Figuring Out What Essays Are

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What’s the difference between an essay and a novel? Teju Cole considered that question in his 2012 essay, “The White Savior Industrial Complex,” writing that essays have points, while novels do not.

While Cole continues to stand by this essay, he admits that there are exceptions to this rule. Some essays have no point at all, and as Cole writes, “I’ve done long non-fiction narratives that contain ideas in them that I like as much as anything I’ve done that is fictional.” The line between fiction and non-fiction becomes blurry at times.

Perhaps the true distinction between essays and novels is one that Cole offers in his recent interview with The Millions: Essays can be exploratory, “but fiction is more exploratory.”


Serena Candelaria is a Rumpus intern, and a self-proclaimed fiction addict. This summer, she worked at 29th Street Publishing and began writing a novella. She is currently a senior at Yale, where she studies Literature. More from this author →