Great Balls of Fire; or, A Spillage of Essays

I’ve been reading to expansive anthologies of essays, How We Speak to One Another, edited by Ander Monson and Craig Reinbold, and Waveform: Twenty-first Century Essays by Women, edited by Marcia Aldrich. I pick them up, open them at random, and read the essay that appears, with varying degrees of interest. I keep wearying of all the essays and putting the books aside, determined to take them back to the library. But then I’ll find something particularly intriguing and keep them a while longer. This is the challenge, I find, of anthologies — they’re often too much of a good thing, interlaced with other stuff, and too much of that too.

I admire the impulse behind anthologies, and from far off, admire the many ways writers creatively tackle a subject and form. But just like department stores, fabric stores, bookstores, and library shelves, I get easily overwhelmed. A collection of essays by one person, or a book of poems, has that authorial eye/voice to connect them all. An anthology is a flower collection, one of those massive English gardens, or the gardens at Versailles where we finally flung ourselves to the ground near the little lake and watched, slack-mouthed from overstimulation, the clouds pass by.

Many essays in How We Speak are essays written in response to other essays. These can fall short if the reader isn’t familiar with the originating essay, or if the response essay insufficiently captures it. But often the dissection of how the originating essay worked on the writer is worth the read. Other essays in that anthology consider the essay itself, the nature of time, memory, “truth,” in the form.

Waveform represents the ways in which women are exploring the form. It too contains a graphic essay (by the same author/illustrator as the one in How We Speak, which suggest that, no offense intended to her, but maybe there are others out there, or it’s a form asking for more people to jump in), as well as braided things, meanderings.

My biggest mistake was probably to take both volumes out of the library at the same time. Piggish. But I wanted to get a sense of what essays were doing these days. And that I accomplished: graphic essays, lists, analyses, weavings of memory and fact, almost-random delineations, litanies, rants, letters, real and imagined. I am drunk with essay, and staggering under a list of new writers whose work I need to explore. (The other problem with anthologies — so much more to read.)

What can’t an essay do? Even an arcane topic that should only interest a few can be engrossing with a captivating narrative voice, an intriguing through-line of narrative, or a clever device that keeps things snappy. One essay in Waveform illustrates through fake letters a variety of rejections in the author’s life. Brenda Miller manages, in “We Regret to Inform You,” to show-without-telling her young ambitions as an artist, her attempts to find a boy to go to the junior high dance with, her experience dropping out of college, miscarriage — and does so with both poignance and hilarity.

Aisha Sabatini Sloan has this to say in her essay “On Collage, Chris Kraus, and Misremembered Didion,” in How We Speak: “Maybe what I’m trying to say is that I like essays that remind me of traveling. They lie low. They don’t try quite so hard to prevent me from being bored. They are confident enough to admit that they are nothing more than a rug, and in doing so, have the ability to take it out from under me.”