Most Famous Literary Essays

Having recently moved into a new apartment, I have been presented with one of the great toils, but also great joys, of relocation: moving all my goddamn books. It’s a chore, to be certain, one so notoriously laborious it leads many bibliophiles to shed large portions of their libraries in the interest of avoiding the worst of it. But screw that, I say! I will cart these stupid things with me every place I live, and what’s more, my labor continually increases, as I now receive books in the mail on a daily basis from publishers, editors and even the writers themselves, and I still purchase books (mostly used, which pretty much translates to bulk). But I don’t care. The weight is worth the lifting.

But even for those who loathe the process of moving a library, once the boxes are firmly stacked in the new digs, you get to create a whole new one, and this is the great joy I referred to. Most literary types acquire so many new books that whatever system they’d installed in their old place inevitably breaks down and becomes overrun with precarious stacks of the dreaded unshelved. In a new home, though, we get to start afresh, create a new system. It can be tedious and tempestuous but it’s ultimately cathartic. At least for me, I mean, shit, I don’t know you.

Anyway, so I spent my Superbowl Sunday organizing the most important section of any critic’s collection: literary criticism and biography. Not only is this my favorite shit to read, but I also refer to them so often that they’re also the most practically necessary. After I finished, I posted a photo of the beautifully and temporarily full shelves (I’ve already pulled like six books off that I’m using for current pieces) on Twitter, and someone asked me if I had any particular favorites. I wasn’t at home when I got the tweet, so to even consider responding at the time was unthinkable. I pondered for a few seconds  before immediately becoming overwhelmed. When I returned later and stared at the shelves, it occurred to me that I’ve been asked this question quite a few times. Perhaps this is because as a self-identifying literary critic there isn’t much else for people to ask me—this field doesn’t exactly make for the most riveting party talk. But whatever the reason, I thought I’d put together a list of the criticism that I most admire and to which I repeatedly refer. This is, of course, an extremely limited list, taken exclusively from books I own. Also for the sake of my sanity, I excluded all single-subject biographies and criticism on film or music; only fiction, poetry, and drama. Memoirs counted only if they directly involve other writers and/or the literary landscape of the era. It is in no way meant to be a list of the world’s indispensible literary criticism, only my own, and only so far.

So to that guy on Twitter, and to those who’ve asked me before, here is my belated reply.

(NB: list is in alphabetical order by author, or subject for biographies, except for two anthologies at the start of the list, which are alphabetical by title.)

(also NB: this shit was hard. I initially wanted to do 50 but my first list stretched to nearly 175 titles. These 102 are, believe it or not, a compromise.)

102 Indispensible Volumes of Literary Criticism

A New Literary History of America, ed. Greil Marcus & Werner Sollors

The Paris Review Interviews, Vols. 1—4, ed. Philip Gourevitch

White Girls, Hilton Als

Writing with Intent: Essays, Reviews, Personal Prose, 1983—2005, Margaret Atwood

Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin

Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, Lester Bangs, ed. Greil Marcus

The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, Elif Batuman

Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, Walter Benjamin, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn

Selected Non-Fictions, Jorge Luis Borges, ed. Eliot Weinberger

Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles, and Speeches, 1998—2003, Roberto Boláno, ed. Ignacio Echevarría, trans. Natasha Wimmer

Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America, Christopher Bram

Kafka Was the Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir, Anatole Broyard

Passions of the Mind: Selected Essays, A.S. Byatt

Portraits and Observations: The Essays of Truman Capote, Truman Capote

Maps & Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands, Michael Chabon

Inner Workings: Literary Essays, 2000—2005, J.M. Coetzee

Notes of a Hanging Judge: Essays and Reviews, 1979—1989, Stanley Crouch

The Lifespan of a Fact, John D’Agata & Jim Fingal

The White Album, Joan Didion

Bound to Please: An Extraordinary One-Volume Literary Education: Essays on Great Writers and Their Books, Michael Dirda

Creationists: Selected Essays, 1993—2006, E.L. Doctorow

Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews, Geoff Dyer

Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence, Geoff Dyer

Figures of Dissent: Critical Essays on Fish, Spivak, Zizek and Others, Terry Eagleton

Partial Payments: Essays on Writers and Their Lives, Joseph Epstein

How to Be Alone: Essays, Jonathan Franzen

How to Read a Novelist, John Freeman

Finding a Form: Essays, William H. Gass

The Signifying Monkey: Towards a Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism, Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Bad Feminist: Essays, Roxane Gay

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, Stephen Greenblatt

Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, Stephen Greenblatt

Scoundrel Time, Lillian Hellman

Arguably: Essays, Christopher Hitchens

Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere, Christopher Hitchens

Ten Years in the Tub: A Decade of Soaking in Great Books, Nick Hornby

Cultural Cohesion: The Essential Essays, 1968—2002, Clive James

No Other Book: Selected Essays, Randall Jarrell, Brad Leithauser, editor

Selected Essays from the Rambler, Adventurer, and Idler, Samuel Johnson, W.J. Bate, editor

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King

Small Wonder: Essays, Barbara Kingsolver

The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination, Ursula K. Le Guin

Reading for My Life: Writings, 1958—2008, John Leonard

The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, etc., Jonathan Lethem

Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books, Wendy Lesser

Time Bites: Views and Reviews, Doris Lessing

About Burt Britton, John Cheever, Gordon Lish, William Saroyan, Isaac B. Singer, Kurt Vonnegut, and Other Matters, Morris Lurie

Mind of an Outlaw: Selected Essays, Norman Mailer

Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers, Janet Malcolm

Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice, Janet Malcolm

The Outermost Dream: Essays and Reviews, William Maxwell

Ideas and the Novel, Mary McCarthy

What We See When We Read, Peter Mendelsund

Echoes Down the Corridor: Collected Essays, 1944-2000, Arthur Miller

Sexual Politics, Kate Millett

Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Toni Morrison

Lectures on Literature, Vladimir Nabokov

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, Azar Nafisi

(Woman) Writer: Occasions and Opportunities, Joyce Carol Oates

Where I’ve Been, and Where I’m Going: Essays, Reviews, and Prose, Joyce Carol Oates

Mystery and Manner: Occasional Prose, Flannery O’Connor

A Collection of Essays, George Orwell

The Portable Dorothy Parker, Dorothy Parker, ed. Marion Meade

Where I’m Reading From: The Changing World of Books, Tim Parks

The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, Stephen Pinker

Under Review: Further Writings on Writers, 1946-1990, Anthony Powell

The Tale Bearers, V.S. Pritchett

Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them, Francine Prose

Citizen: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine

In Praise of Messy Lives: Essays, Katie Roiphe

Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books, Claudia Roth Pierpont

Reading Myself and Others, Philip Roth

Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, 1981-1991, Salman Rushdie

Joseph Anton: A Memoir, Salman Rushdie

“What Is Literature?” and Other Essays, Jean-Paul Sartre

The Braindead Megaphone: Essays, George Saunders

The Novel: A Biography, Michael Schmidt

Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, Dani Shapiro

A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx, Elaine Showalter

13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, Jane Smiley

Artful, Ali Smith

Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, Zadie Smith

Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit

Against Interpretation: And Other Essays, Susan Sontag

Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag

Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives, John Sutherland

Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, Lewis Thomas

What Would Lynne Tillman Do?, Lynne Tillman

New Ways to Kill Your Mother:Writers and Their Families, Colm Tóibín

The Last Decade: Essays and Reviews, 1965—75, Lionel Trilling

Due Considerations: Essays and Criticism, John Updike

More Matter: Essays and Criticism, John Updike

The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar: Essays on Poets and Poetry, Helen Vendler

Both Flesh and Not: Essays, David Foster Wallace

Consider the Lobster and Other Essays, David Foster Wallace

The Eye of the Story: Selected Essays and Reviews, Eudora Welty

The Essential Ellen Willis, Ellen Willis, Nona Willis Aronowitz, editor

Axel’s Castle: A Study of the Imaginative Literature of 1870-1930, Edmund Wilson

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe

How Fiction Works, James Wood

A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf

The Poet, the Lion, Talking Pictures, El Farolito, a Wedding in St. Roch, the Big Box Store, the Warp in the Mirror, Spring, Midnights, Fire & All, C.D. Wright

Some of the most famous literary works are essays, written by great authors and writers. Essays span a variety of genres, including comedy, non-fiction, history, and current events. Some essays are published as a stand-alone piece in a magazine, while others are grouped into collections. Who are the best essayists of all time?
 
The essayists on this list come from a variety of backgrounds and time periods in history. Some are still currently writing. It’s no wonder that essays remain a popular literary format as authors can make a point more directly while still following a specific format, allowing the writer to get their point across, or tell their story more quickly.
 
This list features the best essayists in history, ranked as the best by voters, and including, Virginia Woolf, Geoff Dyer, Ellen Willis, Christopher Hitchens, Nora Ephron, and Zadie Smith. Vote up the best essayists below to see how the essayists you think are great rank!

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