I know very little about the German essay. However, I attended an event last week on "The State of the Essay", from which I gleaned a little knowledge. It was organized by Merkur magazine and the Freie Universität's literature faculty, which is running a course on the essay this semester, and I attended mainly because they invited my friend Amanda DeMarco to speak on the subject. It was a panel discussion, so obviously no conclusion was reached.
I discovered a few things nonetheless. Firstly, nobody knows what an essay is. Wahrig defines "Essay (m. 6 od. n. 15; Lit.)" as "literar. Kunstform, Abhandlung in knapper, geistvoller, allgemein verständlicher Form". Note that it's such a vague thing you can say either "das Essay" or "der Essay". Webster's goes into more detail: "2a: an analytic, interpretative, or critical literary composition usu. much shorter and less systematic and less formal than a dissertation or thesis and usu. dealing with its subject from a limited often personal point of view". German also has the term Aufsatz, which I understand as being less impressive, more the school essay type of thing; perhaps the kind of writing that might take the cheap approach of starting with dictionary definitions. There was discussion on the panel of where to draw the line between journalism and the essay. I would like to suggest that if a writer calls something an essay, we can safely assume it is one.
Then there is a distinction between the academic and the literary essay. Merkur publishes the former type, mainly, but with Michael Rutschky on the panel they had somewhat of a shining example of the literary essayist. There was also Georg Stanitzek, who I believe has studied the German essay from an academic perspective, and offered a historical definition along the lines of "something two gentlemen might discuss while out walking". Merkur doesn't in fact have a terribly good track record on publishing women's writing, although I'm assured they're working on it; you can read some of their ideas on why women don't submit to them in Eurozine. Stanitzek took this gender imbalance as an indication that women still don't write essays. In the audience, the editors of the literary magazine Edit proved that this was poppycock by telling us that fifty percent of entries for their annual essay competition come from women.
The panel itself was admirably balanced, with Kathrin Passig to tell us that the internet doesn't offer the kind of prestige that print publications do in Germany, which is why we're not seeing many essays published online here. The essay, she and Rutschky agreed, is not something one writes for money but for recognition. And that recognition comes less from the genre of the essay, which is apparently slightly frowned upon, at least among academics, than from the subject matter – as the genre is profane, Rutschky claimed, it must be made respectable by writing about a sacred matter, such as literature or art. Another thing I found interesting was the general feeling that it's becoming more acceptable to write journalism and essays in the first person here. This has always been something I've noticed about German journalism – writers will tie themselves up in knots to avoid using the word "ich", whereas the first person is a perfectly viable perspective in English. I'm glad things are changing.
Amanda pointed out that German essays are a little more intellectual than American ones, and I'm glad to say I don't see any evidence of the "confessional essay" (my former life as a prostitute, how my boss harrassed me and I put up with it, etc.) over here. I hate to generalize about national cultures but perhaps we can say that the Germans tend to be somewhere between discreet and uptight about private matters. That can go either way but in terms of the essay, it saves us the dreadful fascination of reading young women's emotional crises splashed all over the internet. Another difference posited was that American creative writing schools are training writers as essayists, whereas Germany only has two creative writing schools in the first place.
Where to start reading the German essay? If you read German, try waahr.de for a large collection of what they label "literary journalism". Edit has just published its award-winning literary essays for this year, which are very unconventional and worth buying. And you can search the Merkur archive for predominantly academic essays, some of which are available for free. Some of the major literary houses also still publish literary magazines, including Neue Rundschau from Fischer and Akzente from Hanser, and the LCB does the excellent Sprache im technischen Zeitalter.
I have three suggestions for German literary essays available in English. Starting way back when, you can read a personal essay by Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt in the new issue of Asymptote journal, translated by Isabel Cole. From the mid-nineties, Austrian Christoph Ransmayr's piece "The Gravedigger of Hallstadt" is what I'd call a first-class essay and is available in Seiriol Dafydd's translation at no man's land. Finally, there's an award-winning essay from the first Edit competition, in my translation, German writer Francis Nenik's The Marvel of Biographical Bookkeeping.