Beyond Self-Indulgence: 2008’s Best American Essays

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Houghton Mifflin recently published its 2008 edition of The Best American Essays with Adam Gopnik serving as guest editor. The Best American series is always a good showcase of the year’s finest offerings in a genre, and a reliable gauge of each form’s contemporary direction.

While this collection is led, as usual, by standout pieces from the New Yorker and Harper’s, it also culls some brilliant offerings from smaller magazines and literary journals, providing a modest cross-section of the essay-writing talent in the independent press. Pieces from PMS(Poem Memoir Story), Transition, Pinch, Swink, and Open City have all made the cut.

Part of the fun of these collections for essay-geeks like me is to see which luminary they’ve invited to guest edit. David Foster Wallace presided over last year’s collection, and the essays he chose had an immediacy that previous editions lacked; several of them addressed pressing issues like war, class, and politics, contradicting the frequent charge that personal essays are too solipsistic.

Gopnik’s introduction is similar to previous editions’ in that it makes a compelling case for the importance of good nonfiction in today’s literary world, and continues to defend the form–especially the subgenre of memoir–against the too-frequent charge of self-indulgence. But Gopnik provides a solid argument about the universal urgency of even the most personal essay:

Certainly people attack the memoir, and the memoir essay, in exactly the way people once attacked the novel. . . as vulgar and above all self-indulgent. But “self-indulgent,” fairly offered, means that expression is in too great an ascendance over communication. . . .In truth, the impulse to argument that is part of the essay’s inheritance. . . makes the memoir essay, even of the mushiest sort, the least self-indulgent of forms, the one where the smallest display of self for self’s sake is practical. A novelist can muse motionlessly for pages on the ebb and flow of life, but if an essayist hasn’t arrived at the point by the top of page three. . . if the leap into a higher general case, from the specific “I” to the almost universal “you” doesn’t take place quickly, the essay won’t work. . . . Memoir essays move us not because they are self-indulgent, but because they are other-indulgent, and the other they indulge is us, with our own parallel inner stories of loss and confusion and mixed emotions.

Gopnik and the series editor, Robert Atwan, have chosen big names like David Sedaris, Lauren Slater, and Jonathan Lethem to sit alongside relatively obscure writers: Joe Wenderoth, Patricia Brieschke, and the British-Sudanese novelist Jamal Mahjoub.

I’m personally hoping John O’Connor’s “The Boil” makes it into next year’s collection–but I won’t hold my breath.

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