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Writers, Writing on Writing: The Best American Essays 2010

03/02/2011 05:37 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Joe Woodward Author, "Alive Inside the Wreck: A Biography of Nathanael West"

No one interests us more than ourselves. It's true, I suppose. Writers, writing on writing, then, is my genre and perhaps yours, too. On occasion we're treated to a category killer anthology that captures the best work of the year entitled The Best American Essays. Edited for 2010 by Christopher Hitchens, over one-third of the book's selections are indeed writers, writing on writing. A literary feast for $14.95; what could be more American than that?

Though past editions of this literary treasure chest have tilted toward the dreaded "nature writing," or urbanites taking to the farm, or even the lost traveler lost in Europe, the 2010 edition rather nicely avoids such calamites, though not entirely. Phillip Lopate does a wonderful job with his piece "Brooklyn the Unknowable," which first appeared in the Harvard Review, but of course it's not so much travel writing as remembering his "hometown." In fact, his essay begins with a description of the municipality as a "cradle of literary genius."

Of course writers, writing on writing is really about reading, remembering our reading, and so on. Within this sub-genre in the 2010 edition there's Elif Batuman's "The Murder of Leo Tolstoy," which begins at an international Tolstoy conference on the grounds of the dead writer's estate, Yasnaya Polyana; it ends in Chekhov's garden (nature writing poking up its ugly head). There's James Wood's masterful piece on reading George Orwell, "A Fine Rage," originally printed in The New Yorker. And Ian McEwan writing "On John Updike." McEwan reads Updike as, "This most Lutheran of writers, driven by intellectual curiosity all his life... troubled by science as others are troubled by God." McEwan's piece is deep and moving -- an elegy, an accounting of loss, and so on.

In fact, I've been struck as I've read these careful and varied pieces on writing, struck by their uniform tenderness of tone. These essays on writing and writers, in particular, take the form of family memoir. Perhaps this is exactly what they are.

What I'll call the centerpiece of this collection is Jane Kramer's "Me, Myself and I" taken from The New Yorker. This essay shuttles the reader back to the birth of the modern essay (though some may argue otherwise), to the French writer and thinker Michel de Montaigne. She writes, "Montaigne's pursuit of the character he called Myself -- 'bashful, insolent; chaste, lustful; prating, silent; laborious, delicate; ingenious, heavy, melancholic, pleasant; lying, true; knowing, ignorant; liberal, covetous, and prodigal' -- lasted for twenty years and produced more than a thousand pages of observations and revision that he called 'essais,' taking that ordinary word and turning it into a literary occupation." Kramer's piece is finally one part biography, one part reader's memoir and one part history.

In the end, these 21 essays "defy" rather than "define" the sometimes accused staid genre of the essay--writing that can be too dry and too full of argument. Popular culture thinks even less of the dreaded essay. To tell a student he or she must read one is akin to telling them they've been exposed to the flu -- you get the same turned up lip. But here I have to say, within Hitchens's choices of The Best American Essays 2010, no such trouble exists.

And, if you happen to be a writer interested in writers, writing about writing, well, enjoy.

Joe Woodward is working on a biography of Nathanael West to be published in the spring of 2011 by O/R Books. His blog on his work is TheNathanaelWestProject.

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