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.