Friday, February 26, 2010


Christopher Hitchens is going to edit Best American Essays next year.

Wait, what? Doesn't that seem odd?

Related, here are some people who have won awards for their essays, found on Google Image Search:

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Book-Length Essay

Ever since I finished D'Agata's About a Mountain, and I've been thinking about the book-length essay. Mainly, I've been wondering if such a thing exists.

About a Mountain reads like a series of well-linked essays (keeping the momentum of shorter work while tackling multiple, broad themes that seem wider in scope than what can be done in 20 pages), but I don't know if I can consider it an essay in and of itself. Another example of this is found in Eula Biss's The Balloonists, which reads like a 120 page braided, personal essay. With that said, there are bigger organization principles that amount to chapters, so would we call this a memoir, rather than personal essay? Is there a difference? Does it even matter?

I'm not making any real conclusions here, but I would like to try and generate some discussion here: How do we (or don't we) define the book-length essay? Other good examples out there?

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Sonora Review Double Issue: 55, 56, and DFW Tribute

Issue 55
Sean Lovelace- Nachos
Henry Ronan-Daniell- Regicide
Jennifer Schaller- My Father Was A Traveling Salesman

David Foster Wallace Tribute
Sven Birkerts- The Sentence
Marshall Boswell- Heading Westward
Greg Carlisle- Wallace's Infinite Fiction
Glenn Kenny- I Remember David Foster Wallace
Michael Martone- Footnotes & Endnotes

Issue 56
Riley Hannick- Microphonics
Riley Hannick- The Pradelles
Louis Alberto Urrea- Sonoran Desert Sutras

Just got my hands on
The Sonora Review double issue. I should start by noting the quantity/variety of nonfiction in the issue—we get the lyric, the memoiristic; we find explorations of form and ruminations on environment. The double issue has enough content that there's bound to be something that fits your aesthetic preferences (and the DFW Tribute section alone makes the issue worth a read).

However, the range also allows for a fair amount of hit and miss, highlighting the good and the bad of the contemporary essay. I'm going to hone in on two particular essays, Sean Lovelace's "Nachos" and Henry Ronan-Daniell's "Regicide," as they seem to be the journal's best examples of two different approaches to approaching personal subject matter.

"Nachos," in a way, highlights a lot of what I like in the contemporary essay. I'll start with movement: The terse, one/two sentence sections (paragraphs?) allows the writer to cover a lot of ground. He's able to jump between nachos, nacho lore, loss/grief, and escapism (whether beer or food or physical pain) without transition. These short sections also put a necessary weight on the individual sentence/phrases since they have to be able to stand on their own. Other than the form, Lovelace manages to look at personal anecdotes through the lens of the nacho, and in this way manages to alter our perception of both in a way I found extremely satisfying.

Alternatively, in "Regicide," Ronan-Daniell approaches a high-school memory (our narrator was elected prom king, but faculty called for a second election because they assumed it was a cruel joke) in a straightforward narrative style. I don't have a problem with the form, though I do believe that it can (and does, in this case) lead to some lazy storytelling/shaping. By that, I mean the narrator spends too much time in the present—reflecting on the past and not enough time putting together a story. For example, the essay spends a lot of time building the teenage-self as awkward/ugly/antisocial, and a section in the middle (stating "I'm not as ugly now as I was then," going on to ensure the reader that our narrator is now well-adjusted and normal) nullifies any stake I had in the essay: why should I care when the narrator essentially tells us that this story is inconsequential? The ending is similarly cringe-worthy. It ties the essay up too cleanly, reducing the essay to some two-bit aphorism.

A quick word on humor: both "Nachos" and "Regicide" use humor, but again the approach/frame shapes the overall effect. Lovelace's essay creates humor from surprising juxtaposition (in one early section, we jump from MTV to nacho preparation to whitetail deer hunting). Ronan-Daniell's essay gets humor out of self-deprecation, which feels too easy (who wasn't awkward/embarrassing as a teenager?) and somehow less effective. I'm trying to figure out why it doesn't work as well, and here's my best guess: the self-deprecation doesn't rely of timing, and a lot of the personal descriptions could be moved around within the essay without being more or less effective.

"Nachos" and "Regicide" are on different ends of the narrative spectrum, and the other essays in The Sonora Review have more of a mix of the two formats. Still, the essays that put their focus outside the self manage to be the most interesting and paradoxically personal.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


David Shields is interviewed over at BookSlut. It starts off with the interviewer talking about a box of galley copies being brought to a creative writing course. I saw a couple galley copies of this book while I was in Iowa, read a galley copy when I was on the West Coast, and borrowed another friend's galley copy in Chicago. And I have absolutely no connection to David Shields, which begs the question, how many galley copies were printed? And why? Isn't that kind of weird, that they were being distributed to writing classes and handed off to drunk people at bars and what-have-you? The book isn't even released yet and I feel like everyone's done reading and discussing it.

If I were going to write a manifesto about nonfiction I would say the only people allowed to use numbered sections anymore are zombie Pessoa and Olena Kalytiak Davis is she ever writes a book-length essay.

Monday, February 1, 2010

What the frack, Hayden's Ferry Review?

Zero (0, zilch) essays in your Fall 2009/Winter 2010 issue? I mean, it has some good fiction (or as your submissions guidelines page calls it, "prose" which to this reader encapsulates more than just fiction), and some quality poetry, but you couldn't find nothing nonfictiony? I suppose the Hong Hao images, "My Things No 5, 5000 Things I threw away in 2005" and "My Things Book keeping of 6c" might be considered to be essay, though it's a stretch. (They are pretty cool though: they have that documentary capacity that can fuel essay, but don't otherwise operate like essays). And they make a nice cover.

Feel the weight of this blog's collective displeasure from here. Let our scorn--rising like a spider, or possibly a spire--spur you to opening your doors a little wider next time.