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The Literary Essay: How “But” Becomes “And”

Literary essays are a unique form — having neither the argumentative, point-scoring, thesis-making form of the academic paper, nor the summary- judgment form of the book review. The literary essay tries, in turn, to introduce a broad audience of non-expert readers to a writer they may have missed; to place a particular writer or a larger body of work in some historical context; and finally to share the author’s own enthusiasm in some author, or offer a corrective to a widespread misunderstanding of her work. The secret to doing this lies in learning to construct an argument without seeming to do so — learning to replace the exhausting “Buts” of academic argument with the complicity-creating “Ands” of genuine story-telling, so that the reader is led into the life and work of an author — or artist or architect or scientist or whatever — sinuously and seductively, and is entrapped in an argument without an argument ever seeming to have begun.

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