I would like to draw your attention to a book that you might otherwise overlook. Louis Menand, a regular contributor to The New Yorker, edited The Best American Essays 2004, and it turns out to be a splendid collection.
Ordinarily I shy away from “The Best of” books. The annual gathering of “The Best of” American poetry would lead you to despair, if you actually believed that this was the best poetry produced by Americans in a given year. The same is true of the annual “The Best of” American short stories. One suspects that the editors of these annual harvests select one entry apiece for five or six of the most famous or most established writers in the field and then add a few pieces by friends or writers to whom the editor owes favors.
The best short stories compilation will probably contain samples by T. Coraghessan Boyle and Annie Proulx. The best poetry will undoubtedly turn out to include poems by John Ashbery, Billy Collins, Jorie Graham, and Rita Dove. This is not to suggest that Boyle, Proulx, Ashbery, et alia don’t produce good work on a fairly regular basis, but their inclusion in the annual “The Best of” collections seems automatic rather than earned.
Such, however, is not the case with The Best American Essays as compiled by Louis Menand. A week or two ago I picked up a copy at Cody’s on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, and initially I was skeptical about the number of New Yorker writers Menand had included. It looked like favoritism to me, and when I sat down to read the essay by Jonathan Franzen, it was with the expectation of finding something meretricious and unworthy. As it turned out, it was my bias that was unworthy. The piece by Franzen was quite good, an exposition of adolescent behavior and psychology that carried solid nuggets of insight.
There was also an essay by a writer named Kathryn Chetkovich, about whom I know nothing not revealed in her essay, “Envy.” [Ed. note: the Chetkovich essay chronicled her relationship with Franzen, and was a subject of much discussion in 2003.] As I began reading “Envy,” I took it to be a garden-variety tale about an unhappy love affair, but its development surprised me. Chetkovich’s essay is really a meditation on the differences between men and women, particularly in their expectations of each other. It was the sort of thing I should have read 40 years ago, though, come to think of it, if I had encountered such an essay when I was 19, I doubt that I would have learned anything from it. (The ability to learn anything useful from experience seems to be withheld until after that type of experience has been removed from life’s menu.)
I had a similar experience five years ago with The Best American Essays of 1999, which was edited by Edward Hoagland. As I read through the essays in that collection, I kept expecting to come upon one that was dull or trite or boring, but, against all expectation, every single essay selected by Hoagland was a small gem.
The most memorable of them was a piece by a writer named Charles Bowden, who had been, as a young man, a reporter on a Tucson newspaper. His essay, “Torch Song,” reprinted from Harper’s, described in some detail the effects on his life of being assigned a regular beat covering crimes (usually violent) against children. Just reading his essay was a harrowing experience. You really don’t want to think too much about the hideous things that happen to children, society’s natural victims.
In “Torch Song,” Bowden describes how, over the course of a couple years, he lost his ability to find pleasure in anything. His sexual relations were confined to women who also were professionally engaged in dealing with the atrocities that he wrote about as a reporter: female police officers and family service councilors. “Torch Song” reminds one that there is a nightmare world that exists alongside the world we are familiar with, a world packed with such horror that even reading cursory descriptions of it makes one feel sick.
The annual production of these compilations of essays suggests that the essay form is thriving in this country. This is just about the reverse of the impression one gets of the health of the short story and poetry from their annual national gatherings.