Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Purpose of the "Best American" Series

I'm about halfway through this year's Best American Essays, so maybe this is unfair of me to say, but so far the individual essays have all felt exactly the same: they all seem heavily researched, which isn't a bad thing, but they rely so much on content (as opposed to voice, a new perspective on the narrator based on the research, etc) that they aren't necessarily compelling unless you are interested in the subject matter. Even the subjects, for the most part have felt similar: writing about the lives of writers/academics--there's been an essay looking at Tolstoy, another on Einstein, one on Isenberg's visits with four different scholars/writers that might need an entirely different post to articulate why it shouldn't be anywhere near a Best American anything, an essay on Montaigne, an essay opening on a scene with Nabokov...

This isn't to mention the fact that it's mostly essays written by men, and that a majority of the collection is made up of essays from the bigger magazines like Harper's, The Atlantic, The New Yorker or NY Times Book Review or any other publication with 'New York' in the title. Meanwhile, a majority of the notable essays are from a more diverse set of smaller journals/publications.

Anyway, none of this should come as a surprise (the big magazines always have a significant representation in the Best American series), but it does have me questioning the purpose of the Best American anthology, and why so many similar essays would be put into a collection where there were a lot of opportunities for a variety of voices and content. Here's a couple theories:

1) In my mind, the anthology should be a venue for highlighting the diversity of a genre in terms of style and content (for many readers, this might be the only time all year they pick up a collection of essays, or short stories, or whatever). Furthermore, it seems like a wider variety of journals/publications would be ideal, especially when they could give attention to lesser known writing venues and writers that would benefit from the distinction, but it doesn't seem like that's necessarily the mission of the series.

2) It's simply a venue for that year's editor (in this case, Christopher Hitchens) to put forth the writing they're most interested in. If an editor were particularly interested in, say, reading profiles on famous writers, then they could go ahead and publish fifteen of them and call it a day.

3) It's an opportunity for that year's editor to set forth an agenda/message on where they see the genre heading, or what they'd like to see more of, or something along those lines.

Anyway, I don't want this to sound like a rant about me not agreeing with Hitchens' choices as an editor, but I'm honestly curious as to what people see as the purpose of this type of anthology.


  1. Dleg,
    I was talking to ASM when he was in town. I showed him the Best American Science and Nature from 2009. That seemed more experimental and risk-taking than any regular Best American. I wonder at the essay on writers and writing as the hallmark of "best." If that's best, then who is reading? The whole thing has become very clubby to me: who is reading who and quoting who and selecting who? If you set this opposed to "Best Nonrequired Reading" would any of this be "required"? I don't know. I have yet to buy a copy. I'm pretty sure I don't think I have to, thanks to your insight.

  2. I should probably clarify a bit:

    I don't think the purpose of every anthology is to necessarily display a wide range, and I don't believe an editor should trade quality writing for lesser works in an attempt at diversity, but I do feel that something claiming to encompass all nonfiction writing in the past year could (and should) provide a little more variety.

  3. I'm sure I'm just reading your post through what I already believe. I hear you. This is what I gather you're saying--if you want to hear just what Christopher Hitchins thinks, why not just read Christopher Hitchins?
    That was the best thing about the Best American 2009 with Ander's essay in it. Adam Gopnik did display a bit of diversity.
    Still, I'm not sure I'm convinced I should run out and buy the 2011 version.

  4. Part of the funk of the BA series seems to be their reliance on the celebrity guest editor. Some of us tune in to see if we're in it, or Notabled. Some of us tune in to see what has been beatified in the anthology. Some read to see what's going on in the genre. And some surely want to know what does Hitchens think the best essays were this year? Which is a way of saying What does Hitchens believe about the essay? I remember thinking this about the DFW-edited year, which was surprisingly short of spectacular, aside from a few essays and his great introduction. Of course I read for all these things.

    At any rate, I imagine Robert Atwan's job to be iterating a particular sort of sadness year after year. As the curator of the series, he probably must have his own personal picks that he loves. Sometimes they go in. More often, I'm sure, they don't. But one's obliged to play by the rules and let the Famous Guest make the choices. I hope to have a clearer sense of the relationship between the Notables and the Chosen, which is also to say between Atwan and Hitchens, when I finish my survey of this year's and the history of this series. Probably its main function, year on year, is to piss some people off, and to provide texts for classes in the essay. I imagine these two are conflated in many years.

  5. I was all about the BAE for several years, then realized that since I had a New Yorker subscription, I'd read about half of it at the time I'd bought the book each year. (Although it seems worth pointing out that there's not a single New Yorker article in BAE 1991.)

    I did get this year's copy, and it seems like Hitchens is interested in writing about writing: lots here about writers, books, words. And obviously this is his prerogative; god forbid I ever edit BAE. It strikes me, though, that with its reliance on more mainstream sources of essays, the BAE is less like BAP or BASS in the sense that it's not a compendium of small literary magazines--that is, it rarely takes something from a journal of small distribution and gets it to a wider audience. Instead, it takes publication in mainstream literary magazines (such a thing?) as evidence of "best."

    Here's a question: are we expecting BAE to do what Lee Gutkind's BCNF series is doing?

  6. Another up and comer is Dzanc Books Best of the Web anthology--not specific to cnf (and I'm not sure how much cnf it includes). There's an interesting post on it here: http://emergingwriters.typepad.com/emerging_writers_network/2010/09/why-the-best-of-the-web-is-important.html