Best American Essays 2011 – Opening Comments and Questions

I’ve found, after reading roughly half the volumes of The Best American Essays, a series that goes back to 1986, that the title is a bit of a misnomer. Perhaps it’s because the essay itself is such a slippery form, meaning so many different things to so many different people, but I’ve found each volume to be less a sampling of the wide range of examples of the form in any given year, and more a sampling of the tastes of each year’s guest editor.

This schism between definitions of the essay is nowhere more apparent, in my opinion, than in the transition between BAE 2010, edited by Christopher Hitchens (RIP), and BAE 2011, edited by Edwidge Danticat. I can almost imagine Series Editor Robert Atwan telling himself, “OK, last year’s essays were predominantly academic, historical, and/or polemic, so I need to balance that out with some memoir and personal trauma essays this year.”

Enter Danticat, whose stunning, elegiac memoir of her uncle’s and her father’s immigration to the U.S., Brother, I’m Dying, probably won her the editorship of this year’s volume. Of her twenty-four selections, fifteen are primarily memoiristic and a full twenty focus on personal or communal trauma (including Hitchens’ own essay on his diagnosis with esophageal cancer).

I’ll focus many of my coming questions on specific essays, but I wanted to start by asking if anyone else felt this volume to be a bit, well, heavy? (Though not literally – at 242 pages total, it’s actually one of the shortest volumes in the series.) This isn’t a complaint, mind you, but rather a reflection on the cumulative effect the essays had on me. The only volume I can think of that could match it would be 2006, edited by Lauren Slater, in which every single essay seemed to be a meditation on death and grief.

So, what say y’all? What were your general impressions from the volume?

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5 Responses to Best American Essays 2011 – Opening Comments and Questions

  1. Perrin Drumm says:

    I can’t speak to the Best American Essays series, but I wonder if it’s the same with the Best American Short Stories (or the Best American Travel Writing, Sports Writing or Science and Nature Writing, for that matter). That, along with Dave Egger’s Best American NonRequired Reading are the only of the Best Americans I read with any consistency. Since Dave Eggers is always the editor on that one it doesn’t really apply here, but I wonder if anyone who’s read any one series with any regularity can comment on the changes they’ve seen with the changing editors?

  2. Robin says:

    Yes. I checked the book out of the library, so didn’t have a chance to read all the essays, but by about five in I was feeling too nauseous to keep going. Not a criticism of individual essays, merely a reflection, as you say, on the book as a whole. Was stunned by the opening piece and the one about Haiti…look forward to reading your thoughts on those. ~R

  3. Christy Bailey says:

    Heavy? Perhaps. But also gripping, stunning, relevant, thought-provoking, and almost journalistic at times. I liked the collection. And some of the heaviest essays were also my favorite essays. I like to think that the fact they stay with you says more about the strong writing than the heavy topics.

  4. Elise says:

    I’ve only read the first six stories and I agree that the themes are generally heavy. However, the approach taken by the writers, the language and the structuring of the essay, is what I found to have the biggest emotional impact on me as a reader. For example, After the Ice tells a terrible story of a senseless death of a child, yet it was less emotionally jarring than the story Beds, which chronicles the abuses a daughter suffered at the hands of her father. In the former, there is a distance in the reporting, almost “icy” in its telling. And it’s not an account of harm to the narrator, but of harm to another, and its effects on the family members of that child, and especially the narrator. On the other hand Beds is told in a very choppy nervous style, in short episodes, and the reader is nervous too, reading to see what physical assault or devastating psychological blow will be dealt the daughter by her father.

    Regarding the other stories, I was moved at times but not devastated, and it was not because of the theme (for example, I remember crying when reading the accounts of the Haiti quake and seeing the images of the suffering that followed but in reading this story, I felt a bit detached). What Broke My Father’s Heart was a story that had a different effect altogether: it made me reflect on my own demise in a sort of neutral way. It convinced me that I would prefer to live a shorter yet less painful life, less painful for myself and others. Actually, it probably wasn’t a question of convincing but of bringing to my attention the need to consider how you want your eventual demise to play out. In any case, I look forward to reading more stories. I feel like I am learning about “the lives of others” as I go through these stories and also how to tackle the job of combining narration, reflection and moments of poetry in an essay.

  5. Pingback: Trauma, Revisited | The Best American Reading Club

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