The Essayest American Essays 2016

After not updating this section of the site for years (though continuing to select Essayest American Essays every year with my students), it's back! Thanks to Sweet: A Literary Confection for spurring this update. I hope to add the missing years soon, too. In any case, here's the standard intro:

Together with my students and friends, I've set out to find the most essayistic (the "essayest") essays published in American literary journals each year. Our method is, perhaps appropriately, unsystematic, scatter-shot, driven by luck and play and personal preference. I and other "experts in the field" simply read the journals we subscribe to or can acccess in our libraries. Students read about twenty highly regarded journals, usually two issues of each. From these, each student or group selects ten "creative nonfiction" pieces, and from those ten, chooses the "essayest."

This is not meant to subvert the excellent work of Robert Atwan and his yearly editors of the Best American Essays series. But I have noticed, and my students and many of my colleagues concur, that the term essay has been largely hijacked and adulterated beyond recognition, firstly by the pedagogues, who call every school writing assignment an "essay," and currently by memoirists, travel writers, new journalists, and other practitioners of "creative nonfiction," whose writing, excellent though it may be, often essays nothing, is not idea-driven, is not meditative or associative or tangential. Just try to google the word essay and see what results you get. This list is one small attempt to rescue the word essay.

There is no money, no prize, no republication attached to selection. There may be no honor. All we are saying is 1) give peace a chance, and 2) these are some really excellent essays, real essays. We sincerely hope that the essayists whose work we chose are pleased that someone has read and appreciated their essays, and that visitors to the site will take our recommendations and seek out the essays to read and enjoy them.

This year's list was selected by my fall 2016 English 667R (graduate creative nonfiction workshop) students. When possible, we include links to full-text HTML or PDF versions of some essays and/or database indications for others (if you are affiliated with a university, you likely have access to many databases through your library).

You may also be interested in past lists:

Madison Bowman
"These Eager Leaps"

Portland Magazine Summer 2016

Through eager leaps in the story of encounter, courtship, marriage, and parenting, Bowman makes art of common experience, both reducing it to a few key paragraphs and expanding from these words to a suggestion that life and love are infinite.

Selected by Patrick Madden

Emily Chase
"In Defense of Grudges"

The Tusculum Review 12 (2016)

Even its title announces that "In Defense of Grudges" is an essay (I’m elongating this word in my gruff voice), a piece that thinks through something, using stories and personal examples in service of idea. Beyond the title, Emily Chase lives up to the high calling of essayist (gruff, elongated), with paragraphs about "trying to be a more positive person" and the difficulty of giving people the benefit of the doubt, through an enlightening twist into what you'd expect would be the opposite of "being a more positive person": holding grudges. Intentionally. Against the tow truck driver who took her car to his shop instead of to her mechanic, and then would not release it until the police intervened, Chase says "I do not mean that I will think about [my grudge] every day, and I have already forgotten to think about it for at least a few days since it happened. What matters is that I have the grudge on a backburner, and it's there if I should ever need it" (smiley). But that's not all, folks! Unsatisfied with simply opposing her grudges to her quest for optimism, Chase manages to reconcile the two feelings, in a masterful surprise twist that will have readers expressing their amazement to one another at the water cooler... Wouldn't that be cool? How did movies ever outpace essays as the medium of popular entertainment? In any case, no spoilers here. You'll have to read the essay for yourself if you want to see how it all turns out.

Selected by Patrick Madden

Alice Rose Crow
"Degrees of Authenticity"

Brevity Fall 2016

"Degrees of Authenticity" is a classic essay in a few important ways. It takes a stereotype or common perspective, the zip code 99559 in Alaska and the way it "is cross-tabulated by researchers supposing to predetermine and excuse anomie, uneducatability, poverty, failure to thrive, rotten teeth, ill health, self-destructive behaviors, violence against self and each other, limited life expectancy," and uses that as a jumping off point for self reflection which then leads to larger reflection about the actual and personal experience of an individual inside that Alaskan zip code and stereotypes. "As a river child, a tundra girl, a mossy woman, we listen as generations speak aloud to one another. Shhh! to hear chickadees call with early morning light. Mark sun and moon rise and set. Catch fish through ice. Collect shells. Swim in blue waters reaching Hawai'i. Etch curving line drawings. Sun shines on lovely stories of staying together. Dance our way of being." The author does not shy away from exploring her thoughts and feelings about the difference between stereotypes and her perspective and the world at large. She takes us into her musings and allows us to see her thoughts and questions and emotions about the world. All this time we get small but careful and telling details that ground us in concrete places and experiences as they transpire.

Selected by Sarah Jane Myers

Colin Dayan
"The Old Gray Mare"

Yale Review 104.2 (2016)

The rise and fall of the horserace come in and out of the forefront as Dayan explores the cruelty horses are subject to in the name of social pleasures. She also tackles a challenging relationship with her mother who was crippled under the fear of aging. "The inevitability of rot hung like a pall over our house. Everyone, [my mother] told me, would end up with loose jowls and cheeks caved in, bags under their eyes and a shuffle in their walk. No one could be young forever." Through this essay, Dayan addresses racial issues, animal cruelty, a mother-daughter relationship, and Dayan's personal identity tied but also distant to the South. Dayan handles the complexities of these issues and turns them into each other, constantly asking the question what belongs to her and what never could.

Selected by Lisa Roylance

Sonya Huber
"If Woman Is Five"

River Teeth 17.2 (Spring 2016)

This essay explores Huber's struggle to accept the swiftly diminishing functionality of her hands, and therefore herself. The topic is personal and compelling, but also opens outward: her own developing disability causes Huber to re-evaluate her attitude toward people with disabilities generally—the way we assume that physical disability automatically correlates to mental deficiency. She says, "I saw myself linking intelligence to the working condition of fingers," on the first page, and this faulty correlation is something she explores throughout the essay. The essay also weaves various experiences and reflective passages into a single meditation, an associative patchwork that circles around the topic of hands. Although there is no single story line, per se, Huber manages to connect the dots via association and theme rather than plot, like most good essayists.

This essay is available through the Project MUSE database.

Selected by Shamae Budd

David Lazar
"Five Autobiographical Fragments, or She May Have Been a Witch"

River Teeth 18.1 (Fall 2016)

As indicated by the title, the essay is divided into five segments which work together to challenge perceived memory as well as both the rational and irrational thoughts that affect that memory. Lazar introduces these ideas with the first segment which recounts an encounter that he had in his youth with a neighbor who was believed to be a witch. He ends the segment with, "My instincts were correct for the second time in a day, once based on the irrational and evil forces of the world, and once based on logic and experience." The following segments build upon and add to this idea by drawing from other memories in his past. I consider segment four the pinnacle memory that is only enhanced by the preceding three segments. While segment four is the pinnacle, the final segment is necessary to solidifying the ideas about interpreting memory. Lazar discusses Freud's theory about memory, creating a greater link between all five segments. I admire the way the essay balances telling the reader what to think and allowing the experiences to work in the reader’s mind. At times Lazar speaks directly to the reader such as, "Then, and now, my sense of innocence is outraged by the older man preying on the boy, though (rain down your horror on me, hypocrite reader!) I feel the urge to historicize some of the purity of my censure with an eye on how culturally relative are the taboos and mores regarding commerce between the ages." This balance of engaging directly with the reader and allowing the reader to interpret as they will was a perfect combination for an enjoyable and thought-provoking read.

This essay is available through the Project MUSE database.

Selected by Meagan Ricks

Julie Jeanell Leung
"Skeletogenesis"

Grist 9 (2016).

Leung creates an immediate contract with the read as she starts her first micro essay with C1. the first vertebra, and asks "How does a backbone begin?" Throughout the essay she draws from her experience as a child, mother and wife and marine biologist to essay about selfhood, trauma and the interconnected ecology we live and adapt in, moving through poetic detail and aphorisms: "Watching my mother beg men to return, I learned that love required retraction, the ability to shrink and disappear. I understood the necessity of shell. The weight of waves. The isolation of tides." She considers her interest in and dissemblance from the nonchordates she works with, as when she writes about massaging her husbands back, "Caressing this Braille of his backbone, I sense my own spine, this column within me, extending from my head to my hips. We are vertebrates. Both of us." In essaying, she builds a spine, and an 'I' with it, the thing she is trying to do alongside her daughter: "Deliberate postures and movements. 'I' words. How that tall alphabet letter resembles a backbone. What she and I both need to build."

Selected by Alizabeth Worley

Colin Pope
"Hard Pine"

Apple Valley Review 11.1 (Spring 2016)

Formatted into five sections, each progressing in chronological time, Pope takes his reader through a three day camping weekend in Saranac Lake, New York. Pope begins his essay with the unsettling scene of Ray beating his girlfriend with a thick piece of pine. While "Hard Pine" meanders in and out of Pope's various activities and meditations regarding this camping weekend with his father’s gang of weed harvesters, the essay settles on the issues of abuse and Pope's fear of becoming his father. ("'Okay. Shut up.' I said to her. She was making me angry. I didn’t want to talk about how I looked. I didn’t want to look like my father.") In section five, Pope breaks his clear timeline to give the reader a brief projection of what lies ahead for each character after this weekend, allowing a pause in the essay for him to muse about beaten people. ("That's what unified them, all of them. They'd been beaten so much--by work, by their parents, by the cops, by each other--that they didn't know a world without beatings.") While on the surface this essay appears to be simply a concrete, descriptive retelling of a strange camping trip, Pope offers a deeper musing as the outsider and onlooker attempting to make sense of a group of seemingly rough and unruly people.

Selected by Jennifer Thorup

Julia Rochester
"Our Shining Castle"

Granta 3 August 2016

"Our Shining Castle" is one Londoner’s experience of the Brexit vote, which feels like a particularly 2016 topic. Though she does talk about the present, she also effectively interweaves the story of her mother's family and what it means to be "other" in Britain, and why some people leave their homeland. I particularly appreciate her thinking and articulating thoughts that have roiled around in my brain when it comes to the term "patriot" and believe she does an admirable job pushing for the label "human" in its place. She creates a strong argument with a personal and historical feeling.

Selected by Mary Ann McFarland