Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Recent Reading - The Best American Essays

A coworker recommended The Best American Essays, compiled by Robert Atwan, to me.  I had a great time reading it.

  1. The essay is a distinct style.  The essay is nonfiction, yet all these essays had stylistic elements reminiscent of some of my favorite fiction books. Some were even poetic.
  2. This particular version is meant for studying.  It includes questions to consider after each work, and has a huge intro featuring past editors opining on the essential qualities of a "best" essay.
  3. There are some solid writers and writing here. Joyce Carol Oates, David Sedaris, and Michael Lewis, among others.
  4. There is amazing content. You get pieces where the controversy the writing will incite makes the book feel heavier in your hands.  You get passionate points of view that propel you to cheer on the author's cause, at least for the moment.

There are thousands of essay writing contests.  I'll try my hand at a couple before the year is over.  I talked about writing essays vs. writing fiction in my interview with Eric LeMay.

I'm still undecided which is a better strategy for a competitive writer - diversification (trying many styles, genres, etc.) or specification.  In other words, is it better to be a master at one thing, or competent in several? It may be a little more complicated than that because the various forms of writing are not mutually exclusive.  Learning to juggle will not help you grow better tomatoes.  However, writing flash/micro fiction could help you write a concise essay.  And lastly, writing is writing.  Certain things (sentence formation, cutting passive voice, vocabulary, etc.) transcend genre.   What do you think?

Back to the essays, I'll cover some of my favorites from this collection:

  1. The Inheritance of Tools by Scott Russell Sanders - My favorite thing about the warm, reflective piece was the utilization of language.
  2. A Lovely Sort of Lower Purpose by Ian Frazier - You can't help but enjoy a thesis about taking it easy.
  3. Lifelike by Susan Orlean - This one struck me by its ability to take something  relatively mundane and transform it into something worthy of the Smithsonian or maybe even the Louvre.
  4. An Orgy of Power by George Gessert- Here, I was spellbound, unable to put the book down until I read the last sentence.  The subject matter is harrowing.  Torture.  Yet, the approach was very gentle. Gessert brings us into his own inner turmoil in the piece, and as he oscillates through his reactions, we are able to process our own response to this dark side of humanity.
  5. Apocalypse Now by Edward O. Wilson - This one just struck a personal chord, as I have a fascination with religion/spirituality/and its antithesis. (See this post).  This was also an essay in the form of a letter, which made it particularly enjoyable to read. 

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