James McNamara reviews 'The Best American Essays 2015' edited by Ariel Levy and 'The Best Australian Essays 2015' edited by Geordie Williamson

James McNamara reviews 'The Best American Essays 2015' edited by Ariel Levy and 'The Best Australian Essays 2015' edited by Geordie Williamson

The Best American Essays 2015

edited by Ariel Levy

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24.95 pb, 259 pp, 9780544569621

The Best Australian Essays 2015

edited by Geordie Williamson

Black Inc., $29.99 pb, 368 pp, 9781863957779

At the back of the cupboard of old lies is a crusty one that goes like this: the essay is a lesser form of literature. Oddly, it is perpetuated in collections like Ariel Levy's The Best American Essays 2015, which – in its foreword by series editor Robert Atwan – bashfully admits that essays are the B-team of the writing world. 'The quintessential essayist', Atwan writes, 'parades an enormous ego and yet does so in a modest setting, that is, within a genre widely acknowledged to be unequal to fiction, poetry, and drama.'  This is silly and reductive snobbery, the same that holds anything in a non-realist genre – fantasy, science fiction – to be ineluctably 'commercial'. It is no different from failing to invite the neighbours to your Christmas party because you dislike the way they plant a shrubbery.

Atwan's anxiety stems, I suspect, from the fact that 'fiction' and 'non-fiction' in the American essay is a matter of arbitrary classification. The pieces here exemplify the American trend of literary non-fiction. Largely first-person memoir, written in a fictional style, these essays could be read as accomplished short stories, in the absence of confirmation that they are based in truth. Their supposed literary inferiority, one assumes, is because fiction is based on an invented premise, inhering 'creative genius', and the essay is not. But this is all a matter of degree. The best literary non-fiction – like these American essays – portrays real people and events with all the skill and toolbox of a novelist. And novelists – particularly realists – write fiction informed by careful observations of the world, human nature, and real events.

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James McNamara

James McNamara

James McNamara is an Australian television writer based in Los Angeles. His television work includes comedy and drama writers rooms for the Academy Award-winning See-Saw Films, Matchbox Pictures/NBC Universal, Foxtel, ABC, Porchlight Films, and Endemol Shine, and developing shows for Goalpost Pictures and Playmaker Media/Sony Pictures. McNamara received ABR’s third Ian Potter Foundation Fellowship for his long-form essay, ‘The Golden Age of Television?’ (ABR, April 2015), praised by Clive James as ‘a global contribution to cultural analysis’. McNamara’s essays and criticism have also appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Times Literary Supplement, and The Spectator.

Born in Western Australia in 1982, McNamara received degrees in English and Law from the University of Western Australia, graduated in screenwriting from AFTRS, and holds a doctorate in English from Oxford, where he was a Clarendon Scholar. Before becoming a writer, McNamara was a litigator specialising in international disputes at a top-tier US law firm. He was recently named a BAFTA LA Newcomer. 

Published in March 2016, no. 379

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