Best American Essays

I have begun reading the 2007 version of The Best American Essays. Every year I consider not reading this book, but most years I end up changing my mind and reading it after all; this time around, I saw it sitting in the library and couldn’t resist giving it a look. Last year the editor, Lauren Slater, irritated me, but this year it’s different — the guest editor is David Foster Wallace, and I found his introductory essay both amusing and thought-provoking.

He starts off by saying that hardly anyone reads the introductory essay as an introduction, so you, the reader, are probably coming to him last, if at all. Then he uses that “freedom” — the freedom of possibly not being read and certainly not being considered the most interesting — to express some doubts about the essay form and the book itself:

… just about every important word on The Best American Essays 2007’s front cover turns out to be vague, debatable, slippery, disingenuous, or else ‘true’ only in certain contexts that are themselves slippery and hard to sort out or make sense of — and that in general the whole project of an anthology like this one requires a degree of credulity and submission on the part of the reader that might appear, at first, to be almost un-American.

As soon as I read this, I knew I was in the hands of a writer I would like. After the above quotation, he says that surely, after reading such doubts, most readers are now giving up on the introduction and skipping ahead to the essays themselves. But I doubt it, and I suspect Wallace doubts it too. There’s something very fun about deconstructing a project like The Best American Essays even as one is working on it, so I followed him all the way through the introduction and wasn’t tempted elsewhere.

He goes on to say that he’s not sure what an essay is (me either), and, worse, that he not sure about and doesn’t care about the difference between fiction and non-fiction (same here). He also critiques the word “editor,” choosing to call himself “the decider” instead, in honor of our president (and he points out that it’s really Robert Atwan, the series editor, who does most of the deciding), and he shows how the selection criteria for the “best” essays are necessarily arbitrary and biased. He’s happy to point that out directly:

… I have no real problem emotionally or politically, with stopping at any given point in any theoretical Q & A & Q and simply shrugging and saying that I hear the caviling voices but am, this year, for whatever reasons (possible including divine will — who knows?), the Decider, and that this year I get to define and decide what’s Best, at least within the limited purview of Mr. Atwan’s 104 finalists, and that if you don’t like it then basically tough titty.

Yes, exactly. What’s “best” is ultimately arbitrary and let’s admit it outright. So he goes on to describe his selection criteria — no confessional memoirs, no celebrity profiles, no “willfully opaque and pretentious” academic writing.

Interestingly, Lauren Slater in her introduction last year also complained about academic writing, saying that “the academic learns to hide his insecurity behind bloated verbiage.” Wallace has the same doubts, but expresses them much more fairly. First of all, he admits that he is “allergic to academic writing” because he “has a lot of felt trouble being clear, concise, and/or cogent.” He can be guilty too! But he also recognizes that not all academic writing is difficult or bloated or poorly done. Just some of it is, and that I can agree with.

The end of the essay takes a turn toward the political; he says he prizes essays that make some kind of sense out of what he calls the culture of “Total Noise”:

a culture and volume of info and spin and rhetoric and context that I know I’m not alone in finding too much to even absorb much less to try and make sense of or organize into any kind of triage of saliency or value.

He has looked for essays that manage facts well, that guide us through the clouds of information we’re so easily bewildered by:

It is totally possible that, prior to 2004 — when the reelection of George W. Bush rendered me, as part of the U.S. electorate, historically complicit in his administration’s policies and conduct — this BAE Decider would have selected more memoirs or descriptive pieces on ferns and geese, some of which this year were quite lovely and fine. In the current emergency, though, such essays simply didn’t seem as valuable to me as pieces like, say Mark Danner’s “Iraq: The War of the Imagination” or Elaine Scarry’s “Rules of Engagement.”

I’ve read only three essays so far, two of which have been political in their orientation; we’ll see how many of the remaining ones are. I feel ambivalently about this political bias, but I’ll write more about that later.

8 Comments

Filed under Books, Essays

8 responses to “Best American Essays

  1. It’s interesting to see how the essays chosen reflect the editor’s/decider’s interests. But then I suppose the essays in general reflect the culture of our times, too. I really need to read more essays, I do enjoy them. I like these “best of” books–I may have to get this one myself.

  2. Cam

    I still haven’t read most of last year’s Best Essays. Perhaps I should move on….

  3. verbivore

    You’ve convinced me to take another look at the BAE series. Although I agree with his (and your) assertion that these things are decidedly arbitrary or biased, I think the collection gives you a great stepping off place. And I also appreciate the publication credits – gives me a way to investigate journals I may have overlooked.

  4. I love the essay form – just enough for me to read and then take with me in my mind as I mull it over on a long walk. We don’t have anything similar to this publication as far as I’m aware in the UK. I only wish we did. How universal are the topics or are they chosen with an American audience in mind?

  5. His introduction does sound a lot of fun, but, not to play devil’s advocate or anything, I get a little uncertain about defining things by what they are not. It’s too easy to say ‘I don’t know what essays are’ (even though he’s supposed to be editing the collection!) whereas I admire the author who says, We can think of the essay as this…. or this…. or this. I would so much rather have something to hang onto, something to consider, even if it comes with a qualification. Some parameters that I can then compare to the material I read, and I don’t think that’s necessarily hard to do, just our picky academic culture makes it seem preferable not to stick the proverbial editorial neck out! But it’s probably just a question of individual taste on my part.

  6. Danielle — it IS interesting to see how the collections vary from year to year. This one seems the most political one I’ve read so far. I think a different editor could easily come up with a completely different book. For me, it really does throw into question the meaning of “best.”

    Cam — well, if they’re not inspiring you to read them … maybe there’s no need. No need to feel like you’re behind!

    Verbivore — oh, I agree completely; it’s a good way to find out about authors and publications. I definitely like the series, although I like critiquing it too!

    Ann — the collections do seem to be focused on America, but people from other places might find them interesting too — or maybe they’d find them irritating in their Americanness? I don’t know. The political essays have so far critiqued America quite harshly (convincingly so, I think). And I love the essay form too! I think I’m addicted to them.

    Litlove — that’s a great way of thinking about it — offering a number of alternatives for what the essay is rather than offering a list of things the essay isn’t. To his credit, Wallace does say at least a few positive things about what they are, although he doesn’t attempt a real definition. It may be a matter of taste — or a matter of perspective. Two people might fundamentally agree about what the essay form is and isn’t, but one person will focus on possibilities for what it is, and the other will tell us what it’s not.

  7. I’ve not read David Foster Wallace before but his introduction sounds like it was a lot of fun. I think it is curious that he says he doesn’t know what an essay is when he has written two books of essays (that I know of). I do appreciate though when the people putting together the best of books admit the arbitrariness of the meaning of best.

  8. Except that DFW ultimately *is* sharing what he thinks an essay is by presenting us with a selection of them. Doesn’t get any more positive than that. After all, he admits that the only reason he bothers trying to talk about it at all is because that is expected of the editor– I mean Decider.

    On the other hand, read any of DFWs nonfiction and it is probably fair to extrapolate that DFW doesn’t have any clear definition for the term… which makes his pieces that much more interesting!

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