In the early 1990’s, I was taking a series of theory classes and writing workshops in a Creative Writing MFA program. I was halfway through the program when the woman who’d taught the graduate workshop in the essay announced that next semester she’d be retiring.
A piece of me saw this as an opportunity to pursue in more depth a form that had, for the last few years, become more and more attractive to me. Yet I was a bit apprehensive. After all, I was, back then, more of a curious student of the form than I was a qualified expert.
So, I asked the woman who was retiring if she’d recommend some books, articles, or examples—anything she believed that might be a good match for the class. And her recommendation was the 1991 volume of Best American Essays.
As it would turn out, teaching that graduate workshop and using the 1991 volume of Best American Essays were starting points for what is not only my ongoing love affair with the essay, but also my fascination with the genre we’re now calling creative/literary nonfiction.
Naturally, in preparation for the workshop, I read through the entire volume. In his foreword, series founder and editor, Robert Atwan, describes the essay as “the perfect vehicle for experiments in self-discovery”—something I’d sensed when I was teaching and writing personal essays back in my Composition days.
Another thing I learned from that foreword—to my surprise and delight—was that the personal essay is but one form in a more wide-ranging, all-inclusive, spectrum.
Atwan goes on to say that this edition “shows how many talented contemporary writers are still attracted to the theme of America’s diversity...[a] topic...closely tied to the personal essay,” and that the writers in this volume “explore in autobiography and memoir the complicated interrelations of heritage, background, and individual identity.”
It all made sense to me. Until this point, I hadn’t heard these things phrased in just that way before. Finally, in his brief overview of the volume’s writers and essays, Atwan says, “ this year’s collection ranges over a wide territory of cultural realms and geographical regions, of voices and tones…. The volume ranges, too, over an exciting diversity of essay forms…. reflections and meditation, philosophical fragments, personal narratives and anecdotes, cultural critiques and passionate arguments.”
These essays, remember, were written some twenty-five years ago; and yet, Atwan’s depiction of the edition’s contents was, in some ways, a prophecy of things to come. I couldn’t have anticipated it back then, but when I revisited his foreword last week, it read like a description of the current landscape of creative/literary nonfiction.
To which, I’ll add, that Joyce Carol Oates’s introduction reinforces and builds on what Robert Atwan had said about the essay’s scope and range.
I admit I was surprised to learn that Joyce Carol Oates was the guest editor for this volume. At the time, I’d known her as primarily a fiction writer. But it turns out that she’s an avid, informed, scholar of the essay. Along with a thumbnail history of the genre, some commentary on “the essay voice,” first-person narratives in general, Oates offers a handful of comparisons with autobiographical fiction and contemporary fiction writers.
But Oates’s main intent in this introduction is to comment and reflect on the matter of the essay “as a genre, clear and distinct from all other genres.”
To that end, she provides a short overview and some examples of the ways in which the genre has shifted over time. In addition, Oates cites examples from contemporary (remember this is 1991) essayists, as well as providing comments from a few well-known critics and scholars of the form.
What I found particularly interesting was her response to E. B. White’s comment about the essay being a “second-rate genre.” (a tongue-in-cheek comment, I believe). Here Oates establishes her stance on/about the essay. She writes, “There are no second-rate genres, only second rate practitioners”—a position I’ve always agreed with myself.
Echoing Robert Atwan’s sentiments, Oates informs us that she’s chosen the essays in this volume “…. in part, to represent the diversity of voices that now constitute the American literary community….”
She goes on to say that these essays “have been written out of a sense of urgency, both personal and cultural: there’s no questioning their authenticity, thus their power.”
In addition to which she adds her belief that the writings are distinguished by “humor...moments of clarity, beauty, epiphany, transcendence...but the dominant mode is urgency...anger, pity, moral outrage” that she says “read like cries from the heart.”
Toward the end of her introduction, in the paragraph below, Oates brings her previous comments and opinions on/about the essay together:
These excellent essays…seem...linked by a common tone of urgency, even tension, however diverse their voices. Most of them provide news, facts, information...but unlike journalism...the essays transcend their data, or transmute into personal meaning. The memorable essay, unlike the article, is not place-or time-bound; it survives the occasion of it’s original composition. Indeed, in the most brilliant essays, language is not merely the medium of communication, it is communication.This is, to my mind, a respectful description and an enthusiastic endorsement of the essay (at its best) as a legitimate form of literature—something all writers of creative/literary nonfiction aspire to. And I think it’s a truthful claim to say that, today, many essays and writers have achieved that status. Still, I want to remind readers that in the early 1990s, the genre was considered to be a literary stepchild of sorts.
For a neophyte like me then, Best American Essays 1991 was a revelation. And as I’ve said, that volume fostered in me a deeper appreciation for a genre I’d always been curious to know more about. And, as it would turn out, offered me some much appreciated incentive (and hope) as well.
Oates closes her introduction with these words: “I was determined to include as many new and emerging writers as possible;” she writes, “at the same time, I was determined not to omit an important essay because its author happened to be well known. “
And the passage, perhaps, that started me thinking even more seriously about the prospect of teaching and writing essays, is the following: “I was determined to choose essays from a variety of magazines; at the same time, it seemed wrong to discriminate against Harper’s and The Georgia Review simply because, of American magazines of our time, they happen to publish the most essays of quality, frequently in a single issue.”
True to her promise, the authors Oates chose for this volume were a mix of “name” and emerging writers, for example: John Updike, Margaret Atwood, Amy Tan, Mario Vargas Llosa, and even Woody Allen are among the more well-recognized writers, along with emerging writers, such as Judith Ortiz Cofer, Richard Rodriguez, Garrett Hongo, Diana Hume George, Reg Saner, and others.
When I finished reading all of the essays, just out of curiosity, I turned to the volume’s back page listings where I found the “Notable Essays of 1990” selected by Robert Atwan. What struck me were the number of writers working in the form (and these were only the chosen 100 notables), and the number and high quality of the journals that were publishing essays.
Another valuable discovery, as it would turn out.
In both the volume’s table of contents and the “notables,” a good many, I noted, were “name” writers—mostly poets and fiction writers, I might add—while many of the writers listed in “notables” section were names I’d never heard of.
And, as expected, the majority of the works Oates chose for the volume had originally appeared in well-regarded trade magazines, reviews, and journals like The New York Review of Books, The American Scholar, New Yorker, Atlantic, Harper’s, Gentleman’s Quarterly, and Esquire—magazines, in other words, that the likes of me had no chance of getting into.
Yet, in the “notables,” along with the literary journals I was familiar with, I came across dozens of small literary magazines and reviews—publications I never knew existed. This discovery, over time, opened up a world of possibilities. I can still, in fact, recall thinking that many were first-rate literary journals, magazines that, at some point, I might consider submitting my work to.
Clearly then, there were others at that time who’d been thinking some of those same things. Because within three years, creative/literary nonfiction had begun to attract more serious and widespread attention. Literary anthologies and highly regarded literary journals were beginning to publish several essays and memoirs per edition.
In 1994, my own literary/creative nonfiction (a personal essay/memoir) won a major literary prize. And three years later, a co-edited anthology I did with Bob Root, The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction went into the first of six editions. And just by happenstance, also in 1997, the unusual circumstances that led to what would become the literary journal Fourth Genre came about.
I was teaching a graduate class in the essay at Michigan State. Most of the readings I chose—personal essays, memoirs, and works of literary journalism and personal/cultural criticism—were from the soon-to-be-published anthology I just referred to above.
During the last week, a woman who’d audited the class introduced herself as the journals editor for the Michigan State University Press. An aspiring writer herself, she’d never written or read the kind of literary nonfiction I’d assigned. She was, she said, so taken by the readings and so energized by her own writing that she’d done some research into the genre, the result of which was that she’d found only one journal, Lee Gutkind’s Creative Nonfiction, that published the kind of work we’d studied in class.
When the class ended, she urged me to write a proposal to the director of the Michigan State University Press in which I’d describe the current surge of attention the genre was receiving, as well as point out the need for a second journal of literary/creative nonfiction. To my surprise, he accepted the proposal; and in 1999, two years later, Fourth Genre: Explorations In Nonfiction made its debut at the AWP national convention in Albany.
Joe Mackall and Dan Lehman’s River Teeth: A Journal of Narrative Nonfiction published its first issue three months later. And so, by the middle of 1999, there were three literary journals dedicated solely to works of creative/literary nonfiction. As of today, all three are still out there.
We all know what the landscape of literary/creative nonfiction looks like today: the wide-ranging diversity of works and writers, the growing number of blogs, online and print journals, writing contests, MFA programs, and small, independent presses that publish everything from experimental to traditional works of literary nonfiction.
And some of those “notable” writers who, back then, I’d never heard of, are now among my closest teaching and writing colleagues. Plus, some are considered to be amongst our very best writers of literary/creative nonfiction.
All that said, I feel most fortunate to have lived through and contributed to this evolution. Because way back in the early 90’s, whod’a thunk it would have happened this way?
Certainly not the likes of me.
Michael Steinberg is the founding editor of the literary journal Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. He’s written and co-authored five books and a stage play. In 2003-04, Still Pitching won the ForeWord Magazine /Independent Press Memoir of the Year. An anthology, The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction (with Robert Root) is in a sixth edition. Steinberg has presented workshops, craft talks and seminars at many colleges and universities as well as at international and national writers' conferences. Currently, he's the Nonfiction-Writer-in-Residence in the Solstice/Pine Manor College low residency MFA program.