When A.A. Milne moved into a new house, he moved his books directly from their moving boxes onto his bookshelves, paying no attention to where they ended up. When he had a “wet afternoon” with nothing better to do, he would organize his shelves. “As they are now,” he writes in his 1920 essay “My Library,” “I have to look along every shelf in the search for the book which I want. To come to Keats is no guarantee that we are on the road to Shelley.” Alexander Smith, in his 1863 essay “A Shelf in My Bookcase,” singled out his favorite books, which “cannot be called peculiar glories of literature; but out of the world of books I have singled them.” In a recent episode of A Prairie Home Companion, Garrison Keillor told the story of the Lake Woebegon librarian who decided she was tired of the Dewey Decimal System and reorganized the town library by color, so that someone who walked in looking for Danielle Steel walked out with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. A friend from graduate school organized her shelves by date of original publication, so that not all an author’s works were shelved together. It always reminded me of Milne: "To come to Keats is no guarantee that we are on the road to Shelley."
We like to think this new issue of Assay operates with the same principle: there are no guarantees here, only wonderful surprises and unexpected juxtapositions. W. Scott Olsen (whose “Teaching Adventure, Exploration, and Risk” appears in 2.1) calls the essay “the witnessed development of an idea,” to return to the essay form as its original French definition of trying. I see in this new issue of Assay a witnessing of the development of nonfiction studies in new directions, from Chris Harding Thornton breaking down Ted Kooser’s “Hands” into its poetic components to Daniel Nester's consideration of working class memoirs:
As a newly-minted straddler memoirist, I’ve grown obsessed over distinctions: rich, middle class, voluntarily downwardly mobile, working class, working class with an asterisk. The website for Payday, “devoted to exploring working class art and life,” features a bibliography of “North American Working Class Autobiographies.” Included in the list are books “by middle class authors who, for one reason or another, take up working class life for a time.” I find this distinction absurd, even a bit comical; it summons up visions of faux working class memoirs that stress a time-specific hardship, where our memoirist goes native by mimicking our values with the proletariat karaoke of trucker hats, tattoos, and Dickies. In the introduction to her collection of working class women’s writing, Without a Net, Michelle Tea discusses her frustration with the Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich’s bestselling account of performing working-class jobs, which she called a “well-paid slumming vacation.” “Where are the stories of the poor people who don’t get to leave these lives when the story is completed?” Tea asks. Working class people rarely get to tell their own stories and are usually written about, and even then, she writes, “it’s always the tragedy that is documented.”
In these pages, we have visual art applied to nonfiction in much the same way ekphrasis is discussed in poetry; we have identity politics of essays considered within the context of the writing classroom; we have the essay broken down into its parts to consider the elements of what makes the piece tick. We even have a delightfully comprehensive study of nonfiction pedagogical scholarship, which is certain to become a standard of the genre.
As you look at the fall issue as a whole--and then through its constituent parts--it's clear that context matters. How the richness of the genre is represented in gradients of color, how memoir in one piece is textured by its juxtaposition to a pedagogy piece about identity politics. Nonfiction studies continues to hold great potential as theoretical perspectives on our genre find their footing. For our part, we want to be as practical in our offerings as well as publishing work that elevates critical conversations, of texts, of craft, of genre, of authors. We continually question How do we support this emerging theory of nonfiction? What could that even look like? How do we encourage work that creates new ways of thinking about the texts in front of us, the texts we teach our students, the way we as writers think about the words we put on a page?
Our mission and vision have only strengthened as we closed out our first year in anticipation of our second. We believe in excellent scholarship of nonfiction texts and authors and we're thrilled to again offer so many pieces that exemplify the best of writers and texts that so richly deserve critical attention. We believe in giving voice to writers and in 2.1, we are pleased to include (our first!) undergraduate alongside noted names. (We remain conscious of diversity issues and our spring issue will contain a Spotlight dedicated to diversity in nonfiction, so stay tuned for more information on that.) We believe in redefining scholarship beyond what might be called classic academic argument and prose, into other modes of analysis and argument. We want to provide pedagogy scholarship that contributes to the emerging theory of what we do in a classroom, but we also want to offer practical pedagogy that is directly applicable to our classrooms, no matter which classrooms nonfiction finds itself in; we believe so strongly in literary citizenship and community collaboration that we're pleased to offer a balance. In this issue, our Pedagogy section is equal to Articles and Conversations and that's really exciting to us. Our mission and vision supports movement across disciplines where nonfiction thrives, from creative writing to composition and beyond. We want to continue to represent (and increase our representation of) diverse perspectives.
This fall, we see the return of the great NonfictioNow conference and we're looking forward to facilitating reports on it in much the same way we did for AWP, so that more of us can take part in the conversations happening there. A call for blog posts will come out when NFN's schedule is set. Our blog will take a slightly different format this year (though we will continue our My Favorite Essay To Teach and Writers to Read features), so stay tuned for those announcements. We're continuing to read submissions (with an eye to focusing on diversity in nonfiction in the spring), even as we celebrate this new issue, so check out our guidelines or query us with your questions. Deadline for full consideration in the spring issue is January 1. We have a new format to our Syllabi Bank (and we'll launch a call for syllabi shortly, especially to fill out thinner sections--and we want to add a "Special Topics" section) and if you haven't browsed our Author and Subject Index, those might be destinations for your To Do list.
My bookshelves are a hodgepodge of furniture, crates piled on the tops to eke out just one more spot to put those books I find I cannot live without. The color of their spines is fantastic against all that dark wood. My grandfather’s edition of Poe, books written by friends, popular thriller fiction, Irish drama, signed first editions, multiple copies of some so that I have copies to lend. Little-known authors sit next to well-known authors, because Dillard wasn’t always famous. In Alexander Smith’s “A Shelf in my Bookcase,” he writes, “And after all, one takes the greatest pleasure in those books in which a peculiar personality is most clearly revealed. A thought may be very commendable as a thought, but I value it chiefly as a window through which I can obtain insight on the thinker.” This is my philosophy of the bookshelf, that it is a written window to the writers who sit on those shelves, reflecting back onto to those readers who sit in those chairs.