Top American Essayists Alias

  • Home
  • 4.2 (Spring 2018)
    • 4.2 Articles >
      • Megan Brown, "Testimonies, Investigations, and Meditations: ​Telling Tales of Violence in Memoir"
      • Corinna Cook, "Documentation and Myth: On Daniel Janke's How People Got Fire"
      • Michael W. Cox, "Privileging the Sentence: David Foster Wallace’s Writing Process for “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s”
      • Sarah Pape, "“Artistically Seeing”: Visual Art & the Gestures of Creative Nonfiction"
      • Annie Penfield, "Moving Towards What is Alive: ​The Power of the Sentence to Transform"
      • Keri Stevenson, "Partnership, Not Dominion: ​Resistance to Decay in the Falconry Memoir"
    • 4.2 Conversations >
    • 4.2 Pedagogy >
  • Past Issues
    • Journal Index >
    • 1.1 (Fall 2014) >
      • Editor's Note
      • 1.1 Articles >
        • Sarah Heston, "Critical Memoir: A Recovery From Codes" (1.1)
        • Andy Harper, "The Joke's On Me: The Role of Self-Deprecating Humor in Personal Narrative" (1.1)
        • Ned Stuckey-French, "Our Queer Little Hybrid Thing" (1.1)
        • Brian Nerney, "John McCarten’s ‘Irish Sketches’: ​The New Yorker’s ‘Other Ireland’ in the Early Years of the Troubles, 1968-1974" (1.1)
        • Wendy Fontaine, "Where Memory Fails, Writing Prevails: Using Fallacies of Memory to Create Effective Memoir" (1.1)
        • Scott Russell Morris, "The Idle Hours of Charles Doss, or ​The Essay As Freedom and Leisure" (1.1)
      • 1.1 Conversations >
      • 1.1 Pedagogy >
    • 1.2 (Spring 2015) >
    • 2.1 (Fall 2015) >
    • Special Conference Issue
    • 2.2 (Spring 2016) >
    • 3.1 (Fall 2016) >
    • 3.2 (Spring 2017) >
      • 3.2 Articles >
      • 3.2 Conversations >
      • 3.2 Pedagogy >
        • D. Shane Combs, "Go Craft Yourself: Conflict, Meaning, and Immediacies Through ​J. Cole’s “Let Nas Down” (3.2)
        • Michael Ranellone, "Brothers, Keepers, Students: John Edgar Wideman Inside and Outside of Prison" (3.2)
        • Emma Howes & Christian Smith, ""You have to listen very hard”: Contemplative Reading, Lectio Divina, and ​Social Justice in the Classroom" (3.2)
        • Megan Brown, "The Beautiful Struggle: ​Teaching the Productivity of Failure in CNF Courses" (3.2)
    • 4.1 (Fall 2017) >
      • Editor's Note
      • 4.1 Articles >
        • Jennifer Case, "Place Studies: Theory and Practice in Environmental Nonfiction"
        • Bob Cowser, Jr., "Soldiers, Home: Genre & the American Postwar Story from Hemingway to O'Brien & then Wolff"
        • Sam Chiarelli, "Audience as Participant: The Role of Personal Perspective in Contemporary Nature Writing"
        • Kate Dusto, "Reconstructing Blank Spots and Smudges: How Postmodern Moves Imitate Memory in Mary Karr's The Liars' Club"
        • Joanna Eleftheriou, "Is Genre Ever New? Theorizing the Lyric Essay in its Historical Context"
        • Harriet Hustis, ""The Only Survival, The Only Meaning": ​The Structural Integrity of Thornton Wilder's Bridge in John Hersey's Hiroshima"
      • 4.1 Conversations >
      • 4.1 Pedagogy >
  • In the Classroom
  • Best American Essays Project
  • Submit
  • About
ASSAY: A JOURNAL OF NONFICTION STUDIES
1.2

Related Works

Patrick Madden

Aliased Essayists

Whenever a nonfiction writer is caught making stuff up we in the field experience a small tremor of interest and debate, and some of us heed the call to take up our various sides of the issue. For one instance, the recent Lifespan of a Fact by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal, which reproduces a D’Agata essay, “What Happens There,” surrounded by the dialogue between author and fact checker. In short, the original text, which deals with the suicide of Las Vegas teenager Levi Presley, includes conflated and misstated details, which Fingal discovers and attempts to right and which D’Agata defends, sometimes to the point of absurdity. Their exaggerated interchange generates within the book all sorts of interesting questions about art and veracity in nonfiction, and, after a provocative excerpt appeared in Harper’s, generated wide-ranging dismay and outrage among the reviewing and blogging public. A number of august publications took to excoriating D’Agata (primarily; Fingal stands as readers’ exasperated proxy), but Public Radio International’s To the Best of Our Knowledge designed a show examining the question of “Writing Fiction vs. Nonfiction” for a balanced view. On that program, D’Agata explained his artistic project, stating that he was not a journalist, and exhorting that “we need to try a different sort of essaying, and then the essays become a lot more associative and they perhaps become a bit more imaginative and start taking the problematic liberties.”

In response to D’Agata’s claim, here I will make a brief examination of the history of the essay, which most readers nowadays think of as a rigidly nonfictional form, but which has not always been so. In any case, I prefer to think of generic distinctions as textual, not extra-textual. That is, I want to recognize within the words what kind of text I have found. In most cases, I haven’t the time, resources, or the ability to fact-check the literature I read largely for pleasure. And while I have a sensitive b.s. detector, I’m as likely to be deceived as any of us. So I want to understand genre, in so far as it is meaningful, as a descriptive set of identifiable characteristics within texts. When I’m told that a piece of published writing is “nonfiction,” I have only a writer’s (or publisher’s) assurance that what I read attempts to capture in words something that “really happened.” But I have almost no information about the piece’s genre.

I should state, for the record, that my own preference for the essays I write is to utilize and select from real experience as far as I can remember or discover it. This was Montaigne’s preference, too. As the first and best practitioner of the essay, he commands our respect and a measure of deference on questions of form. In “Of the force of imagination,” he writes: “In the examples which I here bring in, of what I have heard, read, done, or said, I have forbidden myself to dare to alter even the most light and indifferent circumstances; my conscience does not falsify one tittle; what my ignorance may do, I cannot say.”

Of course, he allows for errors of memory, as do we all. And while essays are not stories, they utilize stories as they ponder ideas. In “Of three good women,” Montaigne explains: “These are my three very true stories, which I find as entertaining and as tragic as any of those we make out of our own heads wherewith to amuse the common people.”

So it should be clear that the essay as conceived by its creator was nonfictional. Despite Montaigne’s example, though, essayists across the English Channel through the following centuries recklessly employed all sorts of fictional tricks, beginning a long tradition of essaying that has little to do with nonfiction. Jonathan Swift wrote under the guise of “Isaac Bickerstaff” to poke fun at John Partridge, a fraudulent astrologer. Joseph Addison and Richard Steele took up the Bickerstaff persona as well as others (named and unnamed) to produce their essays for the Tatler and the Spectator. Oliver Goldsmith made his essays as Lien Chi, supposedly a Chinese traveler offering his ironic observations of England. Perhaps our best-known example of an essayist not averse to making some stuff up was Charles Lamb, who lightly disguised himself as Elia, an Italian clerk whose biography often mirrored Lamb’s, but not always. He had a lot of fun with Elia, sometimes slipping in and out of character to lampoon himself. My favorite instance of this comes in “Christ’s Hospital, Five and Thirty Years Ago.” I’ll let Lamb himself explain what he did. Note that this explanation comes in a eulogy for Elia, reprinted as the preface to The Last Essays of Elia, written, supposedly, not by Charles Lamb, but by someone called “Phil-Elia.”
“Christ’s Hospital” was an essay that reproached Charles Lamb for his overly sunny view of the boarding school (published previously, under the author’s own name), then borrowed the forlorn Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s childhood experiences and ascribed them to Elia. I can only guess at the motivation, but it’s certain that Lamb knowingly misplaced his poet friend’s distressing youth into his own literary persona’s early life.

Phillip Lopate suggests that Charles Lamb may have written “under the phantom cloud of Elia” because he wanted to hide from his troubled past, particularly his mother’s horrific death at the hands of his older sister, Mary, who later, after a stint in the asylum, became Charles’s charge and lifelong companion, as Charles was frustrated in his attempts at courtship. Who can know why Lamb never directly engaged these sorrowful events. Some writers today would have milked the murder for all the Oprah time it most certainly would be worth.

And of course, an easy case may be made for essays that utilize fiction in a way that is not deceptive. Take, for instance, Virginia Woolf’s “Street Haunting,” whose technique is highly imaginative—she invents thoughts and backgrounds for the strangers she encounters along the way to buying a pencil. No critical reader believes that Woolf knows the details she writes. She obviously makes them up. And what can we make of Joseph Addison writing in the voice of a shilling that has traveled the world, or of Ian Frazier, writing as one of Elizabeth Taylor’s ex-husbands or as a coyote caught in New York’s Central Park? The twentieth century is full of humorist-essayists (Christopher Morley, Max Beerbohm, James Thurber, David Sedaris) whose exploits often seem fictionalized for comic effect. Essayists have been utilizing fiction for almost as long as there have been essayists. Eighteenth and nineteenth-century British readers would not have batted an eye at most of the small changes John D’Agata made in “What Happens Here,” though they may have wondered what’s the point?

Still, a part of me resists D’Agata’s cavalier dismissal of Fingal’s repeated suggestions that intentional inaccuracy can be damaging. And I suspect that those same Georgian and Romantic readers and writers would have some troubles with certain kinds of fabrication (Leigh Hunt, who spent years in jail for his essays characterizing the crown prince, certainly understood the price of publishing disagreeable or debatable facts), so…

I’ll end with a ludicrous example then some thinking from my own writing. In Star Wars, Grand Moff Tarkin, in an attempt to persuade Princess Leia Organa to reveal the location of the secret rebel base, and in a show of the recently completed Death Star’s power, annihilates the peaceful planet of Alderaan, killing millions of inhabitants. What am I to feel about this moment? Should I grieve with the princess? Should I empathize and sorrow for the lost lives? I feel that it is hardly worth a second thought as the movie, almost without pause (Obi Wan Kenobi feels “a great disturbance in the force”) proceeds to dazzle me with its action and adventure and special effects, which take precedence over a fictional planet of people a long time ago in a galaxy far away. To complete the preposterous comparison, consider the annihilation of millions of Jews or Russians or Cambodians or Rwandans, or even the torture or disappearance of only thousands of Uruguayans, and it is painfully obvious that no matter our theoretical leanings, it matters tremendously whether certain things really happened. It matters even as an exercise in probing memory, even if we cannot finally determine a “true” rendition of events. And it can matter in ways that move beyond the assumption of duty or shared morality. It can matter in aesthetic or formal ways.

In an essay I wrote years ago, while living in Uruguay, I considered two varying stories about Tupamaro revolutionary Arturo Dubra’s grace under torture, when he bet his life against a cup of brandy and won the brandy, which his comrades consider a moral victory over the oppressive military government. What does it mean that in one version of the story Arturo was warming up for his session with his torturers by doing calisthenics and in the other version he was near death, unable to stand, barely able to speak? (Neither version was told to me by Arturo himself; each came from one of his compañeros.) It may mean that we aggrandize our heroes, especially in death, that we create our legends selectively and vaingloriously. Or it may mean that men who have been physically destroyed by torture tend to have memory lapses, may tend to conflate events and truly believe their composites. I have no doubt that Arturo was beaten and shocked and drowned to death’s door several times over his sixteen years in prison. Many witnesses have told me as much. And yet the man in the cell next to Arturo’s at the barracks where this famous wager was made tells me that Arturo was doing pushups and jumping jacks. In my essay, I wrote both versions, using the discrepancy to characterize Arturo, perhaps in contrast with some of his compañeros, by noting that he never spoke of this story. I found an opportunity to think about him and, by extension, humankind, in terms beyond the simply heroic (Arturo) or depraved (the military government).

One last example, from this same essay: In June 2003, Arturo succumbed to cancer. I grieved with his family, whom I’d come to appreciate; I also recognized the narrative potential of attending his funeral. I could end my essay by saying farewell to this great man. But the burial was far from the graceful scene I’d hoped to write. Because his coffin was to be deposited in an upper niche along the wall of the cemetery, and because there were other, older coffins sharing the spot, the municipal workers in charge of the funeral struggled long and hard on their forklift to fit the casket into its final resting place. As a friend of the deceased and as a writer, I was hoping for a smooth, peaceful end, but what we in the crowd got was a painful, almost comedic display of mechanical difficulties, scratched heads, scrapes and jerks and jolts and creaks. Faithful to my own beliefs about writing nonfiction, I used what happened anyway, and it gave me a metaliterary moment through which to understand and interpret. In fact, it forced my mind to round out the essay in a way far more pleasing than any I could have invented narratively.

As seeming addenda to a piece that deals heavily with the 1971 Guinness World Record escape from Punta Carretas prison, these questions move the writing beyond history or biography and make it an essay, which I consider the finer form. Had I been aiming at drama or suspense, any kind of sensationalism, or if I’d wanted to fit this story to an expected arc, I would have lost the brief opportunities for meditation and reshaping forced by the constraint of writing what happened.
Egotistical [his essays] have been pronounced by some who did not know, that what he tells us, as of himself, was often true only (historically) of another; as in a former Essay (to save many instances)—where under the first person (his favourite figure) he shadows forth the forlorn estate of a country-boy placed at a London school, far from his friends and connections—in direct opposition to his own early history.
Patrick Madden's second book of essays, Sublime Physick, will be published by the University of Nebraska Press in late 2015. His first book, Quotidiana, won Independent Publisher, ForeWord Reviews, PEN Center USA, and other awards. He also edited, with David Lazar, After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essays (Georgia, 2015). He teaches at Brigham Young University and Vermont College of Fine Arts, and he curates the online anthology of classical essays at www.quotidiana.org.

  • Home
  • 4.2 (Spring 2018)
    • 4.2 Articles >
      • Megan Brown, "Testimonies, Investigations, and Meditations: ​Telling Tales of Violence in Memoir"
      • Corinna Cook, "Documentation and Myth: On Daniel Janke's How People Got Fire"
      • Michael W. Cox, "Privileging the Sentence: David Foster Wallace’s Writing Process for “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s”
      • Sarah Pape, "“Artistically Seeing”: Visual Art & the Gestures of Creative Nonfiction"
      • Annie Penfield, "Moving Towards What is Alive: ​The Power of the Sentence to Transform"
      • Keri Stevenson, "Partnership, Not Dominion: ​Resistance to Decay in the Falconry Memoir"
    • 4.2 Conversations >
    • 4.2 Pedagogy >
  • Past Issues
    • Journal Index >
    • 1.1 (Fall 2014) >
      • Editor's Note
      • 1.1 Articles >
        • Sarah Heston, "Critical Memoir: A Recovery From Codes" (1.1)
        • Andy Harper, "The Joke's On Me: The Role of Self-Deprecating Humor in Personal Narrative" (1.1)
        • Ned Stuckey-French, "Our Queer Little Hybrid Thing" (1.1)
        • Brian Nerney, "John McCarten’s ‘Irish Sketches’: ​The New Yorker’s ‘Other Ireland’ in the Early Years of the Troubles, 1968-1974" (1.1)
        • Wendy Fontaine, "Where Memory Fails, Writing Prevails: Using Fallacies of Memory to Create Effective Memoir" (1.1)
        • Scott Russell Morris, "The Idle Hours of Charles Doss, or ​The Essay As Freedom and Leisure" (1.1)
      • 1.1 Conversations >
      • 1.1 Pedagogy >
    • 1.2 (Spring 2015) >
  • Home
  • 4.2 (Spring 2018)
    • 4.2 Articles >
      • Megan Brown, "Testimonies, Investigations, and Meditations: ​Telling Tales of Violence in Memoir"
      • Corinna Cook, "Documentation and Myth: On Daniel Janke's How People Got Fire"
      • Michael W. Cox, "Privileging the Sentence: David Foster Wallace’s Writing Process for “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s”
      • Sarah Pape, "“Artistically Seeing”: Visual Art & the Gestures of Creative Nonfiction"
      • Annie Penfield, "Moving Towards What is Alive: ​The Power of the Sentence to Transform"
      • Keri Stevenson, "Partnership, Not Dominion: ​Resistance to Decay in the Falconry Memoir"
    • 4.2 Conversations >
    • 4.2 Pedagogy >
  • Past Issues
    • Journal Index >
    • 1.1 (Fall 2014) >
      • Editor's Note
      • 1.1 Articles >
        • Sarah Heston, "Critical Memoir: A Recovery From Codes" (1.1)
        • Andy Harper, "The Joke's On Me: The Role of Self-Deprecating Humor in Personal Narrative" (1.1)
        • Ned Stuckey-French, "Our Queer Little Hybrid Thing" (1.1)
        • Brian Nerney, "John McCarten’s ‘Irish Sketches’: ​The New Yorker’s ‘Other Ireland’ in the Early Years of the Troubles, 1968-1974" (1.1)
        • Wendy Fontaine, "Where Memory Fails, Writing Prevails: Using Fallacies of Memory to Create Effective Memoir" (1.1)
        • Scott Russell Morris, "The Idle Hours of Charles Doss, or ​The Essay As Freedom and Leisure" (1.1)
      • 1.1 Conversations >
      • 1.1 Pedagogy >
    • 1.2 (Spring 2015) >
    • 2.1 (Fall 2015) >
    • Special Conference Issue
    • 2.2 (Spring 2016) >
    • 3.1 (Fall 2016) >
    • 3.2 (Spring 2017) >
      • 3.2 Articles >
      • 3.2 Conversations >
      • 3.2 Pedagogy >
        • D. Shane Combs, "Go Craft Yourself: Conflict, Meaning, and Immediacies Through ​J. Cole’s “Let Nas Down” (3.2)
        • Michael Ranellone, "Brothers, Keepers, Students: John Edgar Wideman Inside and Outside of Prison" (3.2)
        • Emma Howes & Christian Smith, ""You have to listen very hard”: Contemplative Reading, Lectio Divina, and ​Social Justice in the Classroom" (3.2)
        • Megan Brown, "The Beautiful Struggle: ​Teaching the Productivity of Failure in CNF Courses" (3.2)
    • 4.1 (Fall 2017) >
      • Editor's Note
      • 4.1 Articles >
        • Jennifer Case, "Place Studies: Theory and Practice in Environmental Nonfiction"
        • Bob Cowser, Jr., "Soldiers, Home: Genre & the American Postwar Story from Hemingway to O'Brien & then Wolff"
        • Sam Chiarelli, "Audience as Participant: The Role of Personal Perspective in Contemporary Nature Writing"
        • Kate Dusto, "Reconstructing Blank Spots and Smudges: How Postmodern Moves Imitate Memory in Mary Karr's The Liars' Club"
        • Joanna Eleftheriou, "Is Genre Ever New? Theorizing the Lyric Essay in its Historical Context"
        • Harriet Hustis, ""The Only Survival, The Only Meaning": ​The Structural Integrity of Thornton Wilder's Bridge in John Hersey's Hiroshima"
      • 4.1 Conversations >
      • 4.1 Pedagogy >
  • In the Classroom
  • Best American Essays Project
  • Submit
  • About
ASSAY: A JOURNAL OF NONFICTION STUDIES
3.2

Related Works

Alysia Sawchyn

​On Best American Essays 1989

I picked up The Best American Essays 1989 because it was published the year of my birth. Self-interest collided with the embarrassing realization that I know little about the time into which I was born. Thinking about the 1980s in America, I came up with rough strokes of excess and their attendant backlash: MTV and the Judas Priest trial, shoulder pads, the AIDS crisis and Ronald Regan’s unwillingness to provide assistance, big hair, and crack cocaine. And the 1980s as a decade of creative nonfiction? Embarrassingly sparse: Annie Dillard—​An American Childhood and the sun crawling behind the earth’s shadow in “Total Eclipse”— Cynthia Ozick’s essay “Drugstore in Winter,” and Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House.

BAE 1989 was only the fourth incarnation of the Best American Essays series, and its contents were pulled from a limited number of journals compared to more recent editions. A writer-friend joked that BAE 1989’s guest editor, Geoffrey Wolff, must’ve subscribed to Harper’s because the magazine appears ten times, five reprinted essays and five notables, in the edition. Most essays in BAE 1989 are from publications still considered top-tier nearly thirty years later: The Georgia Review, The New Yorker, Virginia Quarterly Review, Boulevard, The Iowa Review, TriQuarterly, Sewanee Review, and Salmagundi. What surprised were essays from Natural History, Adolescent Psychiatry, American Heritage, and Banana Republic Trips, publications renowned for their subject matter rather than creative writing itself. When comparing this to the most recent BAE 2016, where twenty-two different publications are represented in the twenty-three reprints and all but two are from literary or art-focused magazines, it seems the essay has migrated from a few larger outlets to numerous smaller ones. 

​The increase in literary magazines, both in print and online, is an obvious change in the publishing landscape from 1989 and is reflected in the diversity of publications of the reprinted essays and notables list. Though the essay has more homes, including well-respected literary journals founded in the mid-to-late 90’s entirely devoted to creative nonfiction like Fourth Genre (1999), Creative Nonfiction (1995), and River Teeth (1999), these are often niche publications rather than general-interest magazines. Jonathan Franzen, guest editor for BAE 2016, writes in his introduction that despite trends in contemporary writing toward an essayistic style, “the personal essay itself . . . is in eclipse” (xvi), living on predominantly in “smaller publications that collectively have fewer readers than Adele has Twitter followers” (xvi). Though today the essay appears in more journals than it did in 1989, these new publications are often further removed from the public eye and cater to an increasingly specialized audience. 
The prose in BAE 1989 reads like it is from another era. It lingers, it dawdles; it is languorous. It relies on good telling—I’m borrowing Phillip Lopate’s use of the word—and description more than scene. The reader thinks alongside the narrator, and the essays are often internally focused, life-lessons or insights garnered from experience, with slow-building emotional payoffs delivered in the penultimate or even final paragraphs. This is a stark contrast to the frequently encountered top-down—​Where is your thesis statement? the writing instructor asks—composition essays and articles that first present an argument and then provide supporting evidence. 

Even BAE 1989’s shortest essay, “Accommodations” from Banana Republic Trips by Richard Ford, has an unhurried quality. Opening with the question “And what was it like to live there?” (114), Ford takes us through the Marion hotel in Little Rock, Arkansas. We see its architecture, “a tranquil, banister mezzanine with escritoires and soft lights” (115); its amenities, “a beer bar in the lobby, a two-chair barbershop, a cigar-stand” (115); and its long-term guests, “old bachelors, old shopkeepers, old married couples” (117). Ford lingers closely on his grandfather, whom he describes as perfectly-suited to the profession of managing the hotel. This is inductive reasoning in fine form: The narrator’s question followed by observations about the strangeness and impermanence of hotel life leads to his conclusion that “this is the actual life now, not a stopover, a diversion, or an oddment in time, but the permanent life . . . everything counts, after all” (119). The structure works because we come to the conclusion alongside the narrator, rather than being told Life is made up of the smallest moments and here’s why. 

Another essay in the anthology, “Who Owns the West?” from Harper’s Magazine by William Kittredge, uses lengthy digressions to argue for mercy and kindness. The theme appears in small bursts throughout in regard to duck hunting, “nine time our of ten I was going to be happier if I let the goddamn birds fly away” (180), and the preservation of sandhill crane nests during mowing, “certain vulnerabilities should be cherished and protected at whatever inconvenience” (187). This narrator regrets his “correct” (192) rather than “humane” (192) treatment of the farm’s employees that results in the re-incarceration of a murderer on parole (we never learn his name) and in the death of Louie Hanson, an elderly, long-term employee. But rather than spending pages on his remorse, Kittredge details the property’s running, the smell of freshly-turned earth, and the finances of farming alfalfa. Like in Ford’s piece, we think and remember alongside the narrator. The essay ends in a reimagined life, tying up the digressions:
the Murderer does not return to prison, but lives on at the Grain Camp for years and years, until he has forgiven himself and is healed—a humorous old man you could turn to for sensible advice. . . . We would have learned to mostly let the birds fly away, because it is not necessarily the meat we are hunting. (196)
Though it’s hard to choose, this is perhaps my favorite essay in the collection, winding around shame and work and humanity in the longing for a better past. 

I don’t mean to draw a hard line here between “historical” and “contemporary” essays. A number of reprints in BAE 2016, for example Ela Harrison’s “My Heart Lies Between ‘The Fleet’ and ‘All the Ships’” from The Georgia Review, have similar slow, internal qualities and a digressive structure like the essays described above. And from BAE 1989, Joan Didion’s “Insider Baseball” from The New York Review of Books on the 1988 election reads like it could almost be a commentary on the most recent presidential campaign. 

Didion paints herself as an outsider to the campaign, remarking how in her youth she’d avoided those people who seemed destined to participate in “the traditional ways in which power is exchanged and the status quo maintained in the United States, [in] ‘the process’” (44). The essay is divided into four numbered sections and draws heavily from reported press coverage of presidential nominees Michael Dukakis and George Bush and presidential candidate Jesse Jackson. The narrator is critical of the election process in general, concluding the second section by claiming “that the citizen’s choice among determinedly centrist candidates”—hence my aforementioned almost—“makes a ‘difference,’ is in fact the narrative’s most central element, and also its most fictive” (60). This futility, this unchanging-ness, is simultaneously contrasted and highlighted when Didion explores New Orleans during the Republication National Convention in search of 544 Camp Street, an infamous location where “people had taken the American political narrative seriously” (67). She finds the building had, of course, been bulldozed for progress in the form of “a new federal courthouse” (69). There are few digressions in this essay; most paragraphs deal directly with the election, the attendant press coverage, and its “traditional” (69) results. 

Also in BAE 1989 is Judy Ruiz’s “Oranges and Sweet Sister Boy” from Iowa Woman, an essay with a fragmented structure. This piece takes to task the narrator’s mental illness and her brother’s sex change. It starts in the present tense, urgent and immediate: “I am sleeping, hard, when the telephone rings” (225). We move through time and space and reality with few markers; sometimes we are in the narrator’s imaginings of the past or an alternate future; sometimes we are in her childhood, in her grandmothering, in the mental institution. Collage-like, “Oranges and Sweet Sister Boy” reads differently from the digressions in “Who Owns the West” because of the shortness of the sections and the paragraphs. We can only linger for so long before we must look elsewhere—brother, mother, grandson, daughter, orange, father—the images are piled up quickly rather than slowly unfurled. 

​The BAE series has always been curated by Robert Atwan and a guest editor, and so each edition is shaped by personal aesthetics, but it seems unlikely that editorial taste is the sole reason for the prevalence of dense, internal essays in BAE 1989. The forward and/or introduction to each collection identifies what the editors see as the unifying concerns of the reprinted essays, and BAE 1989’s is “consistently explor[ing] the moral and literary complexities of the first-person singular” (xii). And these types of true stories, Atwan reminds us, often “disperse . . . into observation or anticlimax” (x), pivoting away into “exposition and commentary” (x). This was, and still is, one of the the essay’s hallmarks. But as the form has expanded to experiment more with fragmentation, structure—​BAE 2016’s reprints make use of journal entries, indexes, dictionary definitions, subheadings—and fiction techniques, this distinctive, languorous shape is now but one of many the essayist has at their disposal. ​
In BAE 1989 Atwan raises questions of truth. “Who is the ‘I’ of the essay—a real person or a literary persona? Is what the essayists tells us fact or fiction?” (ix) he asks. How do we tell stories that are “at once artful, true, and believable” (x)? How indeed. An honest appraisal of one’s flaws that does not veer into false modesty, an ability to not-take-oneself-too-seriously, and a clever turn of phrase have all served as ethos-building techniques since Montaigne. But whatever methods an essayist uses, and though, as Wolff notes, memory is fallible, the essayist (and so then the essay) “means to tell the truth” (xxxiii). Depending on whom you ask, the truth today is—apparently—more malleable than ever, living in the “post-fact” world that we are. And so I’m grateful that fundamental questions like defining the “creative” aspect of creative nonfiction—​It’s the arrangement, not the content, I argued just last week—are still being debated. The Atlantic recently published William Deresiewicz’s “In Defense of Facts,” which blasts John D’Agata for his essay collections that “misrepresent . . . what the essay is and does” and for his comments to Jim Fingal documented in Lifespan of a Fact. The conversations are still happening, and they are still heated; the fourth genre is still being defined.  

We are still, too, defining the essay. Twenty-eight years ago, Atwan described the form as standing “awkwardly with one foot in and one foot out of so-called imaginative literature” (xi). Looking to its origins, Montaigne gave us a narrator who stutter-steps over his positions, circling around and across the page, admitting flaws and defects in between crafted observations and scenes. Ariel Levy, guest editor of BAE2015, writes that despite its myriad of forms, an essay “must have an idea as its beating heart” (xv) and that to produce such a piece of writing “requires real audacity” (xvi). It is, in some ways, a difficult legacy to uphold, an elusive form to pin down.

I’m tempted to say something snarky about Banana Republic having a magazine, but it appears that 1989 is when essays were starting to stretch and grow into today’s iterations. Atwan wrote then that though the essay hadn’t yet “acquired the proper credentials demanded by university English departments for literary certification” (xi), it would, and soon. Despite his optimistic predictions, the essay is still often-maligned and misunderstood. In public perception it is reminiscent of college English courses, among writerly and publishing circles essay collections are often considered a difficult sell compared to the memoir or novel (though recent books like Citizen, among other Graywolf publications, and Between the World and Me have been very successful). 

The form still carries an aura of indulgence; also in BAE 2015, Atwan describes the essayist’s paradox as “parad[ing] an enormous ego . . . in a modest setting” (xii). But this, I think, is all in good humor. On a European beach this past July, attending a literary workshop, a friend remarked how goddamn artsy I looked while I hunched over a BAE collection, a cigarette in my hand. She suggested I write it in her comment, and I have, and so I am standing on the shoulders of others, borrowing techniques from essayists before me—showing my hands across the keyboard, exposing my vanity and a weakness for nicotine, shaping this piece to give you, more clearly, something true. It’s not a bad place to be.
Alysia Sawchyn currently lives in Tampa, Florida, where she is a nonfiction editor for Sweet: A Literary Confection. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Fourth Genre, Indiana Review, Southeast Review, and elsewhere. She was recently awarded first place in Cutbank’s 2016 Flash Prose Contest



  • Home
  • 4.2 (Spring 2018)
    • 4.2 Articles >
      • Megan Brown, "Testimonies, Investigations, and Meditations: ​Telling Tales of Violence in Memoir"
      • Corinna Cook, "Documentation and Myth: On Daniel Janke's How People Got Fire"
      • Michael W. Cox, "Privileging the Sentence: David Foster Wallace’s Writing Process for “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s”
      • Sarah Pape, "“Artistically Seeing”: Visual Art & the Gestures of Creative Nonfiction"
      • Annie Penfield, "Moving Towards What is Alive: ​The Power of the Sentence to Transform"
      • Keri Stevenson, "Partnership, Not Dominion: ​Resistance to Decay in the Falconry Memoir"
    • 4.2 Conversations >
    • 4.2 Pedagogy >
  • Past Issues
    • Journal Index >
    • 1.1 (Fall 2014) >
      • Editor's Note
      • 1.1 Articles >
        • Sarah Heston, "Critical Memoir: A Recovery From Codes" (1.1)
        • Andy Harper, "The Joke's On Me: The Role of Self-Deprecating Humor in Personal Narrative" (1.1)
        • Ned Stuckey-French, "Our Queer Little Hybrid Thing" (1.1)
        • Brian Nerney, "John McCarten’s ‘Irish Sketches’: ​The New Yorker’s ‘Other Ireland’ in the Early Years of the Troubles, 1968-1974" (1.1)
        • Wendy Fontaine, "Where Memory Fails, Writing Prevails: Using Fallacies of Memory to Create Effective Memoir" (1.1)
        • Scott Russell Morris, "The Idle Hours of Charles Doss, or ​The Essay As Freedom and Leisure" (1.1)
      • 1.1 Conversations >
      • 1.1 Pedagogy >
    • 1.2 (Spring 2015) >
    • 2.1 (Fall 2015) >
Categories: 1

0 Replies to “Top American Essayists Alias”

Leave a comment

L'indirizzo email non verrà pubblicato. I campi obbligatori sono contrassegnati *