ASSAY: A JOURNAL OF NONFICTION STUDIES
At Assay, the arrival of the year's Best American Essays is always one of our favorite moments of the year. As we launched Nick Nelson's stupendous Best American Essays project this summer, launching what we envision as our Year of Best American Essays, starting our fall issue by talking to Robert Atwan was the most logical place to start.
I expect this is like choosing the favorite among your children, but do you have a favorite volume?
That’s a tough one, but I think I’d have to say my favorite volume of all is the first one, Best American Essays 1986, edited by Elizabeth Hardwick. She had no model for her wonderful introduction (an extraordinary essay on the essay) nor I for what would become an annual foreword (our companion book, the best short stories, contained at that time no foreword). So we were truly essaying. Also, finding a publisher had been an ordeal and I was delighted Elizabeth wanted to participate, but we had so little time to wrap up a volume and I had no mechanism in place. I honestly wasn’t positive at first I’d find enough appropriate essays to justify a book (1986 still contains the fewest number of essays) and then it all came together--and the series became a reality.
Any essays within the volumes that you go back to reread, simply for the pleasure of them?
To be honest, no sooner do I complete one year’s book than I pretty much start the next. I’m usually done with all the production details of BAE by mid-May. I then like to spend some of the summer months catching up on fiction. This summer, for example, was my Alberto Moravia summer; last summer was Henry James. I’ve read a great deal of James but never The Awkward Age, The Tragic Muse, Sacred Fount, In the Cage. I enjoyed the convoluted conversations in The Awkward Age so much I read it twice, and then I re-read for the third or fourth time Wings of the Dove. It’s sort of a vacation away from nonfiction. As for certain essays in the annual volumes I’d return to just for the pleasure, well, I wouldn’t mind assembling a collection featuring my personal favorites over the years but I don’t think the publishers would be that interested. Also, it’s too early. Perhaps a fifty year retrospective would be nice, yet somehow I don’t picture myself pulling one together at the age of 95. But you never know. There are role models.
In your contribution to Essay Daily’s excellent series on BAE, you wrote about wanting a trade publisher, rather than a university press, with the goal of reestablishing nonfiction as a genre outside of academia. Thirty years later, with the rise of graduate programs in creative writing, a great deal of American nonfiction is coming out of academia (and many of the works featured in BAE). At this point in BAE’s history, what is your sense of BAE’s relationship with the academic world?
There’s clearly more of a relationship now with academia than I imagined when I started. Also, the annual collection gets used often enough in the writing classroom. (A lot of readers don’t know that I also edit a college edition of the series--the seventh edition of Best American Essay: College Edition came out in 2014 from Cengage, a college publisher.) When I began the series I was, as I’ve noted in other places, very concerned that the essay had been so undervalued as a genre in the undergraduate, and especially the graduate, curriculum. The only place the essay was respected was in freshman writing programs, where it was studied only rhetorically and not as literature. Two personal examples: (1) in graduate school I took a fantastic course on Emerson given by my mentor Richard Poirier. The course was intensive and we covered a lot of ground, but I can’t recall that at any moment we considered Emerson as an essayist, that is, as a major American author specializing in a single genre. We did not talk about the essay. Most of my instructors at the time (mid to late 60s) had little interest in genre, and if they did, it wouldn’t be in essays. (2) After I began the series, I recall being invited by a faculty friend to teach writing classes part-time at a nearby university. When the Chair went over a list of course options, I noticed one simply called The Essay. I’d be happy to teach that one, I said, glad to see there was actually such a course on the books. Great, he said, no one has ever taught it before, no one ever wanted to. Later, I felt his estimation of me was probably diminished.
I’m not exactly sure what goes on in the curriculum today but based on my rather limited experiences with students and faculty I think there may be too much emphasis on workshopping essays and not enough on learning to appreciate the genre, the craft. To do that requires an immersion in the great essays of the past--to see what makes them tick. I could be wrong, but I believe today’s students would be disinclined to explore the lineage and heritage of the essay from Montaigne, through the great British periodical essayists and the highly innovative essays of the nineteenth century. In grad school I read all of Thomas De Quincey I could get my hands on--but I wonder if any grad students today even know his most famous essays. (Actually, now I think about it, the good sisters introduced me to De Quincey in high school--imagine that!). Anyway, if I were invited to teach now I wouldn’t be interested in workshops but in a course that seriously confronted students with some of the most impressive essays in literary history. Learning from the present isn’t the only option.
I expect you’ve seen Ned Stuckey-French’s The American Essay in the American Century?
Yes, I consult it often. It’s not only informative but extremely well-written. In fact, my praise of the book appears on the back cover. If I were still teaching a course on the essay Ned’s book would be required reading. In my opinion, we could use more studies like this--studies that focus on reading, understanding, and evaluating essays. And I like the fact that he looks at the genre in a historical context.
For many in academia, being included in the reprints or the notables is an achievement greatly to be desired. BAE has become a gatekeeper of sorts, the standard bearer of the genre: what sense do you have of its importance to writers?
Well, being reprinted would, I imagine, be clearly more important to emerging than established writers. One of the most enjoyable parts of assembling the annual book is notifying writers I’d never heard of that their work has been selected. And another is getting into contact with some whose essays I’ve enjoyed for a few years and notifying them they’ve finally been selected for the book. I’ve always taken a very neutral stance with the guest editor--if asked I’ll render my opinions but in general I don’t lobby for any particular essay or essayist. But I have a list of writers I’ve been tracking for a few years and it always gives me enormous pleasure when one of them is selected to be reprinted. I should add, though, that often established writers are very happy to be selected--John Updike, for example, always wrote me a warm thank you.
Has your vision of your audience changed in the last thirty years? Who was your intended audience in 1986? Who is it now? Did/do you envision BAE for readers of nonfiction or writers of nonfiction?
My primary motivation for starting the series was to call attention to the essay as a neglected literary form. I thought an annual volume could showcase the genre and help elevate its respectability. As I said its status had been compromised in academia where it was relegated to the composition department. I proceeded with that aim in mind, not any view of an intended audience. If I thought of one at all it was the so-called educated general reader who would be interested in all genres. I should add, however, that I did not at the time have those interested in journalism in mind because I found journalists somewhat hostile to essays. Your hard-boiled journalist at the time considered the essay as a form of “thumb-sucking” or “navel-gazing.” At least those were the terms some magazine editors used when talking to me about the sort of writing they were not looking to publish.
Has any of that view changed, with so many essays being published in literary journals these days? (And the rise of journals like Fourth Genre, River Teeth, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, and others who only publish nonfiction?)
Perhaps there’s been some change but by and large your large-circulation monthly or weekly magazine is still dedicated to information and is more attracted to the informative article than to the personal and reflective essay. Harper’s is an exception but influential print magazines such as The New Yorker. Atlantic, Vanity Fair, New Republic and, say, the New York Times Magazine rarely publish the kind of essays we find in the literary journals you mention. If it weren’t for the literary journals I don’t think The Best American Essays could exist. For example, take the forthcoming 2016 volume that Jonathan Franzen guest edited--one piece from Vanity Fair, nothing from The New Yorker, Atlantic, New Republic or The New York Times magazine. Where did the essays come from? The Yale Review, The Georgia Review, The Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, Southern Indiana Review, Colorado Review, Salmagundi, Iowa Review, New England Review, The Virginia Quarterly Review, Raritan, The Point, n+1, Granta, and Catamaran. And from four on-line journals, Hobart, Narrative Magazine, Guernica, and a new one, Catapult.
In your Essay Daily piece, you address the purpose of the editors you’ve chosen. In the last several years, the guest editors have not been essayists—or not primarily known for their nonfiction. Could you speak to the method you use for choosing guest editors, the conversations you have around their selection? Do you expect that the guest editors have influenced the field—or will in the future?
From the start, the guest editor (GE) had to be a distinguished author who would be widely recognized by the reading public and--to put it bluntly--would help sell books. That’s why the publisher of the series has a voice in selecting the guest editor. It doesn’t matter whether the GE is largely known as a novelist, poet, journalist, or an essayist. But despite any belief that essays are making a comeback--which seems true--essays still don’t fare well in the marketplace. Not as well as novels, which is why some guest editors over the years have been novelists. But when we invite novelists, we invite those with a fondness for nonfiction. Jonathan Franzen, this year’s GE, is highly regarded as a novelist but he’s written a considerable number of terrific essays. His own essays have appeared in BAE several times. David Foster Wallace, Edwidge Danticat ,and Jamaica Kincaid may be best known to the public for their fiction but I first got to know their work through their essays. I suppose if I wanted to invite a guest editor known for her love of the essay and who also had impressive sales figures it would be Lena Dunham. But I doubt she’d jump at the opportunity.
What has been the largest existential shift in BAE over the years? What were the conversations like when online journals became popular, shifting the definition of publication (and eligibility for BAE)?
I have to say that--I’ll use the hyperbole here--the explosion of online publishing has clearly had an enormous impact on the number of essays I see every year. The increase in submissions I receive from both writers and editors of essays that appear only online has been dramatic, to say the least. But despite this rapid increase in the sheer quantity of essays published today I don’t think there has necessarily been an equivalent increase in the quality of the essays. Unfortunately, too many online journals are insufficiently curated and edited and many essays submitted to me from online sources don’t come up to the standards of what I find in most print journals. I receive quite a few submissions annually that read like first drafts. And since space isn’t the same issue it is for print, I find many submissions rambling and tediously prolix. One reason to love Dinty Moore’s Brevity!
There are of course a number of notable exceptions, like Brevity. One of my favorites, Guernica, is very professionally edited and its essays have appeared a number of times recently in the series. The quality of its essays and nonfiction rivals that of any print journal. Anne Fadiman had it right in her introduction to the 2003 book where she emphasizes the importance of being well-edited. She points out that while she was making her final selections, she thought the series should be renamed The Best-Edited American Essays.
In 2000, BAE’s publisher introduced several subgenres (Best American Travel Writing, Best American Science and Nature Writing, etc.): how do you feel about the place of these subgenres in nonfiction? What prompted them having their own volumes?
Travel, science--these have long been considered significant types of the essay. Best American Essays was the first companion volume to the Best American Short Stories, which I believe was founded in 1915. Perhaps by 2000 the publishers finally felt confident enough about essays that they thought they could take a chance on other titles! I was glad to see the expansion of the “best” series. For one thing, it relieved me of covering science, travel, sports, etc. Now essays in those categories, if good enough, could have other destinations than BAE and I could concentrate on more general essays of a serious literary nature. I don’t ignore science, travel, or sports, and if i see something along those lines that I think is perfect for the essay book I’ll submit it to the GE. But it’s nice to know I don’t have to be on top of all the nonfiction categories.
What has been BAE’s impact on the genre in the last thirty years and what do you hope will be its impact in the next thirty?
From my personal experience and from what I hear, I think the biggest impact BAE has had on the genre is that it helped raise its stature as a literary form and made the word “Essay” respectable. I get a kick when I glance at the contents of major circulation magazines and see the word essay, which they once avoided like a profanity. When I started the series I used to call it the E-word. Office Depot is currently running a “Back-to-School commercial in which someone says “best essays.” You couldn’t imagine that in 1986 or even 1996. And of course Lena Dunham’s popular HBO series Girls demonstrated that essays were not only acceptable but actually “hip.” Now if only more essayists could receive the same publishing advance for a collection that she received! Although I think the essay’s status is far better than when I began the series, I would be happier if trade publishers behaved as enthusiastically about signing and promoting collections of essays as they do about memoirs. I know many fine writers who prefer the stop-and-go essay to the full-speed ahead memoir, who would rather construct an inner-dynamics of thinking than a narrative arc. The next thirty years? I imagine changes in communications technology and delivery systems will have an impact on the way essays are written and published, though I wish I could be more concrete. My guess, however, is that since today’s essay in many ways--after well over four hundred years--still amply reflects Montaigne’s personal, exploratory, and self-scrutinizing methods, the essays of the near future will retain that essential core. I’ll bet that in 2046, essayists will be still essaying.
Robert Atwan is the series editor of The Best American Essays, the annual he launched in 1986. The editor of numerous anthologies, he has published on a wide variety of subjects, such as dreams in ancient literature, early photography, Shakespeare, poetry, literary nonfiction, and the cultural history of American advertising. His essays, criticism, humor, reviews, and poetry have appeared in many periodicals, including The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, The Denver Quarterly, Image, The Iowa Review, Kenyon Review, Creative Nonfiction, and The Los Angeles Times. He lives in Manhattan.
Lynn Z. Bloom
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