Dillon is a mournful, witty and original writer ... It is a beautiful container for irreconcilable desires and impossible ambitions ... Dillon’s mode is rhapsody, not analysis. He invites us to gawk at his intellectual crushes — their shapely sentences, wily inversions, daring transitions ... he moves with a hummingbird energy, flitting to the next writer, the next effect he loves ... He often writes in generalities — but they bristle with clues, with suggestive and, yes, odd language ... Out of that disarray come these crystalline pieces — and a sense, never belabored, of the stakes of creating essays and the consolations of loving them.
The essay has to convey mastery while admitting partiality. This is very hard to do well ... Dillon himself is a superbly varied essayist ... Dillon argues earnestly for aphorists to turn away from this fetish for essence or assertion and to instead fill that space with 'desire' and urgency ... it is a testament to Dillon’s sharp critical eye that he can move from Clark to Perec in this way. One of the marks of a great essayist is to be able to see connections ... this one is a collection of essays on essays, part literary critical appreciation of writers such as William Gass and Elizabeth Hardwick, part belle lettristic exploration of the essence of a genre. But Dillon does not shy away from letting us in, obliquely but unmistakably, to his own personal struggles with depression and anxiety ... written in lucid, exacting and unsentimental prose, Essayism is a vital book for people who turn to art – and especially writing – for consolation ... As the book draws to its conclusion, it must confront another habit of the merely competent essay: the way such a piece of writing returns, too neatly, to an initial premise or image. This, too, raises Dillon’s critical hackles.
In his nifty little book, Essayism, Brian Dillon, a professor at London’s Royal College of Art, can’t resist being the teacher, which makes his readers the students. But who wouldn’t want to learn from a writer who knows and loves his subject? So, children, stop squirming and pay attention, because anyone who reads Lester Bangs’s manic essays about rock music as an antidote to disabling depression has something to tell us.