LitstackRecs: The Best American Essays & World’s Collider

by Lauren Alwan

The Best American Essays, 2013, edited by Cheryl Strayed

The Best American series, which in 2014 featured editions of short stories, travel, mystery and sports writing, along with comics, infographics, nonrequired reading and other genres, has become an institution on its own. My introduction to Best American was through the short fiction series, and a now-classic edition edited by Tobias Wolff. The stories chosen that year (1994), such as Stuart Dybek’s “We Didn’t,” “Things Left Undone,” by Chris Tilghman, and Laura Glen Louis’ “Fur,” made up my introduction to contemporary short fiction, and it’s no accident, I think, that those voice-driven, deeply intimate stories instilled in me a very specific excitement about what a short story could do.

It’s with some embarrassment I confess my introduction to the essay series (which launched in 1986) turned out to be 2013’s, edited by Cheryl Strayed (the series editor is Robert Atwan). And yet, I feel that in a similar way, the essays n that volume will turn out to influence me in a similar way. Strayed has selected a range of voices, each with its intimate, usually confessional tone, and as she notes in the introduction, “made me feel, for the brief time I spent reading them, as if the rest of the world had fallen away.”

Still, the subjects couldn’t be more different. From Walter Kirn’s great “Confessions of an Ex-Mormon,” to Zadie Smith’s meditation on Joni Mitchell, “Some Notes on Attunement,” the investigations run from deep in memory to responses to the cultural moment. And while the term “essay” has become increasingly broad, the selections here encompass a dizzying set of categories—memoir, creative nonfiction, cultural and historical interrogations—it seems to have become an umbrella designation for a range of approaches and sensibilities, and extends to essays that are downright story-like.

From a contemporary standpoint, it would seem that the essay is a kind of literary rock star, and with a charismatic forefather in Montaigne, but according to series editor Robert Atwan, that was not always the case. During his years as a grad student of literature in the 1940s, the essay had a very different standing:

…literary works then were so exclusively identified with poems, novels, and plays that the privileging [of fictive over nonfictive works] barely went noticed. When int eh mid-sixties I took a seminar on Ralph Waldo Emerson with the brilliant critic and quintessential Emersonian Richard Poirier, we concentrated on Emerson as a thinker and a prose stylist, as the central figure of American literature, but I don’t recall a single bit of discussion that regarded Emerson as an essayist, as a writer wholly engaged with a particular literary genre….Essays were a minor genre, at best…

In Strayed’s selections you’ll find remembrances of the counterculture sixties, a memoir of a harrowing car crash, a nostalgic look at an out-of-print encyclopedia, and a heart-rending remembrance of a father unable to love his wife and daughters.

Read more, here.

—Lauren Alwan

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