Before we get into the books, I wanted to ask you about essays generally. In your introduction to The Best American Essays of 2008 you have a rather nice phrase: “The essay is a classical form for short-winded Romantics.” What do you mean by that?
What I mean is that in lots of ways essay writing is classical, in the sense that it works if it’s poised, elegant, compressed, composed – it’s not a rhapsodic outpouring of emotional language. At the same time, what distinguishes it from true criticism is that its purpose is usually to communicate some emotional state or the alteration of an emotional state, rather than an argument.
There are certain kinds of criticism that I think of as essentially essays – Clive James or Randall Jarrell’s criticism, for instance – whereas there are other critics whom I admire just as much – say [William] Empson and [WH] Auden – but whom I don’t think of as essayists. They’re superior literary critics.
Is the distinction to do with the presence of the “I” in their work?
The “I” need not appear in the piece, but it’s always implicit in the essay. Empson and Auden want to win you round to their point of view, Jarrell and James want to make their experience persuasive. Of course, one of the best ways of winning you round to a point of view is to make your experience persuasive, and one of the best ways to make your experience persuasive is to win you round to a point of view!
There are no absolute lines in this. But there does seem to me a real difference between the things Empson – who is an absolutely wonderful writer and an amazing companion – is trying to do in his critical articles and the things Jarrell is trying to do in his. Jarrell conceives of criticism poetically. That is, that it should have some of the surprise and delight of personal revelation: “I felt this then, and I passed through the prism of a work of writing” rather than “this is a general truth of literature”.
With essayists, we feel we’re reading their first names rather than their honorifics. We’re reading Clive and Virginia and Randall rather than James and Woolf and Jarrell, in a way we never feel we’re reading William and Wystan rather than Empson and Auden.
You have written that the essay has an implicit politics to it, and that the job of the essay is “to drain the melodrama from overwrought debate and replace it with common sense and comedy”.
Did I say that? When you think [of essays] historically, beginning with Montaigne, one of the things Montaigne does – at a time of violent and feverish religious debate – is he makes the case for both and at once, for either and or, for the division within oneself. That there is no pure or certain state which we can be in in our mental lives.
Even someone as seemingly non-political as Max Beerbohm is placed at the intersection of all kinds of political passions – Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw’s socialism, Rudyard Kipling’s imperialism and so on – and he makes fun of them all. That’s one of the things that makes Beerbohm attractive. In a very decorous and mischievous way, he mocks that kind of ideological passion.
EB White did the same kind of thing when writing in the 1930s. His arguments against fascism and totalitarianism are not rhetorical but highly particular, trying to assert the actual fabric of life as it is rather than accepting abstraction. Maybe that’s a good way of putting it. The essay is against abstraction, and by being against abstraction it is against ideological thought.
And Even Now
You mentioned Beerbohm. Let’s begin with his book And Even Now. You said his approach was to parody and make light of things. He was also a caricaturist. Do you see a link between his illustrations and his essays?
Yes, absolutely. He was a caricaturist with remarkable insight and relatively little malice in his parodies and cartoons. He found the pomposities of over-zealous ideology absurd. He also had a lovely vein of affection. One of my favourite of his picture-books is called RossettiandHisCircle. It’s basically imaginary pictures of Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelites in their very complicated domestic life. The implicit theme of the whole book is that behind the Pre-Raphaelite dream of the perfect Botticelli nymph and the medieval romantic life is this very funny, furtive domestic life in Chelsea [London]. Constantly referring dream-life back to reality is another way Beerbohm works.
He’s an essayist who isn’t so widely read these days. Why do you think that is?
For me, Beerbohm has an almost dangerously perfect tone – a mixture of benign serenity and quiet intellectual authority that I think is the tone every essayist searches for. It’s not accidental that Beerbohm was influential on the first generation of The New Yorker writers, people like Wolcott Gibbs.
One of the dangers of that tone, though, is that it can seem unduly complacent or self-satisfied. I suspect that the note of complacency in Beerbohm’s writing is kind of out of kilter with the times. It’s a note that was so hugely popular for 50 or 60 years that I guess it came to seem old-fashioned. If you ever read old collections of light editorials from The London Times, they all strive for the Beerbohm sound. Inevitably, when a sound gets imitated for too long it becomes a little empty.
Beerbohm is also not a writer of fanatic passion or political certainty. You can’t consult him directly for the quote you might need about the topic of the day. For those reasons, he’s gone a bit out of fashion. But he remains a wonderful writer, and for me the best witness of that period – the end of the Victorian age and the beginning of the modern age.
What do you think he writes best about?
Literature. My favourite of his essays are ones like “A Clergyman”, which is a very close, loving analysis of an obscure passage of [James] Boswell’s TheLifeofSamuelJohnson. A clergyman, identified in no other way, squeaks out a little objection to something Dr Johnson has said, and Johnson crushes him with his rejoinder. Beerbohm reflects on the lost and hidden life of this clergyman, who made one brief bid for literary immortality and whose name even Boswell couldn’t recall.
Another favourite is called “William and Mary”, and is a memory of a couple he has known since his Oxford days. It’s a really beautiful story that has an almost Proustian quality.
Essay collections are perfect for filling bits of time when you need something to read but don’t want to settle into anything long. I am almost always in the middle of a collection, and it doesn’t matter in the least if I take a long time to finish it. They are perfect for dipping into, for trying out, for reading at whim.
2017 is a great year for essays. The 20 collections featured below give you a taste of the kind of material available: there are books about what it’s like to live in Trump’s America, about being a woman today, about living in the age of Black Lives Matter. You will also find collections about art and literature and about the ups and downs of everyday life. Some collections contain all of the above. The richness and variety of essays available today is overwhelming, in the best possible way. So check out this list of 20 of the year’s best collections and see if something catches your interest.
Caca Dolce: Essays from a Lowbrow Life by Chelsea Martin
These essays chart Chelsea Martin’s life from her girlhood into her early adult years. They are personal, revealing, funny, and wince-inducing all at once. Martin grew up poor in a poor California town, and here she lays it all out: her struggles with family, love, sex, money, illness, and more. This is a quick read, and one that will stay with you.
Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America, edited by Samhita Mukhopadhyay and Kate Harding
Rebecca Solnit, Cheryl Strayed, Samantha Irby, Katha Pollitt, and Nicole Chung are among the 23 women writers in this collection about living in Trump’s America. This is an essential book for those who want to think about how our country ended up where it is and how we move forward.
Would Everybody Please Stop: Reflections on Life and other bad ideas by Jenny Allen
Here you will find 35 short pieces by a humor writer and performer who can bring out the comedy of everyday life. Allen mixes comedic pieces with more serious essays on illness, motherhood, and single life after decades of being in a relationship. This is a book for when you want to laugh and then sigh with rueful recognition.
Policing the Black Man: Arrest, Prosecution, and Imprisonment Edited by Angela J. Davis
Authors included in this anthology are Bryan Stevenson, Sherrilyn Ifill, Jeremy Travis, and more. It’s a look at issues surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement and the ways the criminal justice system affects black boys and men. It’s one of a large group of books out this year that help explain the impact of racism on black Americans and on the culture at large.
We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby
Irby’s previous essay collection Meaty was hilarious. Here is her follow-up, with more of what she is so good at: comic personal essays on the trials and tribulations of contemporary life. The essays will move you and entertain you both.
The Hidden Machinery: essays on Writing by Margo Livesey
This collection is for writers and those who like to read about books and writing. It’s part a study of literature, part writing class, and part memoir. You can read Livesey’s thoughts on Flaubert and Austen and learn her thoughts on how to create characters and how to write dialogue. Livesey is a beloved writing teacher sharing the wisdom gained by years of teaching.
The Wrong Way to Save Your life: Essays by Megan Stielstra
Here you will find personal essays that cover a range of topics: motherhood, education, art, academia, the internet, and more. It’s personal, smart, moving, and funny, the kind of book that will make you think and feel both, and where the writer feels like she’s keeping you company while you read.
Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman By Anne Helen Peterson
In a similar vein as Sady Doyle’s great 2016 book Trainwreck, this collection looks at women in the public eye. Analyzing figures such as Lena Dunham, Nicki Minaj, and Kim Kardashian, Peterson discusses why we love to hate these powerful, controversial women and what our obsession with celebrity tells us about who we are.
Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys Into Race, Motherhood, and History by Camille T. Dungy
Camille Dungy covers a broad range of topics: traveling as a mother, working in the literary world as a woman of color, hiking, visiting slave-trading ports in Ghana, watching her daughter learn language. In every essay, Dungy is incisive and revealing, both of her own experience and of the state of the world as she sees it.
Browse: The World in BookshopsEdited by Henry Hitchings
This one is for bookshop lovers and those who love to read about books (as I do!). Here you will find 15 essays on the significance, function, pleasures, and possibilities of bookstores from around the world. Contributors include Alaa Al Aswany, Michael Dirda, Yiyun Li, Elif Shafak, Ali Smith, and more.
We Were Eight Years in POwer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
A new book by Ta-Nehisi Coates is always an exciting event, and here he is writing about the Obama years. This collection contains work that appeared in magazines to great acclaim and much discussion such as “Fear of a Black President,” and “The Case for Reparations.” It contains eight new essays as well, each of which covers a year of the Obama administration.
They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib
These are essays about music, but also about culture, race, and life in America today. Willis-Abdurraqib writes about attending a Bruce Springsteen concert the day after visiting Michael Brown’s grave, what it was like growing up in America in the 1990s, the first time he was thrown on the ground by police officers, and much more.
The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison
These essays began as lectures. They cover history, politics, and literature, including an examination of authors such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Faulkner, and Flannery O’Connor. Any book by Toni Morrison is an essential one, and here she delivers the incisive observations about race and American culture we have come to expect from her.
Sunshine State by Sarah Gerard
Like many on this list, Sarah Gerard’s collection has a lot to tell us about America. She focuses on Florida and from there moves into the personal, and into politics, the economy, and the environment. The essays are a mix of reporting, memoir, and cultural critique.
Somebody with a little hammer: Essays by Mary Gaitskill
Mary Gaitskill is known for her novels Veronica, Two Girls Fat and Thin, and others, and now we have her first essay collection. These pieces were written over the course of a couple decades and cover a range of topics including books and authors; musicians, artists, and celebrities; and cultural and political movements and debates.
Bitch Doctrine: Essays for Dissenting Adults by Laurie Penny
Here’s a collection for anyone who wants to read a series of smart, provocative essays on feminism today, including subjects such as the 2016 election, online harassment, being a woman writer, transgender rights, and more. Laurie Penny makes a fiercely intelligent companion in our quest to understand feminism and contemporary culture.
Women Writing Resistance: Essays on Latin America and the Caribbean Edited by Jennifer Browdy
This collection contains the work of 16 writers including Julia Alvarez, Edwidge Danticat, Jamaica Kincaid, Gloria Anzaldua, and more. It contains both poetry and essays on the topic of resistance: how women can collaborate across race and class boundaries to fight patriarchy and white supremacy.
Too Much and Not the MOod by Durga Chew-Bose
Full of examples of what gets called the “lyric essay,” this book is varied in subject matter and beautifully written. It opens with a long essay called “Heart Museum” that takes us into Chew-Bose’s life and around the world, and from there moves to shorter essays on family, identity, race, and culture.
Everwhere Home: A Life in Essays by Fenton Johnson
Fenton Johnson’s subjects include sexuality, religion, art, basketball, and more. The essays are also about travel: he wanders from Kentucky to San Francisco to Paris to Calcutta. It’s a collection of pieces that appeared in places like Harper’s as well as new work.
One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will matter by Scaachi Koul
If you’re in the mood for some humorous essays, this is the book for you: a debut collection that touches on race and culture, gender roles, parents, the internet, and more. She will make you laugh as she tells personal stories and analyzes what it’s like to grow up shaped by two cultures, Western (Canadian) and Indian.
News, new releases, and reading recommendations for nonfiction readers!