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The Sunday Salon: Adjusting My Thoughts on Essay Expectations

The Sunday Salon.com For some reason, I’ve always had this impression that all collections — essays, magazine writing, short stories, you name it — were all about the same. All of the entries would fall on a sort of bell curve — a few would be terrible and a few would be stellar, but most would fall somewhere between mediocre and pretty good. It didn’t matter what the theme of the collection was or who was in charge of putting it together, it was just a natural part of a collection and how different pieces appeal to different readers.

What that assumption meant for me as a reader is that I had to read the whole collection in order to pick out the gems. It was almost a sort of treasure hunt, could I pick through the good entries to find the diamond in the rough? I didn’t really mind the exercise; after all, you have to learn what isn’t great in order to recognize the truly remarkable. But I also think this misconception about needing to dig through the average to find the remarkable made me hesitant to work through all of the collections I have on my shelves. In some ways, reading through things are that are merely good is a waste of time when there are so many great things to find.

But after finishing the second book in my Essay a Day project, Best American Essays 2011, I’ve realized that I have been almost entirely wrong about what to expect from a collection like this one. Every piece that guest editor Edwidge Danticat chose for this collection was great, and I finished the last one feeling really, really sad that I will have to continue reading essays without her guidance.

I haven’t finished writing up about each essay over on my Tumblr, but the notes I have about the few I’m still working on all seem to have a common refrain… this was awesome, loved this essay, I’m speechless. I don’t think I could even pick a favorite from the book because they all managed to twist my heart or brain in a slightly different way. But, if I had to pick a few favorites (limited to those I can find online), I’d suggest checking out a few of these to see what I mean:

But if there’s one thing that I love most about this collection, it’s that it helped me think differently about what I, as a reader, should expect and deserve when reading through collections. Finding a great collection of whatever you like to read is much more about finding a writer or editor that shares your sensibilities about what makes that form great to read.

I love essays that have a punchy or exciting first paragraph, that connect seemingly disparate ideas or stories, that illuminate a part of the world I will never experience, or that use words and phrases and structure in a surprising way. Each of the essays in Best American Essays 2011 did one or more of those things, which made it a great pick for me as a reader and a great collection I can recommend to others who I hope I can convince to see essays the way that I do.

As a quick last note, things with the Essay a Day project fell off the wagon a little bit in February. I’m about seven essays behind where I should be, but I’m feeling optimistic about getting caught up. I finished Best American Essays 2011 yesterday morning, but I haven’t decided what I’m going to dive into next. Probably a Christopher Hitchens collection I have out from the library, Arguably, but I may also try a Marjorie Williams collection I’ve been holding on to, The Woman at the Washington Zoo. Thoughts?

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  • Vasilly March 4, 2012, 1:25 pm

    I think you’re doing great with the essay-a-day project. I fell off the wagon entirely in February but I plan on making a comeback this month. 🙂 You know I have that same expectation when it comes to essay collections: some essays will be great and others so-so.Glad to hear that BA 2011 was great.

    I enjoyed the essays from The Woman at the Washington Zoo but I loved her unfinished memoir in the back of the book more. Have a great Sunday.

    • Kim March 5, 2012, 7:06 pm

      I remember you said something about the Williams book on one of my earlier posts about essays. I really should get to that one, it’s been on my shelves for way, way to long.

  • Lu March 4, 2012, 3:42 pm

    This was an amazingly good year for the Best of American series. I think collections like this are wholly dependent on how well your tastes match up with the taste of the editor. I am pretty convinced I found my poetry soul mate in Kevin Young, editor of the Best American Poetry 2011. I loved almost every single poem, which is such a rarity. I’ve long felt the same way you do about essay collections about poetry. I have the Best American Essays on my ereader, so I think I’ll dive into that one this week.

    • Kim March 5, 2012, 7:07 pm

      Yes, matching the taste of the editor is really important. I don’t think I realized how important until reading this one and feeling like I just clicked with it. Yay for finding a poetry soul mate!

  • Teresa March 4, 2012, 5:31 pm

    I really enjoyed The Woman at the Washington Zoo, but it was a bit like walking into a time warp back to the 1990s and Clinton-era politics. Whether that’s a good thing would depend on you and your mood, of course. For me, it was a good thing.

    • Kim March 5, 2012, 7:07 pm

      I think that’ll be fun! I pretty young during the 1990s, so I’m sure my perspective will be a little different.

  • Aths March 4, 2012, 5:49 pm

    You are definitely doing great on this project. I might try something like this later this year or in 2013 (yikes, am I already talking about the next year?). So far this year, I’ve been reading a short story a week, and so far it’s been going great. It will be interesting to try some essays also.

    • Kim March 5, 2012, 7:08 pm

      Oh, trust me, I’ve already thought of some reading projects for 2013… I can’t do too many at the same time or I get overwhelmed, but I have tons of ideas for new ones.

      I like the idea of a short story a week. I think that’d be really fun too.

  • A Bookshelf Monstrosity March 4, 2012, 6:13 pm

    I’m so excited to read my first collection of Best American Essays. I’ve also always wanted to check out the yearly editions of The Best American Nonrequired Reading edited by Dave Eggers.

    • Kim March 5, 2012, 7:08 pm

      I haven’t read any of the Nonrequired Reading collections, but like you I’ve always wanted to. I tend to grab the essay one first when I see them.

  • softdrink March 4, 2012, 11:04 pm

    I didn’t think I was that into essays, but I clicked on all the links (I started with Pico Iyer, and that just sucked me in), ad now I want the whole book!

    • Kim March 5, 2012, 7:09 pm

      Isn’t that Pico Iyer one good? I finished reading it and just felt this cloud of contentment. Get the whole book! It’s an amazing collection.

  • Care March 5, 2012, 7:21 am

    Excellent post. Your writing challenges me; in a good way.

    • Kim March 5, 2012, 7:10 pm

      Oh good, I’m glad 🙂

  • Suzanne March 5, 2012, 9:37 am

    Arguably is a perfect example of very good essays combined with those that are just “meh” (at least that is how I see them). I’m almost done with it, but it’s taken me over six months.
    I have the 2011 Best of Collection on the to-read pile, it looks like I’ll need to start reading that soon.

    • Kim March 5, 2012, 7:11 pm

      I haven’t decided if I’m going to try to read all of Arguably, or just read a selection of the essays to get a better sense of Hitchens as a writer. I have it out from the library, so I won’t get to keep it long enough to read the whole thing right now.

  • Amy March 6, 2012, 7:42 am

    I find your original thought interesting. I guess when it comes to essays and short stories I’ve always thought there would be some that would be a bit less well-written and engaging, but that if the editor is good, they should mostly be fantastic!

    • Kim March 6, 2012, 7:34 pm

      My bell curve analogy might have been a little bit harsh; I don’t usually expect entries to be bad, just that there will be at least a few that just don’t jive with me. I rarely expect almost all of them to be fantastic.

  • Buried In Print March 6, 2012, 3:37 pm

    Oh, no wonder you mentioned wanting to find more of Edwidge Danticat’s work: now I completely understand why you’ve been inspired to do so. The collection sounds fantastic. And the whole experience must have you thinking of going through the backissues of this series (and other similar series) to flag particular writers’ projects.

    • Kim March 6, 2012, 7:35 pm

      Yes, her taste in this collection was just awesome. I always look for the Best American series books when I’m out used book shopping. I’m definitely looking for more of these authors on other essay collections.

  • Liz March 9, 2012, 12:58 pm

    I’ve just spent some time reading the essays that were linked in your post. What a good selection! I also have had that similar idea that collections of essays were variable, but 100% with you about finding an editor who can put together essays that work for you…. I have learned this about the other BA series books, but hadn’t really read it fully articulated before. Nice.

    • Kim March 18, 2012, 1:43 pm

      I think one of the reasons it finally clicked for me was reading the 2001 and 2007 BA books back-to-back. David Foster Wallace, the editor of 2007, just didn’t click with me. Reading this collection, which worked so well, made it seem so obvious that an editor makes a difference.