Review of The Best American Essays 2015, edited by Ariel Levy and The Best Australian Essays 2015, edited by Geordie Williamson
Australian Book Review, March 2016
At the back of the cupboard of old lies is a crusty one that goes like this: the essay is a lesser form of literature. Oddly, it is perpetuated in collections like Ariel Levy’s The Best American Essays 2015, which – in its foreword by series editor Robert Atwan – bashfully admits that essays are the B-team of the writing world. ‘The quintessential essayist’, Atwan writes, ‘parades an enormous ego and yet does so in a modest setting, that is, within a genre widely acknowledged to be unequal to fiction, poetry, and drama.’ This is silly and reductive snobbery, the same that holds anything in a non-realist genre – fantasy, science fiction – to be ineluctably ‘commercial’. It is no different from failing to invite the neighbours to your Christmas party because you dislike the way they plant a shrubbery.
Atwan’s anxiety stems, I suspect, from the fact that ‘fiction’ and ‘non-fiction’ in the American essay is a matter of arbitrary classification. The pieces here exemplify the American trend of literary non-fiction. Largely first-person memoir, written in a fictional style, these essays could be read as accomplished short stories, in the absence of confirmation that they are based in truth. Their supposed literary inferiority, one assumes, is because fiction is based on an invented premise, inhering ‘creative genius’, and the essay is not. But this is all a matter of degree. The best literary non-fiction – like these American essays – portrays real people and events with all the skill and toolbox of a novelist. And novelists – particularly realists – write fiction informed by careful observations of the world, human nature, and real events.
There is, then, a sliding scale of fact and creativity between literary fiction and non-fiction. To say that the essay is a lesser form is to shove a boundary in the middle and hold that on one side lie ‘real’ writers and on the other, accomplished jobsworths. And that, reader, is tosh. Take, for instance, Best American Essays‘ standout piece: Kendra Atleework’s exquisite ‘Charade’. As her mother dies, Atleework takes comfort in her best friend and their gothic romanticism of death. Atleework’s memoir–essay is as good as any short story worth its salt:
When it rained in Swall Meadows, Elizabeth and I took to the street. The best rains fell at night in the autumn, out of clouds resting on the side of Wheeler Crest, fat and freezing. They rolled down the mountain, swallowing my house and the surrounding blue spruce, the skeletons of silver poplars, peaks bristled by evergreens. By November snow had reached the ridge, and the air was tangible, flavored with frost and the slow death of plants and birds.
Why deny her the status of an A-team writer? Levy’s selection privileges this sort of essay: memoir and musings on individual experience delivered in a fictional style. Much of the subject matter explores sickness and mutability, the boundaries between life and death. Roger Angell writes about his ‘tenth decade’: an angioplasty ‘presents [his] heart as a pendant ragbag attached to tacky ribbons of veins and arteries’. In his mid-sixties, Mark Jacobson laments that ‘[o]nly yesterday I was twenty-six, a strapping Icarus, soaring on the drunken tailwind of my own infinity’. Via the story of her mother’s terminal illness, and a spectral hand that haunts the writer, geneticist Tiffany Briere considers her mother’s cultural belief that ‘the deceased are always with us … their presence can be felt’.
It is not all high seriousness: Tim Kreider writes with wit and perception about his nineteen-year friendship with his cat, ‘by far the longest relationship of my adult life’. John Reed describes – perhaps more humorously than he should – suspicions that his late grandmother was a poisoner. And Zadie Smith meditates on the Manhattan work ethic via close analysis of a beer poster.
Notwithstanding the prevalence of baby-boomer writing, Best American Essays belongs, I think, to younger female writers: Atleework and Kelly Sundberg, whose memoir of escaping domestic violence recalls a tragic flux of emotions: ‘I loved his soft hands, his embraces, his kind heart.’ But he also ‘punched me in the spine with such force that my body arched back as though it had been shocked with electricity’. It is a hard and poignant way to end the collection.
Atleework’s and Sundberg’s aside, the American essays display a patina of accomplished similarity. Perhaps it is the product of their MFA culture; perhaps simply Levy’s aesthetic preferences. The Best Australian Essays 2015, however, are different beasts. There is no polite recognition of inferiority. Geordie Williamson’s stellar introduction celebrates the essay as ‘the most durable of literary forms’, ‘the most exciting field of writerly endeavor being practised in Australia’. Certain American essays (Margo Jefferson’s ‘Scenes from a Life in Negroland’, Philip Kennicott’s ‘Smuggler’) consider vital societal issues – race, class, sexual equality – via the lens of memoir. But Australia’s essays are more distinctly arguments – dialectical, polemical – and their topics wider in scope.
Sebastian Smee writes with poise on how Goya’s art can help to process Sydney’s horrific Lindt Café siege. Anwen Crawford, Tegan Bennett Daylight, Delia Falconer, Ceridwen Dovey, and Felicity Plunkett show how incisive and beautiful Australia’s best criticism is. Here is Falconer on Christina Stead’s language: ‘She beats, blows and burnishes it so that it seems also to be forged into a kind of material thing itself.’ Kirsten Tranter writes perceptively about her experience of being reviewed – an essay all young critics should read before sharpening their reputations on other people’s books.
There are important pieces on our society: Maria Tumarkin, on the muffling of immigrant intellectuals; Noel Pearson, on the recent history of indigenous affairs policies; and Guy Rundle, on the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Karen Hitchcock writes with vim and flair on the fecklessness of alternative medicine and the paucity of scientific medicine’s pill fix approach to systemic health problems. Alison Croggon’s horrifying description of rape leads to a wider consideration of gender roles.
Australia is redolent on every page, not least in the way we, rather wonderfully, say ‘fuck’ in our learned periodicals. Nicolas Rothwell and Rebecca Giggs communicate the stark beauty of our landscapes in assured pieces on coastlines and Western Australia’s mines. Anna Krien writes about driving through it all, memorialising her panel van with tender elegance. And Tim Winton, via a childhood memoir about car accidents on our long highways, encapsulates the nation in a few pages – as the talented bastard is wont to do.
The Australian essays are, as Williamson says, ‘[w]onky, idiosyncratic, fragmentary, paradoxical, drunk on words’. Reading the collection I was struck by that writerly mélange of emotions: toe-scrunching envy, marvel, awe, and enthusiasm for the vibrancy of our nation’s letters. Patriotic bias aside, reading the Best Australian Essays after the Best American was like watching a roar and burst of fireworks after the polite sheen of a river. I suspect it is because we are less embarrassed by essays. Perhaps, as yarners and bullshitters, ranters and storytellers, the grab-bag form suits us best. We take to it more readily, with our mixture of lyricism and profanity, argument and jokes. At any rate, Williamson’s collection should be sent to the Best American‘s Mr Atwan with an accompanying note: ‘If you think the essay is something lesser, mate – have a read of these.’