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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Published in March 2016, no. 379

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