Riding the Wave: Marcia Aldrich on diversifying the CNF anthology
“You’ll need to choose a textbook,” she said, slamming down the fat stack of options on her desk.
“Can I assign PDFs?” I asked.
She scrunched her face in skepticism, and I understood my question was entering an uncomfortable grey area. And I get it. There are lots of reasons why asking students to purchase a physical book is a good idea—it supports the anthology market, and encourages students to read beyond the scope of whatever’s assigned in class. So I scoured countless tables of contents for the essays I wanted to teach, finding less than fifty percent of the writers on my list—and this was if I chose to assign my students multiple books. I ended up reading every anthology I could get my hands on, weighing the pros and cons of each. I compromised by choosing Lex Williford and Michael Martone’s Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Nonfiction. I don’t love it, but Touchstone housed essays by more than four writers on my list, and I supposed that new students could benefit from knowing some of the bigger names in the genre. I filled out the rest of my curriculum with readings from the big blue book along with (I admit) a few supplements. It certainly does the job, but, at least in my mind, it’s far from ideal.
I realize I speak from a place of limited teaching experience, but as a person who has read and researched a vast quantity of essay collections in the last six months, I feel justified in voicing my concerns about the creative nonfiction anthology in its current state. The first is age. Most anthologies focus on the history of the genre, or claim to be “contemporary” while still including essays written forty or fifty years ago. Even the newest essays in Touchstone are now nearing a decade old. Not to say that the writings of folks like Thoreau, E. B. White, or Edward Hoagland aren’t important, or necessary—only that these works have already been anthologized multiple times and, one could reasonably argue, no longer speak (directly, anyway) to the questions of our time. Besides, whole university classes are devoted to the study of Montaigne and of the great (mostly white and male) writers of the 20th century. What I really want is an anthology that properly defines the genre as it currently is, not as it was ten, twenty, or even a century ago. I want students to leave my classroom seeing the essay as conduit to an ongoing conversation in which they themselves can take active part.
The ethos of the essay is like that old adage about the rolling stone; the essay is constantly in motion, in flux—so much so that’s if often difficult to pin down what exactly that is in the present moment. The Best American series does a decent job of encapsulating the spirit of the essay in a given year, but by necessity excludes essays published in books. The narrative essay, too, is typically prioritized over other forms in these collections, rendering most anthologies less than ideal for exposing a class to the range of what the essay can do.
Don’t get me wrong—I love my well-worn 1995 edition of Lopate’s Art of the Personal Essay, which is itself proof that an anthology is simultaneously emblematic of a time and also timeless. I value my copies of Oates, D’Agata, and yes, even Touchstone—they’re excellent anthologies. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t important work still to be done. The general lack of diversity in the voices represented in the creative nonfiction anthology—more than fifty percent of the authors represented are white and male in each of the collections above—is shocking. We anthologize few women, even fewer writers of color, and there’s simply no getting around that fact. We can, and should, do better.
Luckily, many writers share these same concerns. Enter Marcia Aldrich, former editor of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, accomplished essayist, and author of two books, Girl Rearing and Companion to an Untold Story—winner of the 2011 Associated Writers and Writing Programs Award in creative nonfiction. Aldrich is the curator of a new anthology of female voices, which seeks to address these issues. It’s called Waveform, and it looks awesome. —Zoë Bossiere
Zoë Bossiere: So Marcia, let’s start with you. Tell me a little about yourself as the editor of Waveform.
Marcia Aldrich: Sure. Being an editor has always played an intermittent role in my writing career, but it wasn’t until I had the opportunity to take on the editorship of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction that editing became a major component of my daily life, part of my identity and vocation. As editor, I read hundreds of submissions and was responsible for the shape and content of the issues. My concern then was to make sure that the issues represented as much diversity as was possible based on the submissions we received. I didn’t want to create issues that shared the same thematic concerns or formal ideas about the shape of the essay. I wanted to avoid sameness; I wanted range.
It didn’t take long to see that Fourth Genre, and creative nonfiction in general, attracted a great number of women writers and many of them were under-recognized. I was consistently impressed by the quality of writing I received, and especially impressed by the level of writing from women, though I hasten to add I was anxious about how few submissions from writers of color, both men and women, we received.
ZB: What inspired you to compile a collection of women’s essays?
MA: Well, my editorship at Fourth Genre coincided with the rise of VIDA, a non-profit feminist organization committed to creating transparency around the lack of gender parity in the literary landscape, which has since evolved to expand its focus to race, sexual identity, and disability as well. In 2010, VIDA found that The New York Review of Books covered 306 titles by men but only 59 by women. Spurred by the VIDA Count, we at Fourth Genre did our own count and found that we had always, from our inception, been a welcoming place for women nonfiction writers and were bucking the larger trends of disparity reported in the VIDA Count.
During my career, men have dominated the field at every level—as editors, reviewers, educators, and as published writers and award winners. There are so many articles documenting this domination that I wouldn’t know where to begin citing them. My idea that something needed to be done to shine a light on the wealth of women nonfiction writers originated back in 2010. Women writers needed to become editor-activists. I remember having conversations with several women nonfiction writers about the lack of an anthology of contemporary women writers of nonfiction. We would all shake our head and agree that such a collection should exist, but because of my full-time job as editor, teacher, and writer, the time then wasn’t right for me to take on such a project.
ZB: When did you decide it was the right time?
MA: The idea for Waveform began in the fall of 2015 through my conversations with Jill Talbot, a wonderful essayist and memoirist and general thinker and practitioner of creative nonfiction. In the course of our exchanges it emerged that we both thought it was time, more than time, for a collection to be published of contemporary women essayists, and we decided to take on the project together. We wanted to create an anthology of contemporary women essayists that emphasized their innovations in writing. We saw the anthology as a corrective to some existing anthologies that are organized by subject, especially by women’s experiences. We believed that those experiences and themes, that content, would still be there in the writing we chose, but that it was time for an anthology that pointed to and celebrated the formal accomplishments of women essayists.
ZB: I feel like I’m constantly reading great new work by female essayists. How did you decide who to include in the collection?
MA: Jill and I began by mapping out the range of essays we were reading in the field, creating a spectrum of types of essays. We wanted variety, to give a taste of some of the manifestations of the essay we were seeing: lyric essays, narrative essays, hybrids of research and personal essay, memoir, flash essays, immersion journalism, segmented, advice column as personal essay, graphic, meditative, the list essay. The categories themselves felt almost limiting, but these gave us a rough grid to make sure we weren’t falling into a pattern of sameness.
Then we came up with a big list of writers to invite to submit. Some of them turned us down for all sorts of reasons which was disappointing, and others submitted. And here was the hard thing—we had to refuse essays we had invited. We rejected essays for the usual variety of reasons; mainly we received too many essays of the same sort. This happened at Fourth Genre, where we’d receive four essays about wrestling in the same month and they were all good in their own way but we could only publish one essay on wrestling. Our guiding principle in composing the anthology was quality and range, trying to give a sense of the richness of the essay as women were writing them. In the end we had a fully fleshed out proposal and the beginnings of a table of contents that featured mostly new essays. Some of the writers we hoped to include were willing to let us reprint one of their essays, and so we began to fill out the contents with a few important reprints. Then we began submitting our proposal, coinciding roughly with the AWP annual meeting in Minneapolis.
There, I approached many editors and agents, emphasizing how Waveform championed women who were shaping the landscape of the essay. To differentiate my conception, I pointed out Wendy Martin’s The Beacon Book of Essays by Contemporary Women, published in 1996 and a landmark precursor of sorts, which offers a thematic approach with sections such as “Generations: Essays on the Family,” “Inside Passages: Essays on Self-Identity,” “Breaking the Silence: Women confront Repression and Violence,” “Women’s Bodies, Women’s Choices.” Wendy Martin, the editor, had an intent very different than mine—she compiled essays around themes that represented women’s experiences since 1945. In other words, she was much more attuned to the experiences represented than the form or development of the essay itself. I wanted to depart from a thematic or subject driven approach and instead highlight the way writers interact with subject through elements such as style, voice, tone, and structure, and allow the subjects to fall where they fall.
When I began working on Waveform, I thought the project would be commercially viable because of the roster of writers and the recent attention to the rise of female essayists. However, the responses I received from commercial presses, while phrased slightly differently, were all concerned about the marketability of such a book. The absence of a thematic hook, namely “women’s experiences” made the book not “readily marketable.” It didn’t have a “take” on being a woman other than being essays written by women essayists. Treating the women writers as writers and focusing on the diversity of narrative approaches was viewed as a hindrance to sales rather than a strength.
It was around this time that Jill unfortunately had to drop out of the time-consuming project. I resolved to go forward with the book since I had returned from AWP favorably impressed with University of Georgia Press, especially the director, Lisa Bayer, who was enthusiastic about the need for such a collection and understood, supported, and was genuinely excited about my approach. We both felt a responsibility to create an anthology that delivered on diversity. Even so, I want to note that Waveform presents some of the women who are shaping the essay today. By necessity only a relatively small number of contributors could be included.
ZB: I’m intrigued by what you’ve said about Waveform subverting what most people might expect a collection of essays written by women to look like, and refusing to be centered around "thematic female experience.” With that in mind, how little or how much does feminism factor into this collection in terms of ideology or subject matter?
MA: Feminism as activism has played a major role in my motivation to put this collection together and undergo the long labor of bringing it to realization. Feminism strives for equality of opportunity and treatment. We do not live in a genderless world. The position on the page, the caps and bold designation of this headline from the summer Olympics captures the power dynamics that are still in force in gender relations:
IN 100 FLY
Ledecky sets world recordIn the fall of 2015 I undertook an informal survey of The Best American Essays series to ascertain the count of men to women selected for inclusion. The worst ratio fell to the year 2002 when Stephen Jay Gould was the judge: of the 24 essays selected only 4 were written by women. Those numbers were not as unusual as you might think. Edwidge Danticat stands alone in the whole series in selecting 13 essays by women out of 24.
in women’s 800 freestyle
To be conscious of gender is to be a feminist. Women writers are still under-studied, under-represented, and under-recognized. The making of Waveform grows out of my wanting to do something about that imbalance. However, the workings of feminism in Waveform do not dictate subject matter. I wasn’t interested in publishing essays whose content fit gender norms and expectations, to tell a particular story. I was motivated to put this collection together to assert that women essayists aren’t just blending into a male-shaped tradition—they are actively defining the landscape of the essay in our time.
ZB: So in light of all that women have contributed to the genre, both historically and in recent years, why do you think a contemporary anthology of women essayists like this one hasn’t been available until now?
MA: That’s a very good question and I can only speculate about some of the factors to explain why a book like Waveform wasn’t published sooner. I think it has to do with the relative newness of the genre’s popularity and how long it takes to build a readership. Perhaps there hasn’t been sufficient momentum to publish a more specialized anthology like Waveform.
I remember the excitement in 2007 when the Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: Work from 1970 to Present came out. For many of us essayists its appearance solidified the sense that creative nonfiction was becoming more popular. It also gave us a less expensive alternative textbook that didn’t cover the history of the essay but focused on contemporary manifestations.
While I was assembling Waveform, I heard from multiple writing instructors that, as much as they liked and used Touchstone, they regretted that the collection did not include enough diversity in its selection of writers, and they had to supplement its offerings. And I concur. I would say that even in the ten years since Touchstone appeared, writers as well as readers have become pro-active in demanding that our publications be more representative. And I think that’s a good thing.
ZB: It’s an unfortunate truth of the industry that anthologies, even good, necessary anthologies, are notoriously difficult to market. How would you say Waveform fits into the current spectrum of nonfiction anthology offerings?
MA: The AWP lists more than eight hundred graduate and undergraduate writing programs, and that doesn’t include the range of creative nonfiction courses that might fall outside the domain of a program. Many of these writing programs offer classes in creative nonfiction, tracks and specializations, and they publish literary journals which include creative nonfiction. The addition of creative nonfiction is a fairly recent development, but over the last 25 years creative nonfiction programs have been the fastest growing of all graduate writing programs.
Matching the growth in programs and classes, there has been a burst of publishing interest in all areas of creative nonfiction, from literary journals adding creative nonfiction to their roster, to the rise of Brevity, the online journal specializing in nonfiction under 750 words, to journals like Fourth Genre, River Teeth, Creative Nonfiction, and Under the Sun. The birth of Essay Daily is another marker in the widening of interest in the genre, a sign that people don’t just want outlets for their own essays but want to read about developments in the essay. Online journals like The Rumpus and Guernica, to name just two of a burgeoning group, have given writers new opportunities for publishing essays, many with special interests such as the environment or place or women.
The publishing world has been catching up to the interest in all forms of creative nonfiction. There are several nonfiction anthologies that highlight the diverse range of the essay but do not focus on gender. These anthologies attest to the enthusiasm for creative nonfiction and the market demand to provide more diverse teaching materials in the classroom. It’s as if the place of the essay has been secured and now we can focus on more specialized points of entry, such as the use of the second person, hybridization, or our debt to Montaigne. What has been missing is an anthology focusing on the contemporary essay written by women. What has been missing is Waveform.
ZB: Your anthology comes to us on the cusp of the new year, rising from the ashes of 2016, one of the most fraught and violent years in recent history. What makes now a particularly pertinent time for a collection like Waveform, of female essayists?
MA: To quote Natalie Shapero of The Kenyon Review:
The literary essay is having, as they say, a moment. Here at Kenyon Review, the number of nonfiction submissions we receive each year has been steadily on the rise and I suspect that other journals would report the same. With that increasingly large pool of submissions, we’re also seeing a trend toward formal adventurousness, with many essayists shrugging off linear structures to play around with associative leaping, lyricism, and lists.Shapero identifies two important features of the essay in the current moment: the ascendancy of the essay and the rise of stylistic innovation. But I’d add a third important feature to Shapero’s list—the rise of the female essayist. In review essays, editors and writers are singling out the arrival of women essayists and identifying the hallmark of the form: its versatility and range. It is, on one hand, short-sighted to speak of the arrival of women essayists since women have been writing essays brilliantly for a long time, but it is true that attention is being paid now to what women are currently creating in the form.
In October of 2014, The New York Times posed a question: “Is This a Golden Age for Women Essayists?” In her answer, Cheryl Strayed noted, “Essayists who happen to be women are having a banner year.” And it continues. Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams and Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist have been listed on The New York Times paperback nonfiction bestseller list. And let’s not forget the impact of Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling memoir, Wild. Meghan Daum’s Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion was the winner of the 2015 PEN Center USA Literary Award in Creative Nonfiction. Margo Jefferson won the 2016 National Book Critics Circle Award for Negroland. I’m limiting myself here to naming a few writers I was lucky enough to include in Waveform, but I could go on and on listing the recent accomplishments of women essayists, culminating in the Nobel Prize awarded to the nonfiction writer Svetlana Alexievich.
This conversation, this cultural moment, is an important one, and one that requires our effort to bring attention to the extraordinary writing being done by women. There is work to be done. Still. And one of the best ways to bridge the gap is to shape the literary conversation through writing and through editing.
ZB: Other than commercial success, what are your hopes for the book? For its readers?
MA: Well, let me first say that I do hope that readers will find Waveform and that it will have an impact upon the way we think about the contemporary essay. It’s daunting to publish a book, and even more daunting without the publicity machine of a commercial press behind it. It’s very hard to get the word out, to garner reviews, to build interest. I am grateful for all the help I can get in bringing Waveform to a larger audience. I am especially hopeful that it will be an attractive choice for course adoption.
I am an avid reader of The Best American Essays. I look forward to its appearance each year and I’ve used various volumes in my classes. But as much as I admire the collection, I almost always lament the lack of stylistically innovative work, work that I routinely find in the literary journals I read. As fine as the selected essays are, they often fall within a traditional and recognizable style. With Waveform I wanted to gather a more representative group of essays that span the spectrum of what we’re encountering in the field. I wanted to depart from a thematic or subject-driven approach and instead highlight the way particular writers interact with subject and circumstance through writerly elements such as style, voice, tone, structure, allusion (all the fun stuff) and allow the subjects to fall where they fall, and, I might add, to surprise the reader.
Being a woman cannot be checked at the door. I felt certain that without scripting a subject matter for the anthology, the writers would give us much to ponder about what it is like being a woman in the twenty-first century. I am proud of the fact that women weren’t obligated to foreground gender, to directly address issues about being a woman. If they do, it is because that is where their interests lie. Women are writing as writers, and yet I also want to claim that imbalance in publishing exists and that these women essayists deserve more recognition than they’ve received. Waveform is a showcase not just for the justifiably prize-winning writers but for the less known writers as well.
One purpose of the project is to highlight experimental and traditional work by women essayists—that is, to celebrate the essay in as many forms as the book could publish. Some readers will gravitate to the essays that follow traditional arcs of narrative pleasure; some will prefer the essays that purposefully play with various kinds of narrative form. Some of the essays are even rather hard to classify, like Sonja Livingston’s “Light, from Faraway Places.” I wanted a book organized around the fluidity of forms and representing the range of the kinds of essays we are encountering in the contemporary essay landscape. I hope readers will gain a more nuanced appreciation of the essay as it is being written today by women.
ZB: Well said. Thank you. One last question: Why Waveform as the title?
MA: I chose Waveform because it suggested the larger movement of many women bringing essays into being, building on the energy and daring of other writers, adding their writing to what is bigger than any one writer, to any one manifestation of the essay. By necessity only a finite number of contributors could be included, but behind and beside each woman included there are many more equally deserving writers. All deserve a wide readership.
Marcia Aldrich is the author of the free memoir Girl Rearing, published by W.W. Norton. She has been the editor of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. Companion to an Untold Story won the AWP Award in Creative Nonfiction. She is at work on Haze, a narrative of marriage and divorce during her college years. She is the editor of Waveform: Twenty-First-Century Essays by Women published by The University of Georgia Press.
Zoë Bossiere is a student at Oregon State University, where she teaches intro writing courses and serves as Editor in Chief of 45th Parallel. She is currently essaying her parents' adventures in the 1984 Hungarian traveling circus. More here and here.