ASSAY: A JOURNAL OF NONFICTION STUDIES
I picked up The Best American Essays 1989 because it was published the year of my birth. Self-interest collided with the embarrassing realization that I know little about the time into which I was born. Thinking about the 1980s in America, I came up with rough strokes of excess and their attendant backlash: MTV and the Judas Priest trial, shoulder pads, the AIDS crisis and Ronald Regan’s unwillingness to provide assistance, big hair, and crack cocaine. And the 1980s as a decade of creative nonfiction? Embarrassingly sparse: Annie Dillard—An American Childhood and the sun crawling behind the earth’s shadow in “Total Eclipse”— Cynthia Ozick’s essay “Drugstore in Winter,” and Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House.
BAE 1989 was only the fourth incarnation of the Best American Essays series, and its contents were pulled from a limited number of journals compared to more recent editions. A writer-friend joked that BAE 1989’s guest editor, Geoffrey Wolff, must’ve subscribed to Harper’s because the magazine appears ten times, five reprinted essays and five notables, in the edition. Most essays in BAE 1989 are from publications still considered top-tier nearly thirty years later: The Georgia Review, The New Yorker, Virginia Quarterly Review, Boulevard, The Iowa Review, TriQuarterly, Sewanee Review, and Salmagundi. What surprised were essays from Natural History, Adolescent Psychiatry, American Heritage, and Banana Republic Trips, publications renowned for their subject matter rather than creative writing itself. When comparing this to the most recent BAE 2016, where twenty-two different publications are represented in the twenty-three reprints and all but two are from literary or art-focused magazines, it seems the essay has migrated from a few larger outlets to numerous smaller ones.
The increase in literary magazines, both in print and online, is an obvious change in the publishing landscape from 1989 and is reflected in the diversity of publications of the reprinted essays and notables list. Though the essay has more homes, including well-respected literary journals founded in the mid-to-late 90’s entirely devoted to creative nonfiction like Fourth Genre (1999), Creative Nonfiction (1995), and River Teeth (1999), these are often niche publications rather than general-interest magazines. Jonathan Franzen, guest editor for BAE 2016, writes in his introduction that despite trends in contemporary writing toward an essayistic style, “the personal essay itself . . . is in eclipse” (xvi), living on predominantly in “smaller publications that collectively have fewer readers than Adele has Twitter followers” (xvi). Though today the essay appears in more journals than it did in 1989, these new publications are often further removed from the public eye and cater to an increasingly specialized audience.
The prose in BAE 1989 reads like it is from another era. It lingers, it dawdles; it is languorous. It relies on good telling—I’m borrowing Phillip Lopate’s use of the word—and description more than scene. The reader thinks alongside the narrator, and the essays are often internally focused, life-lessons or insights garnered from experience, with slow-building emotional payoffs delivered in the penultimate or even final paragraphs. This is a stark contrast to the frequently encountered top-down—Where is your thesis statement? the writing instructor asks—composition essays and articles that first present an argument and then provide supporting evidence.
Even BAE 1989’s shortest essay, “Accommodations” from Banana Republic Trips by Richard Ford, has an unhurried quality. Opening with the question “And what was it like to live there?” (114), Ford takes us through the Marion hotel in Little Rock, Arkansas. We see its architecture, “a tranquil, banister mezzanine with escritoires and soft lights” (115); its amenities, “a beer bar in the lobby, a two-chair barbershop, a cigar-stand” (115); and its long-term guests, “old bachelors, old shopkeepers, old married couples” (117). Ford lingers closely on his grandfather, whom he describes as perfectly-suited to the profession of managing the hotel. This is inductive reasoning in fine form: The narrator’s question followed by observations about the strangeness and impermanence of hotel life leads to his conclusion that “this is the actual life now, not a stopover, a diversion, or an oddment in time, but the permanent life . . . everything counts, after all” (119). The structure works because we come to the conclusion alongside the narrator, rather than being told Life is made up of the smallest moments and here’s why.
Another essay in the anthology, “Who Owns the West?” from Harper’s Magazine by William Kittredge, uses lengthy digressions to argue for mercy and kindness. The theme appears in small bursts throughout in regard to duck hunting, “nine time our of ten I was going to be happier if I let the goddamn birds fly away” (180), and the preservation of sandhill crane nests during mowing, “certain vulnerabilities should be cherished and protected at whatever inconvenience” (187). This narrator regrets his “correct” (192) rather than “humane” (192) treatment of the farm’s employees that results in the re-incarceration of a murderer on parole (we never learn his name) and in the death of Louie Hanson, an elderly, long-term employee. But rather than spending pages on his remorse, Kittredge details the property’s running, the smell of freshly-turned earth, and the finances of farming alfalfa. Like in Ford’s piece, we think and remember alongside the narrator. The essay ends in a reimagined life, tying up the digressions:
the Murderer does not return to prison, but lives on at the Grain Camp for years and years, until he has forgiven himself and is healed—a humorous old man you could turn to for sensible advice. . . . We would have learned to mostly let the birds fly away, because it is not necessarily the meat we are hunting. (196)
Though it’s hard to choose, this is perhaps my favorite essay in the collection, winding around shame and work and humanity in the longing for a better past.
I don’t mean to draw a hard line here between “historical” and “contemporary” essays. A number of reprints in BAE 2016, for example Ela Harrison’s “My Heart Lies Between ‘The Fleet’ and ‘All the Ships’” from The Georgia Review, have similar slow, internal qualities and a digressive structure like the essays described above. And from BAE 1989, Joan Didion’s “Insider Baseball” from The New York Review of Books on the 1988 election reads like it could almost be a commentary on the most recent presidential campaign.
Didion paints herself as an outsider to the campaign, remarking how in her youth she’d avoided those people who seemed destined to participate in “the traditional ways in which power is exchanged and the status quo maintained in the United States, [in] ‘the process’” (44). The essay is divided into four numbered sections and draws heavily from reported press coverage of presidential nominees Michael Dukakis and George Bush and presidential candidate Jesse Jackson. The narrator is critical of the election process in general, concluding the second section by claiming “that the citizen’s choice among determinedly centrist candidates”—hence my aforementioned almost—“makes a ‘difference,’ is in fact the narrative’s most central element, and also its most fictive” (60). This futility, this unchanging-ness, is simultaneously contrasted and highlighted when Didion explores New Orleans during the Republication National Convention in search of 544 Camp Street, an infamous location where “people had taken the American political narrative seriously” (67). She finds the building had, of course, been bulldozed for progress in the form of “a new federal courthouse” (69). There are few digressions in this essay; most paragraphs deal directly with the election, the attendant press coverage, and its “traditional” (69) results.
Also in BAE 1989 is Judy Ruiz’s “Oranges and Sweet Sister Boy” from Iowa Woman, an essay with a fragmented structure. This piece takes to task the narrator’s mental illness and her brother’s sex change. It starts in the present tense, urgent and immediate: “I am sleeping, hard, when the telephone rings” (225). We move through time and space and reality with few markers; sometimes we are in the narrator’s imaginings of the past or an alternate future; sometimes we are in her childhood, in her grandmothering, in the mental institution. Collage-like, “Oranges and Sweet Sister Boy” reads differently from the digressions in “Who Owns the West” because of the shortness of the sections and the paragraphs. We can only linger for so long before we must look elsewhere—brother, mother, grandson, daughter, orange, father—the images are piled up quickly rather than slowly unfurled.
The BAE series has always been curated by Robert Atwan and a guest editor, and so each edition is shaped by personal aesthetics, but it seems unlikely that editorial taste is the sole reason for the prevalence of dense, internal essays in BAE 1989. The forward and/or introduction to each collection identifies what the editors see as the unifying concerns of the reprinted essays, and BAE 1989’s is “consistently explor[ing] the moral and literary complexities of the first-person singular” (xii). And these types of true stories, Atwan reminds us, often “disperse . . . into observation or anticlimax” (x), pivoting away into “exposition and commentary” (x). This was, and still is, one of the the essay’s hallmarks. But as the form has expanded to experiment more with fragmentation, structure—BAE 2016’s reprints make use of journal entries, indexes, dictionary definitions, subheadings—and fiction techniques, this distinctive, languorous shape is now but one of many the essayist has at their disposal.
In BAE 1989 Atwan raises questions of truth. “Who is the ‘I’ of the essay—a real person or a literary persona? Is what the essayists tells us fact or fiction?” (ix) he asks. How do we tell stories that are “at once artful, true, and believable” (x)? How indeed. An honest appraisal of one’s flaws that does not veer into false modesty, an ability to not-take-oneself-too-seriously, and a clever turn of phrase have all served as ethos-building techniques since Montaigne. But whatever methods an essayist uses, and though, as Wolff notes, memory is fallible, the essayist (and so then the essay) “means to tell the truth” (xxxiii). Depending on whom you ask, the truth today is—apparently—more malleable than ever, living in the “post-fact” world that we are. And so I’m grateful that fundamental questions like defining the “creative” aspect of creative nonfiction—It’s the arrangement, not the content, I argued just last week—are still being debated. The Atlantic recently published William Deresiewicz’s “In Defense of Facts,” which blasts John D’Agata for his essay collections that “misrepresent . . . what the essay is and does” and for his comments to Jim Fingal documented in Lifespan of a Fact. The conversations are still happening, and they are still heated; the fourth genre is still being defined.
We are still, too, defining the essay. Twenty-eight years ago, Atwan described the form as standing “awkwardly with one foot in and one foot out of so-called imaginative literature” (xi). Looking to its origins, Montaigne gave us a narrator who stutter-steps over his positions, circling around and across the page, admitting flaws and defects in between crafted observations and scenes. Ariel Levy, guest editor of BAE 2015, writes that despite its myriad of forms, an essay “must have an idea as its beating heart” (xv) and that to produce such a piece of writing “requires real audacity” (xvi). It is, in some ways, a difficult legacy to uphold, an elusive form to pin down.
I’m tempted to say something snarky about Banana Republic having a magazine, but it appears that 1989 is when essays were starting to stretch and grow into today’s iterations. Atwan wrote then that though the essay hadn’t yet “acquired the proper credentials demanded by university English departments for literary certification” (xi), it would, and soon. Despite his optimistic predictions, the essay is still often-maligned and misunderstood. In public perception it is reminiscent of college English courses, among writerly and publishing circles essay collections are often considered a difficult sell compared to the memoir or novel (though recent books like Citizen, among other Graywolf publications, and Between the World and Me have been very successful).
The form still carries an aura of indulgence; also in BAE 2015, Atwan describes the essayist’s paradox as “parad[ing] an enormous ego . . . in a modest setting” (xii). But this, I think, is all in good humor. On a European beach this past July, attending a literary workshop, a friend remarked how goddamn artsy I looked while I hunched over a BAE collection, a cigarette in my hand. She suggested I write it in her comment, and I have, and so I am standing on the shoulders of others, borrowing techniques from essayists before me—showing my hands across the keyboard, exposing my vanity and a weakness for nicotine, shaping this piece to give you, more clearly, something true. It’s not a bad place to be.
Alysia Sawchyn currently lives in Tampa, Florida, where she is a nonfiction editor for Sweet: A Literary Confection. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Fourth Genre, Indiana Review, Southeast Review, and elsewhere. She was recently awarded first place in Cutbank’s 2016 Flash Prose Contest.
Interview with Robert Atwan
Teaching: "Rhetoric: The Essay"
Lynn Z. Bloom
The Great American Potluck Party