Essays, essays, essays

I’ve finished The Best American Essays 2008 and it’s confirmed how much I like the series. I haven’t loved every essay in every volume, but I am reminded as I read them what I like about the genre — a good essay writer can make any subject interesting. I’m continually surprised at the subjects I like reading about, in the hands of someone who knows what they are doing.

I suppose you can say the same thing about any type of writing: a good novelist can make any subject interesting too. But there’s something about an essay’s quick exploration of a topic that doesn’t happen in the same way in a novel. A novel requires a greater time commitment, and it’s much harder to make unusual subject matter work, whereas an essay can delight and surprise in the course of a half hour or so, and I find myself thinking, wow, I never thought I’d love an essay on … strip clubs.

I can’t even tell you how uninterested I am in reading about strip clubs, but Joe Wenderoth’s essay “Where God is Glad” is an essay on a strip club and I loved it. He starts off on the right note: “I hate strip clubs,” but then he goes on to say that his new book’s cover has a picture of him standing in front of his favorite strip club, and I’m full of doubts. As the essay goes on, though, and he describes what his favorite strip club is like, which is to say, unlike any other strip club out there, I’m brought back around. It turns out that this place, unintentially as far as I can tell, undermines the whole notion of the strip club:

Now that I have stopped to describe the place in more depth, it seems clear to me that Tony’s is not really a strip club at all. I hate strip clubs, as I said, and people who like strip clubs hate Tony’s. Folks who like strip clubs seek something that Tony’s decisively does not offer. Tony’s is not “nice,” does not feel like a risqué Applebee’s. It doesn’t attempt to dignify the goings-on it shelters.

I’ll leave some mystery about what Tony’s is actually like in case you want to read the essay for yourself, but I will say that Wenderoth manages to make the subject profound and moving.

Something similar happened when I read Rick Moody’s essay “On Celestial Music.” I got a little worried when I saw the essay was long and read the title of its first section, “Otis Redding as Purveyor of Celestial Music.” I didn’t really want to read an essay on Otis Redding and the whole thing threatened to be pretentious and dull. But the essay was magical and I loved it. Moody won me over.

Not all the essays here did that — John Updike’s essay on dinosaurs was just okay and Lee Zacharias’s on buzzards (mixed in with some autobiography) gave me way more information on buzzards than I could handle.

But still, the shortness of essays makes it easier to take a risk and read something I’m afraid I won’t like, and sometimes I’m wonderfully surprised at how wrong I was.

9 Comments

Filed under Books, Essays

9 responses to “Essays, essays, essays

  1. sarahbaram

    Essay books are fantastic. As much as I don’t like her writing, Joyce Carol Oates seems to pick out great essays!

  2. I’ve yet to take any big risks by the essays I’ve chosen–I keep scanning books for a safe topic, but I need to just chose one that is maybe not something I would ordinarily read about and just see where it takes me. Maybe I’ll be adventurous tomorrow–I’ve not yet picked one out! And this sounds like a good collection–now I may have to read that strip club essay to find out just what it’s really like! :)

  3. You know, I almost always enjoy reading essays (at least, really good ones) when I actually read them, but I don’t seek them out. Those “Best American…” series are pretty consistently good, too, so I’ll have to look into this collection.

  4. essays are one of my favorite forms, both for writing and for reading. I also enjoy this particular series for the different voices it manages to bring together but I agree – did not care for the buzzard essay one bit!

  5. Sarah — I really enjoyed the volume Oates edited. I haven’t read much oates myself — for some reason she hasn’t quite appealed (plus there is so much else to choose from).

    Danielle — it sounds like you were adventurous in your selection for today! The thing I like about reading a collection all the way through is that I give essays a try I might not otherwise. But there are arguments for picking and choosing as well.

    Gentle Reader — I’ve gotten in the habit of seeking essays out, but that’s largely because I took a college course in them and got excited about the genre there. Otherwise I probably wouldn’t read them often. I’m glad I do though!

    Courtney — I’m glad I read that series, and I’m also curious about the newer Best Creative Nonfiction series. I was willing to give the buzzards a try, but soon enough I started skipping to the autobiographical sections and finishing it quickly.

  6. Sounds like lots of fun essays in the collection. It is always a pleasant surprise to end up liking something you are sure you are going to hate. Who knew an essay on strip clubs could be so interesting?

  7. I do want to read more essays. I have the Oxford Book of Essays somewhere that I should dig out. In the right hands, it is an amazing genre. I’ll look out for a cheap copy of this one, too.

  8. Stefanie — it’s definitely a pleasant surprise to like something I thought I would hate; it makes trying new things worth the risk, and it makes me think I should try new and unfamiliar things more.

    Litlove — I have that anthology as well, although I don’t reach for it as much as for Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay. Yes, in the right hands, the essay can be magic!

  9. Oh, this is terrific (and makes me want to go get the collection right now. Oh, but I can’t, because I can’t buy any books). Now, you see, I would look through the T.O.C. and think, “Oooo, an essay on dinosaurs by John Updike. That must be good.” Strip clubs? No, I don’t think I’d be all that interested in that, either. Which is why essays are so much fun. I don’t know why I don’t read more of them.

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