Wednesday, December 23, 2015

2013 as read by Marcia Aldrich: On Being Moved: Four Takes on the Personal

1. Chemicals in my brain

In my first poetry workshop in graduate school David Wagoner started each session by reading aloud a poem he admired. About midway through the semester he chose Louise Bogan’s “The Dream”: “Oh God,” he began, “in the dream the terrible horse began to paw at the air...” I was stopped by the rearing horse, the terrified voice, the controlled rhythm of the lines—arrested, and then started on a new way. When the class was over I walked straight to the library and checked out Bogan’s first book of poems, Body of This Death. I later read through her entire life’s work, even her foreword to a cookbook, and eventually wrote a dissertation titled “Lethal Brevity: Louise Bogan and the Crisis of Kinship.”
     Yet before that day I had never heard of Louise Bogan—I a graduate student keenly interested in modernist poetry, she a modernist poet who rearranged the chemicals in my brain. I had taken courses in modernist poetry. Why hadn’t I heard of Bogan? The answer was simple—no one had included her on a syllabus. I realized that I knew only what I had been given to know, that there were specific hands and tastes and interests and blind spots and chemicals assembling what was put before me in anthologies and textbooks to document the writing of a period, of a genre, of history. So too, professors would choose what their classes would read and not read. There was nothing inevitable or impersonal about their selections. Books are made things, as are magazines and literary journals, and particular people determine what particular people to put inside them.
     Editors select; that’s what they do. Sometimes their principles of selection are made visible, and sometimes they are not. Robert Atwan has been the series editor for The Best American Essays since its inception in 1986, choosing the works he forwards to each volume’s judge, who in turn selects twenty-one to twenty-six essays, depending on the year, for the annual publication.
     End-of-the-year lists of the best of anything, perhaps especially literary works, are suspect as measures of worth, especially of worth that endures. Nevertheless, these round-ups and prizes are solid steps in the process of canonization, and the BAE has grown in importance over the years. The annual volumes lend cachet to the writers included and are perused by curious audiences who would like guidance in whom and what to read. Given the enormity of the publishing landscape, the teeming swarm of essays when the terrain is seen close up, the BAE helpfully sorts out and makes visible a manageable group of offerings that a renowned judge has found exemplary. Readers can turn to the back of the book and find yet more possibilities among the “Notable Essays,” those presented to the editor as candidates for publication in the annual volume but not chosen. Sometimes readers prefer a favorite here to some of the “winners.”
     A complex process leads to selection of each volume’s editor, too, and one of the factors is gender. Atwan has been determined to place both men and women in the role. They have often alternated from year to year, with fourteen women and sixteen men performing as the annual arbiter.

2. Ratio: A Statement of How Two Numbers Compare

I undertook a survey to ascertain the counts of men and women authors chosen by the volume’s editor in each issue of the BAE series. The title of most lopsided arbiter falls to Stephen Jay Gould, who in 2002, among twenty-four essays, included four by women. 20:4. I’m sorry to report that his numbers are not outliers. I was surprised when I returned to the best of 1993 to find that Joseph Epstein included only five essays by women (17:5)—surprised because one of mine, “Hair,” made the cut. It hadn’t occurred to me to notice the number of women in the volume. Had I done so, I would have counted myself a rarified thing. This omission of thinking says something about me, that I was simply happy to make it against the odds. I’m not unique in this response. Women have too often accepted paltry representation, pleased to be represented at all.
     A woman editor doesn’t always lead to women in the table of contents. Five years after the Epstein volume, in 1998, the gender of the judge changed but not the gender of the selections. Cynthia Ozick picked twenty-five essays; six were penned by women. 19:6.
     The most recent numbers in the series have been inconsistent in recognizing women writers. In 2011, Edwidge Danticat made history, putting herself alone in the annals of the series by picking thirteen essays by women out of twenty-four. She reversed the preponderance, like Archimedes lifting the earth with his lever. 11:13. However, the very next year the earth fell back in place, with David Brooks in charge—twenty-four essays, six by women. 18:6. The latest volumes, in 2013, 2014, and 2015, approached a more balanced showing, though none of them matched Danticat’s percentages.
     The scope of my survey was limited to gender. If someone counted the representation on the basis of race, for example, the results would be sobering in a different way.
     In glancing through the annual editions, it’s impossible to ignore the dominance of certain publications from which the selections have been culled. In 1994 nearly half of Tracy Kidder’s twenty-one essays (15:6) came from the New Yorker (six) or Harper’s (four). In 1996, Geoffrey C. Ward picked twenty-two essays (17:5); almost half had been published in the New Yorker or Esquire. Is there a correlation between the slim number of women and the magazines Ward favored? The New Yorker and Esquire do feature a male-ish roster of authors.
     By contrast, in 2006 Lauren Slater included eight women in her group of twenty essayists, and the journals she selected from were more varied—The Sun, Elle, Creative Nonfiction, American Scholar, Crab Orchard Review, Southwest Review, Black Clock, and so on. She didn’t ignore the New Yorker, but she didn’t bronze it. Mary Oliver in 2009 is notable for picking nothing from that magazine or from Harper’s. Like Danticat, Oliver cast her net widely: Orion, The Sun, Iowa Review, Mid-American Review, Literary Review, Public Space, Ecotone, AARP Magazine, the list goes on. I think we have discovered a correlation.
     How conscious are selectors about their criteria? Did Danticat set out to reverse the ratio between male and female essayists? Did Oliver deliberately ignore the alpha dogs, or did her own predilections as a writer draw her to subjects and styles found in other publications? How cognizant was Ward of where half his essays originated?
     There’s another question I haven’t asked so far: what was the makeup of the pool of essays forwarded to the editor for consideration? Surveying all the BAE volumes is beyond the scope of my inquiry (Just ascertaining the gender of all the listed writers in one volume proved daunting. Who knew how many Jesse’s wrote notable essays or how many women favor using initials), but I did carry out a count of three: the “Notable Essays” for 1993 (Epstein) totaled 133, 102 men and 31 women. In 2011 (Danticat), there were 262 notables, 146 men and 116 women; by 2013 (Strayed), there were 420, among them 228 men and 192 women. Adding to these numbers the essays reprinted in the issue (since they were part of the original pool), I calculate the prospective best essayists in 1993 at 23 percent women, in 2011 at 45 percent women, and in 2013, again at 45 percent women. Epstein’s ratio of 17:5 (22 percent women) now looks more respectable. If we violate all rules of statistical inference and draw a trend line based on our three datapoints, we can conclude that women are now more evenly represented among essayists, and that the number of essays published, and thus of notable essays, has jumped, testifying to the popularity of the form.
     I’ll hazard a hypothesis: more representation of women, and of varied venues, requires conscious principles applied throughout the process, even before the BAE volume itself, beginning with the journals where the essays first appear.

3. Spectrum

Now we reach the year 2013, overseen by Cheryl Strayed. She selected twenty-six essays, the most of any BAE volume, ten written by women. 16:10. She did not select markedly experimental pieces, nor flash essays, two robust developments in current essaying. The shortest works are Brian Doyle’s “His Last Game” and Megan Stielstra’s “Channel B,” though neither is concise enough for, say, the online venue Brevity, which specializes in pieces under 750 words. (Nothing from Brevity has been selected for the BAE as yet, and that in itself is an interesting subject.) Nor is Strayed engaged with postmodern debates about the unreliability of the subject, the “I.” She’s not worried about Foucault’s question, “What is an author?” but implicitly concerned with “the autobiographical pact,” as Philippe Lejeune formulated the author’s promise, no matter what sort of thing an author is. That is, the maker of autobiographical writing undertakes a good-faith relationship with the reader and stands behind the authenticity and truth of her writing—that is, if we switch genders, “truth / defined as a man standing by his word.” [1]
     Strayed is notable for the range of sources in her volume, which is perhaps greater than that of any other BAE editor. She covers a spectrum of publications in all their wild variety, from standard-bearers like the New Yorker, Harper’s, GQ, and Paris Review to the well-known literary journals River Teeth, The Sun, New England Review, Gettysburg Review, Granta, Missouri Review, Prairie Schooner, Ploughshares, Southwest Review, Normal School, and Hotel Amerika, and on to some relative newcomers. Strayed is expansive in her judgments—with one arm she embraces a seasoned pro like Alice Munro and with the other welcomes a newcomer like Vicki Weiqi Yang in South Loop Review, a little-known literary journal that has since gone defunct. She is sweeping in her tastes, giving us rapid glimpses of the terrain, like Camilla in Virgil or Pope. Rather than immersing us in the New Yorker style, she guides us across a literary region that she herself has constructed.
     Her iteration of the BAE is not organized alphabetically, a departure from previous volumes. One feels the book being created, with a particular experience curated for the reader who follows along. The hand of authoring was behind the arrangement, as Strayed explains:
I found it powerful to read certain essays one after the other (even though I know not all people read anthologies from front to back). Yours [“The Art of Being Born”], for example, was very consciously placed to come after “Triage,” which culminates in the narrator imagining a dying solder back in his mother’s womb.... I hoped the reader would experience that link, which for me deepens each essay in ways that I find quite moving. 
Pairings were not always so tightly linked...but here are a few other essay pairs: The rambling road life discussed in Schmitt and Veselka’s essays. Race and racism in Vollmer and Kelley’s essays. Emotional fragility and psychological struggle in Sampsell and Pollack’s essays.   
Vibe also mattered. I chose Ballantine’s essay for the opener just because it struck the right tone for the collection. It set us down the right path, so to speak. [2]
     Strayed also dramatically departed from previous editors in how she thinks about the nature of the essay today. She tapped into online publications—The Rumpus, McSweeney’s, Salon, Hobart—that are enlarging the scope of the form, opening doors for everyone, particularly for women and writers of color. Strayed embraces the democratization of the essay. Not long ago Lorraine Berry in The Guardian claimed that “American women are leading a rebirth of Montaigne’s venerable form online.” Strayed is no stranger to the reach of the online essay, having reinvented the advice column in her “Dear Sugar” series at The Rumpus. Strayed pumped new life into the familiar format by using it to launch personal essays in the form of an epistle to a particular reader. In response to a correspondent asking for advice, Strayed told a story about herself in hopes that it would illuminate a larger truth for the readers of the column. She thereby created a collaborative personal medium from the ashes of the syndicated advice column, and readers loved it. It is no coincidence that “Dear Sugar” appeared at The Rumpus, a free site. Roxane Gay, onetime essay editor of The Rumpus, has also built a mighty audience by contributing essays to online publications, among them HTMLGIANT and Salon.
     Strayed’s version of the BAE is the first to embrace the revolution in publishing essays online. It’s no longer possible to ignore such work. If we do, we settle for an incomplete picture of the state of the form. Online essays do not supplant the more traditional print venues in Strayed’s curation, but take their place alongside them, suggesting the literary essay is multivocal, innovative, and hospitable to change.

4. Shall I tell you, then, how it is?
—D. H. Lawrence

It matters to me. There’s a start.
     Regardless of the outward actions—the outward action isn’t the main thing at all—the main thing for Strayed is the “subterranean, emotional world,” getting to what matters to the writer. The writer may not know why it matters to her or how, and so she writes to find out why, or how it has come to pass that she cares. She doesn’t know what she feels, and so she writes. She has to believe that what matters to her will matter to someone else, though she doesn’t know this when she begins. And if she stops, full stops, to ask whether anyone else will care, will follow her on her path, she runs into self-doubt. Who is she, after all? Isn’t she a nobody?
     So it was when I was writing the essay Strayed selected for BAE 2013, “The Art of Being Born.” Why would anyone care about my birth or the birth of my daughter? I’m not a somebody, not a king or army captain with death on his hands. I am no statesman, haven’t invented a cure. I’m Shakespeare’s sister without a famous brother, more likely to be found at the side of the road than have roads named after me. Who would care about my origins, how I began or the story I tell my daughter about her birth? Birth is as common as dirt, as common as death. Bah to my matrilineage, this story of rewriting an old script—that’s blah!
     But this stopping, this lifting up of one’s head to ask whether what matters to me matters to anyone else must be worked through. If it isn’t, then silence. The working through, the doing battle with one’s place in the world, one’s voice, becomes part of the essay, the base line thrumming below what the essay is about. Some writers step out of the essay, an article of clothing that constricts the free movement of the body it wraps. Such writers stop to comment on the proceedings. I’m thinking of Jamaica Kincaid, David Foster Wallace, Ander Monson, Ryan Van Meter. They don’t fear this personal thing, but they want to lift the curtain on the writing itself, to show the reader who’s hitting the keys, saying her lines. That is one form of the art of being born.
     There are other writers who are happy to remain clothed in a known narrative form, because it is right for the formal ball or summer beach where their story takes place.
     It seems that filling in all the points on the spectrum of the essay as it is being currently written, from the research-based to the experimental lyric, was not Strayed’s agenda. Her only criterion for an essay was that she “loved it”: “I made no attempt to represent a range in style or form. I loved what I loved. While it’s true I’m inclined toward the memoir-style personal essays that are richly represented in the collection, I love literary journalism and lyric essays and such, but it so happened that the year I was editing the collection I didn’t love much in those categories.” [3]
     Regardless of the ways this personal thing may manifest itself, this saying how it is, confiding is what compels Strayed the most. I’ll give her the last word: “When you’re speaking in the truest, most intimate voice about your life, you are speaking with the universal voice.”

[1] Allen Ginsberg, “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” in Collected Poems, 1947–1980 (New York: Harper & Row, 1984). Ginsberg is following up on Ezra Pound’s interpretation of the Chinese ideogram.

[2Email to the author, November 16, 2015.

[3] Email to the author, November 16, 2015.


Marcia Aldrich is the author of the free memoir Girl Rearing, published by W.W. Norton and part of the Barnes and Noble Discover New Writers Series. She has been the editor of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. Companion to An Untold Story won the AWP Award in Creative Nonfiction. Her essays have appeared in The Best American Essays. She is at work on Haze, a narrative of marriage and divorce during her college years. She is editing Waveform: Twenty-First-Century Essays by Women. 

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