried to reason with her that I did know what a number of people who wrote academic-sounding essays for QLRS did do them from scratch, but neglected to say that I didn't know what the other people did. Nevertheless, I did sympathise with what she was trying to do, which was to switch the focus in her section back to the essay before widespread university education.
What, then, is that sort of an essay? The word "essay" comes from the French for "test" or "trial", and earlier English definitions included, besides that of a short prose composition on any topic, a first tentative attempt at composition. Dryden in his Preface to Tales From Chaucer wrote "From translating the first of Homer's Iliads (which I intended as an essay to the whole work) I proceeded to the translation of the twelfth book of Ovid's Metamorphoses, because it contains, among other things, the causes, the beginning, and ending of the Trojan war." I rather like the archaic meaning, having to my mind more of a connection to the French verb underlying "essay", namely "essayer" ("to try"). It contains not only the examination and proof of the subject but also an element of uncertainty, of the provisional.
The father of the essay, Montaigne, saw it as "que sais-je": "what I know", but there is at the same time an assertion and detraction in the inverted pronoun, and that it appears in a piece on religious scepticism is possibly telling. The Montaigne essay was one of great personality and intimacy: je suis moi-même la matière de mon livre, which seems an appropriate motto for a newly humanist Renaissance. From Montaigne, the essay came into English via Bacon, and grew popular in the Restoration, with periodicals such as Tatler and Spectator setting the tone for literary journals right up to this one you're reading today.
Even if academic essays often seem to lend an additional dimension to the etymology - evidently for Ruihe, they're trying - we'd love to welcome more personal essays. Tell us how your travels through Ecuador reignited your enthusiasm for or antipathy towards global capitalism. Explain why you had to leave a well-paid corporate lawyering job to start a primary school in Cambodia. Make a case for mathematical notation as the most effective way of teaching grammar (but note how we edit away footnotes and don't print bibliographies). Above all, write what you think to be true, what you feel to be true, or what you guess to be true. And send it in to our editors at qlrs address... we're looking forward to reading them.
Another section, Short Stories, has an interesting spin this issue. Kai Chai and Yong Shu Hoong, who has officially joined up with the QLRS team on Special Projects, have linked up with Singapore-based film distributor Archer Entertainment on a short story competition. In recognition of the Oscar-nominated film The Illusionist, now screening in Singapore cinemas, being originally a short story by Pulitzer-winning author Steven Millhauser, the competition seeks short stories on any subject. The competition judges Kai Chai, Shu Hoong and novelist Meira Chand will then select the best stories to win a range of attractive prizes and to be published on QLRS.
The short stories in this issue, by Paul Tan and Kirsten Han, join a raft of poems with a distinct travelling theme, even if Richard Hillman's and Koh Tsin Yen's efforts have more grounded ambition to them. In Essays, Joanne Leow writes about linguistic exile in Shirley Lim, and in a pleasant coincidence Shirley Lim writes about Wong Phui Nam's Collected Poems in Criticism. Richard Lord's regular theatre review also has its place, but Cyril has asked me to write the Acid Tongue for this issue, which has given me new appreciation of what he does here every quarter. I can but try.QLRS Vol. 6 No. 2 Jan 2007