The twenty powerful essays in this volume are culled from periodicals ranging from The Sun to The New Yorker, from Crab Orchard Review to Vanity Fair. In "Missing Bellow," Scott Turow reflects on the death of an author he never met, but one who "overpowered me in a way no other writer had." Adam Gopnik confronts a different kind of death, that of his five-year-old daughter's pet fish -- a demise that churns up nothing less than "the problem of consciousness and the plotline of Hitchock's Vertigo."
A pet is center stage as well in Susan Orlean's witty and compassionate saga of a successful hunt for a stolen border collie. Poe Ballantine chronicles a raw-nerved pilgrimage in search of salvation, solace, and a pretty brunette, and Laurie Abraham, in "Kinsey and Me," journeys after the man who dared to plumb the mysteries of human desire. Marjorie Williams gives a harrowing yet luminous account of her life with cancer, and Michele Morano muses on the grammar of the subjunctive mood while proving that "in language, as in life, moods are complicated, but at least in language there are only two."
About the Author
ROBERT ATWAN has been the series editor of The Best American Essays since its inception in 1986. He has edited numerous literary anthologies and written essays and reviews for periodicals nationwide.
Read an Excerpt
Early on in my writing career I traveled to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. I dutifully lugged several short stories carefully typed on onionskin, the watermark visible when held to the slanting sunlight. I don’t recall the stories’ titles, but something about their spirit stays with me — fiction told in the voices of people on the periphery, a serial killer speaking from the shower, a foster child somewhere on a snowy road in Utah. At Bread Loaf, I expected a Published Writer would critique my work, a man with a gold pen and a pipe, a man who hunted geese, perhaps, drank ocher-colored alcohol from a crystal decanter, and knew something about how to sail.
Bread Loaf was a beautiful place filled, it seemed to me, with beautiful people, parties, poetry, and dances held in haylofts. I felt awkward there, put off in part by the nature of the pursuit — writing fiction — and in part by the culture that sprang from the pursuit. The famous writers at Bread Loaf knew they were celebrities in this small space, and after dinner they congregated in a special lounge reserved for them, a lounge we Little Leaguers could only peek inside, standing at the windows in the field, Queen Anne’s lace blowing hip-high and fragrant. Editors milled about the grounds, the smoky smell of their wood-paneled New York offices still clinging to their clothes.
I, of course, was determined to succeed, and spent my Bread Loaf days and many days thereafter laboring away on my Smith Corona, and then my first computer, words blinking up on the black screen and then daisy- wheeled into pale print. But whatever I wrote seemed wrong, seemed strained, seemed more intent on flashing its cleverness and gaining entry to the country club than on truly transcribing the content inside my admittedly mediocre head. My earliest attempts at fiction were rather tortured “show, don’t tell” affairs, all thought and feeling crammed into action and gesture, so my characters were constantly wringing their hands or tilting their heads, as though they had a chronic case of swimmer’s ear. The number one rule in those Bread Loaf days was to never, ever directly say what a character felt or thought. That was the stuff of expository writing, of college essays, the stuff of the middling masses who could hope to do not much more than pass their course in freshman comp.
The “show, don’t tell” rule that dominated the pedagogy of fiction back then, and perhaps still does, has given rise to some fantastic work, and it remains a useful guide to writing a certain kind of story. For me, as a fledgling writer, it was a bit of a disaster. I longed to be able just to say something straight, to be able to ask on paper the sorts of questions that consumed me then and still do today, questions such as: What is a moral stance? Can despair be redemptive? Is the urge to make meaning a misguided human coping mechanism that gives a false shape to our existence? How best to live? To die?
Eventually I gave up on fiction, gave up in frank despair because I simply could not find a way to explore these questions through character. This was years after Bread Loaf; I was twenty-five then, and when I set down my pen a silence entered my room, a silence in which I was forced to sit, and sweat, and wait, and watch. A year went by. I worked as a literacy instructor and spent my free time in the library of the Harvard Divinity School, a place that would be soothing even to the most troubled soul, the stacks crammed with books whose titles promised revelation. In those days I was reading William James, Thomas Merton, and Paul Tillich, drinking down the pages, propelled by an intellectual thirst that I have never felt quite so keenly again.
And it was during this long, slow slake that I found, one afternoon in 1988, walking home from the library, my first volume of The Best American Essays. I was peering in the window of WordsWorth Books on Brattle Street, and there it was, propped up in the window, a gray book, the color of weather- beaten wood, modest and unadorned. Essays. What was an essay? A long time ago I had read Virginia Woolf’s essays — The Death of the Moth, Three Guineas — and had been delighted by their thoughtful combination of imagery and exposition. One of my earliest writing memories, in fact, comes from the eighth grade, when I decided I would try to write a Woolfian type of composition. I don’t recall its particulars, only that it seemed incredible to me that one might write a piece, a polemic, that had all the strangeness of a story but was not a story.
Now, twenty-five years old, I sat down to read The Best American Essays and I was transported. The first piece I read was Elizabeth Hardwick’s “Thee Heart of the Seasons,” its language rapturous and vivid. The essay evoked time, heat, indolence, and grief through the sheer force of iiiiits imagery and voice. The essay was an artery connecting the mind of the reader with the writer, the writer bare and unpretentious, the writer without the veil of character, without the rouge and foundation that compose fiction, which is, when all is said and done, a game of dress-up. Hardwick’s essay, when I first read it, was the literary equivalent of skinny-dipping — I see you — and it made me feel found.
So it was that I picked up my pen again and began to write, began to write directly, honestly, began to converse, showing, telling, pausing, contradicting, setting the frayed contents of my mind down on plain paper to be plainly seen by anyone who cared to look. That doesn’t mean there isn’t art and artifice involved in the writing of an essay. But it does mean that the art is in revealing the voice of the writer, as opposed to trying to transform it to suit the requirements of a fictional character or narrator. Essay writing is not about facts, although the essay may contain facts. Essay writing is about transcribing the often convoluted process of thought, leaving your own brand of breadcrumbs in the forest so that those who want to can find their way to your door.
Essays, therefore, confuse people. They occupy a quirky place in the general genre of nonfiction, a place many people seem not to understand. It has been my experience that people not acquainted with the literary essay expect it to behave like an article or a piece of journalism. Journalism is a broad category unto itself, but it is probably finally defined by its mission to report to readers clear facts that have been thoroughly investigated and digested by the journalist. One does not expect to read a piece of journalism filled with tentative reflections or outright contradictions. However, essays thrive on these, because contradiction, paradox, and questioning best reflect the moving, morphing human mind, which is what the essayist wants to capture.
In 2004 I published a nonfiction book called Opening Skinner’s Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the Twentieth Century. I thought of each chapter as an essay, an inquiry into a psychological experiment and what it might mean for me during the brief time I came into contact with it. The first essay was about B. F. Skinner, who, I believed at first, had lost a daughter to suicide. I eventually found out that this was a myth: Deborah Skinner Buzan is alive, and the chapter reports this by quoting her sister to that effect. But the essay does not begin with this fact; rather, it traces my struggle to figure out the status of Deborah Skinner in body and in soul, and it emphasizes my doubts and questions along the way. If Deborah Skinner is indeed alive, I asked, then why has the myth persisted? And what does that say about B. F. Skinner in particular and behaviorism in general? My goal was to tussle with these questions and see what larger meaning might emerge from them.
When the book was published, Deborah Skinner reacted angrily. By my dwelling on the rumor that she had gone mad and killed herself, it seemed to her and others that I had injected the essay with false mystery. Deborah Skinner initiated a lawsuit, and soon thereafter I was cited in the press for negligent reporting. If I were a reporter, of course, my job would have been to contact and quote from my main source. But as an essayist, my interest was not in establishing the facts of a life but in mining the meaning, for me, of the questions that life had spawned. An essayist celebrates questions, loves the liminal, and feels that life is best lived between the may and the be of maybe.
So there was controversy surrounding the publication of Opening Skinner’s Box. Upon hearing of it, several people said, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” If you are an essayist, then you are probably not primarily interested in publicity, because no one who truly wants to be famous chooses this little genre. However, I found myself in the strange position of being quite suddenly famous. My friend and fellow writer Pagan Kennedy grumbled that there were more pieces in the New York Times on my book than there were on Iraq’s purported weapons of mass destruction.
Opening Skinner’s Box angered people in ways too numerous and too complex to mention here. Suffice it to say that Deborah Skinner Buzan’s complaint was not the only one; it was simply the first. Soon after, hundreds of psychologists and psychiatrists in universities from coast to coast wrote comments on a listserve called Slater-Hater, the aim of which was to discredit a book they saw as highly inaccurate, full of fabrications and mistakes, and that smeared the science they had worked so hard to establish. As one contributor to the forum wrote: “Slater’s Skinner’s Box was perhaps the first attempt to fuse the pseudo-memoir with the ordinary nonfiction science book for the general reader. I was about as happy to see that as I would be to see the first human-to-human transmission of the H5N1 bird flu virus!” If the personal reflections that make up the essay/memoir, pseudo or otherwise, are like bird flu viruses, then essay writers are a dangerous breed indeed. I don’t think of essays as viruses, although some part of me appreciates the power of that designation. In any case, the rage these academics displayed and continue to display toward Opening Skinner’s Box made me curious about the workings of their minds and about the psychological dynamics that fuel scandals. So two years ago I joined the Slater-Hater listserve so I could observe what the issues were. Soon I was flooded with e-mails with such subject lines as “Slater Redux,” “More Slater Caper,” and “Slater, Mean Malicious Liar or Just Mentally Ill?” The discussion on the listserve was more barbed than I was prepared for. So was the accompanying behavior outside the listserve.
Being the object of such predation over an extended period of time has led me to think a lot about the critical role of kindness in writing and in life. It has led me to see that I, like the academics of whom I speak, have in the past written pieces with too much tooth, something the press generally rewards. I no longer write this way. I cannot abide ill will in my own work, and I dislike it when I see it in the work of others. I now believe that good writing, and good living, must have a core of gentleness.
Most of the postings on Slater-Hater were not malicious, however. More common were missives that had about them the veneer of intellect, and perhaps these troubled me even more. One professor, writing about a knotty ethical question, the type that is best explored as plainly as possible, wrote: “More broadly, the logical error we’re discussing in this case is what logicians term the genetic fallacy: the error of evaluating an argument on the basis of its origins . . . Admittedly it may be a matter of debate as to whether this fallacy is always a fallacy. From a Bayesian perspective, it may well sometimes make sense to consider the motives, training and group membership of the proponent of the view if such background characteristics have an r_0 correlation with the verisimilitude of the argument(s) in question.” From my membership on the listserve I have learned a few things at least. One is that academia, and the discourse it gives rise to — a discourse potentially relevant for the essayist, since it can and often does inform his material — can be venomous, its culture darkly narcissistic. This was a surprise to me, as I thought professors in general were a little like essayists, who are narcissistic, to be sure, but in a harmless way. I also learned a lot about the language of academia, and this has helped me clarify principles I believe are relevant to the writing of good essays. Academia, at least the part I saw, thrives on jargon. For instance, it is not uncommon, on the Slater-Hater listserve, which has thankfully moved on to other discussions, to read this sort of thing: “We identified the same correlates for MMPI-2point codes types in VA men as Gilberstadt and Duker did for the same MMPI two point code types 40 years earlier.” Or, “Self-esteem as a construct has a validity rating of .02% when compared to a two tailed t-test reliability rating of 4.” The sociologist Gerald Rosen, in his study of cosmetic surgery, commented that the less secure a field of study is, the more intense is its use of jargon. This puts essayists in a tough position, because they seem to be a troubled lot, constantly picking at their own imperfections, claiming embarrassment and humility while simultaneously showcasing the scars. The essayist often brings to the writing table an odd mix of shame and showmanship, and it may well be that the tension therein is what propels the work. Joseph Epstein, in his essay “The Culture of Celebrity,” included in this volume, frets about his lack of celebrity status, and by doing so he amusingly attempts to seek the spotlight. Such narcissism is redeemed in part by the essayist’s awareness of it, and in part by his absolute avoidance of jargon, which seems to me to be an attempt to inflate an idea or co-opt language so it becomes gilded and private. Unlike academic writing, the essay can be defined by its insistence on, and celebration of, the vernacular, a lyrical way of speaking that aims always at inclusion. The academic learns to hide his insecurity behind bloated verbiage. The essayist cannot hide his uncertainty, and by admitting it, he can hope to transform it.
The essays in this volume have made this transformation beautifully. They all speak plainly, the sentences scraped clean of verbal detritus, the result of which is writing that shines on the stumblings of its authors.
A few of the essays here are written by academics about academia. Given my experience as a member of the Slater-Hater listserve, and as the recipient of much professor-perpetrated vengefulness, I came to these essays suspiciously, if not defensively. I was, however, more than pleasantly surprised. Professor Emily Bernard’s “Teaching the N-Word” redeems, for me, the patent primitivism of many in the academy. It is itself proof that writing from within the ivy walls, writing that springs from the soil of educational institutions, can be at once inclusive, artful, nuanced, complex, and frank.
The other essays in this collection cover a range of topics. Poe Ballantine reminds us that it is still possible, in the new millennium, to live a Kerouac kind of on-the-road existence, but to do so in a surprisingly thoughtful and sober — if not untroubled — state. Ballantine’s writing is secure insecurity at its best, muscular and minimal, self-deprecating on the one hand, full of the self’s soul on the other.
Marjorie Williams’s devastating essay, “A Matter of Life and Death,” chilled me for days after reading it, and chills me still. Such memoirs of catastrophic illness are hard to bring off, precisely because the story is so distressingly common. There is the good life lived by the smart but unsuspecting writer; there is the lump one finds with one’s fingers in an idle moment; there are the tests, the diagnoses, the descent into despair, the struggle for hope. The fact that Williams is able to bring her own struggle with cancer to life in such brutally plain and elegant language is proof that any cliché can be conquered, and when that happens, it is always amazing. “A Matter of Life and Death” is, among other things, a fierce refusal of the jargoned life and death, an insistence on finding a language that lasts longer than any human fashion or fad.
Many of the essays deal with loss, with death. This may in part reflect my own concerns as I journey around the sun for the forty-third time, but it may also reflect a growing demographic group that is coming to define this country: aging baby boomers, articulate and insured. The essays on health and illness that I read throw light on certain economic strata; they tell the story of what it is like to grow old, to grow sick, to die, health plan in hand. Thus I read dozens of essays that describe operating rooms, MRI machines, and surgeons’ waiting rooms, enough medically inspired writing to confirm what I have always thought: sickness is the natural state in which we humans reside. We occasionally fall into brief brackets of health, only to return to our fevers, our infections, our rapid, minute mutations, which take us toward death even as they evolve us, as a species, into some ill-defined future.
The essays in this volume are powerful, plainspoken meditations on birthing, dying, and all the business in between. They reflect the best of what we, as a singular species, have to offer, which is reflection in a context of kindness. The essays tell hard-won tales wrestled sometimes from great pain.
Some of the writers or their subjects have died since penning their pieces. One of the deaths this collection describes is of a humble, generous hound named George. Soon after I read about George’s demise, my own beloved hound became deathly ill and spent some time in the hospital. She is old, my hound, arthritic, temperamental, gentle in soul, coarse to the touch. My daughter, who is six, wanted to know where our dog, Lila, would go when she died. Given that I’m not a big believer in the afterlife, I wasn’t sure what to say. It seemed terrible to say, “She’ll go into the ground,” or “We’ll burn her body.” It also seemed wrong to fall back on jargon or its close cousin, verbal sweeteners. But then I remembered George, and all the other essays I have been honored to read as guest editor, and it occurred to me then where Lila, where we all, might go. Like the essayists or their subjects who have died since their pieces were written, we too will live inside plain language — if we should be so lucky — language wrung from kindness, from questions, from the deep desire to talk across space and time; language that celebrates the liminal even as it tethers us to each other; language that inspires, expires, the sentence more solid than skin.
Copyright © 2006 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Introduction copyright © 2006 by Lauren Slater. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
Table of Contents
Foreword by Robert Atwan ix Introduction by Lauren Slater xv
Laurie Abraham. Kinsey and Me 1 from Elle
Poe Ballantine. 501 Minutes to Christ 11 from The Sun
Emily Bernard. Teaching the N-Word 25 from The American Scholar
Ken Chen. City Out of Breath 43 from MÁnoa
Toi Derricotte. Beginning Dialogues 48 from Creative Nonfiction
Joseph Epstein. The Culture of Celebrity 54 from The Weekly Standard
Eugene Goodheart. Whistling in the Dark 70 from The Sewanee Review
Adam Gopnik. Death of a Fish 85 from The New Yorker
Kim Dana Kupperman. Relief 96 from Hotel Amerika
Michele Morano. Grammar Lessons: The Subjunctive Mood 107 from Crab Orchard Review
Susan Orlean. Lost Dog 122 from The New Yorker
Sam Pickering. George 133 from Southwest Review
Robert Polito. Shame 153 from Black Clock
David Rieff. Illness as More Than Metaphor 159 from The New York Times Magazine
Oliver Sacks. Recalled to Life 172 from The New Yorker
Peter Selgin. Confessions of a Left-Handed Man 185 from The Literary Review
Alan Shapiro. Why Write? 197 from The Cincinnati Review
Lily Tuck. Group Grief 208 from The Hudson Review
Scott Turow. Missing Bellow 225 from The Atlantic Monthly
Marjorie Williams. A Matter of Life and Death 238 from Vanity Fair
Biographical Notes 265 Notable Essays of 2005 270