In the proliferation of year-end book roundups, journalistic nonfiction and novels dominate the lists. And there are usually a few memoirs, especially if the author is Barack Obama or Mariah Carey.
What often gets left out are collections of essays. And of course, if a book wasn’t published that year, it won’t make the cut.
But as an avid reader of essays and a teacher of creative nonfiction, I prefer to read — and share with my students — a mix of new and not-so-new. With that in mind, here’s a list of ten nonfiction titles that stood out for me in 2020. All but one are collections of essays, and the other is a very different take on memoir. Half of the selections are anthologies that I would especially recommend to aspiring essayists and students of nonfiction who would like to delve deeper into the possibilities of the genre.
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The Best of Brevity: Twenty Groundbreaking Years of Flash Nonfiction edited by Zoë Bossiere and Dinty W. Moore (Rose Metal Press)
The literary journal Brevity celebrates an under-recognized genre: very short nonfiction, also known as flash nonfiction, also known as micro-essays. This new anthology, released just last month by the wonderful small press Rose Metal, comprises eighty-four exquisite pieces from the two decades and counting of the journal’s publications as well as a genuinely useful teaching guide. Even though the essays are tiny, collected together the selections reveal the expansiveness of the flash nonfiction genre: some lyrical and meditative, some evocative of the kind of killer anecdote that you hear from someone else and then retell yourself (“One time my friend’s cousin’s friend…”), some that manage to be both poetic and narrative at once. In ten years of teaching nonfiction, Brevity is the online literary journal I return to the most to find instructive examples to share with my students, but I often get lost in the voluminous archives. This anthology will help me focus my search — it’s even organized by subject and form. And being able to read so many pieces with such dispatch is like speed-dating for finding new writers to check out. The Best of Brevity is a must-have for nonfiction teachers and students, but it is a replete with gems that will spark the curiosity of any reader.
Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong (One World)
As someone who went to grad school for nonfiction and then mostly wrote poems for the first several years after, I have a special love for poets who write nonfiction and vice-versa. I know Cathy Park Hong from her work as a poet, so I was especially excited to see what she’d do with the essay form. And certainly, her way with metaphor enlivens the prose in Minor Feelings. She describes an encounter with a boy who gave her a botched pedicure thus: “We were like two negative ions repelling each other. He treated me badly because he hated himself. I treated him badly because he hated himself.” But these are not lyric essays. They are essayistic essays: contemplative, often aphoristic, intellectual, rangy in their subject matter (Richard Pryor, K-Town, modern art), precise and often damning in their political observations, and perhaps even more damning in their inward reckonings. Shortly after the “negative ion” metaphor, Hong calls herself an “unreliable narrator.” That’s the kind of meta-commentary that are most at home in the essay form, and Hong gets it just right.
My Autobiography of Carson McCullers by Jenn Shapland (Tin House Books)
I can’t possibly do better than the delightful title of this book to put words to its peculiar blend of memoir and biography. Shapland writes of her growing fascination with the great Southern writer, which began during a project she did as an intern at a University of Texas archives and intensified when she saw reflections of her own complicated personal story of queerness in McCullers’s life and relationships with women — a story elided from other biographies.
I tell my students that the narrative of personal nonfiction is in the way the author/narrator thinks through something on the page, and My Autobiography perfectly exemplifies that kind of self-aware rumination. The plot points of the book are not really events in either Shapland’s or McCullers’s life, but rather new discoveries and connections Shapland makes as she combs through McCullers’s writing, lives where the author lived, touches her things, smells her clothes, and reflects on her own closeted past. And while her style is her own, Shapland writes with a kind of restraint and wit that recalls her subject’s prose.
Shapes of Native Nonfiction: Collected Essays by Contemporary Writers edited by Elissa Washuta and Theresa Warburton (University of Washington Press)
An anthology of contemporary Native nonfiction needed to exist, and now it does. Too often in this country, Native stories have been told by others, and too often they are told in past tense — often very past tense. In the introduction, the editors call attention to the overly ethnographic interest in Native writing, in which audiences look for information and content rather than art, form, lyricism, style. Hence the title word — shapes. The metaphor and guiding principle the editors use is of a basket: “Just as a basket’s purpose determines its materials, weave, and shape, so too is the purpose of the essay related to its materials, weave, and shape. The form of the vessel is as important as its contents.
Certainly, the content of the essays centers primarily on Native experience, identity, trauma, politics, but the arresting thing about these essays is not their subject matter, but the writing. The forms, the shapes. A scan of the titles alone conveys the range, from a selection from the “Technique” section called “Funny, You Don’t Look Like (My Preconceived Ideas of) an Essay” by Chip Livingston to a short, electrifying essay written in all caps in the “Coiling” section called “AND SO I ANAL DOUCHE WHILE KESHA’S ‘PRAYING’ PLAYS FROM MY IPHONE ON REPEAT” by Billy-Ray Belcourt.
The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations by Toni Morrison (Knopf)
This made plenty of lists last year, but I found it particularly relevant in 2020 and (I admit, I haven’t read it cover to cover) expect to keep finding it relevant for years to come. Morrison’s nonfiction conjures and holds up for unflinching inspection the realities of America and its history. In March and April, when the high school where I teach went virtual along with the rest of the world, I considered some pretty serious questions about education, privilege, and resources in this country. This passage from Morrison’s “Sarah Lawrence Commencement Address” especially moved me and shaped my perspective (I also read it aloud to anyone who would listen):
It is possible to live without defending property or surrendering it, but we will never live that way unless our thinking is shot through with dreams. And it is necessary now because if you don’t educate the unschooled with the very best you have, don’t give them the help, the courtesy, the respect you had in being educated, then they will educate themselves, and the things they will teach and the things they will learn will destabilize all that you know. And by education I do not mean hobbling the mind, but liberating it; by education I do not mean passing on monologues, but engaging in dialogues. Listening, assuming sometimes that I have a history, a language, a view, an idea, a specificity. Assuming that what I know may be useful, may enhance what you know, may extend or complete it. My memory is as necessary to yours as your memory is to mine.
And there’s so much more in this beautiful collection. Really, nobody writes like she writes.
Black is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine by Emily Bernard (Vintage)
Books about race and racism dominated bestseller lists this summer. From the blurb on the cover from O, The Oprah Magazine heralding “the emergence of an extraordinary voice on race in America,” you’d think Black is the Body would be in that number. But it is not a how-to. Even though Bernard addresses race and racism often and directly in the book, it is not meant to be mined for lessons about white privilege or anecdotes about oppression and systemic racism that make good fodder in an argument on social media. These are personal essays, written from within, and they are beautiful and complicated ones at that. Bernard is idiosyncratic in her way of thinking about her own experience and about the way race is lived in a life. There are no easy takeaways. Instead, there is an intimacy here that demands our attention.
The Collected Schizophrenias: Essays by Esmé Weijun Wang (Graywolf)
I’d been awaiting The Collected Schizophrenias with eagerness and trepidation since I first heard of it winning the 2016 Graywolf Nonfiction Prize. Knowing Graywolf, and considering the interesting title, I couldn’t wait to encounter what was sure to be a rich and original take on a mental disorder that tends to be represented in the flattest and most tired way in most media. At the same time, I find it very difficult to immerse myself in this particular subject. But upon reading it (alongside enough other people to put it on the New York Times bestseller list), I found that my eagerness was warranted but my trepidation was not. Somehow, the very frankness and vulnerability of Wang’s voice, her willingness to write about harrowing psychotic episodes with intricacy and detail, keeps the intensity at a manageable level, at least for this reader.
The Art of the Personal Essay edited by Phillip Lopate (Anchor)
I first bought this anthology when I was just out of college, in the months before I began an MFA program in nonfiction at The New School, where I studied with the collection’s editor, Phillip Lopate. Lately, I’ve misplaced it in the tumult of moving books from my classroom to home, and I feel its absence greatly even know. Which is to say, it continues to be as vital to my teaching as it originally was to my writing. The introduction forbids the all-too-common definition of “creative nonfiction” as, basically, fiction made out of real life. Instead, Lopate argues, and then demonstrates with the astonishing breadth of his selections, that the genre has its own conventions, as in the ones I classified in the entry on Minor Feelings as defining its essays as essayistic.
The anthology comprises what I’d say is the canon (mostly Western) of the personal essay. I say mostly Western because three of the selections that I’ve found most vital are Asian: an excerpt from The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon, “In Praise of Shadows” by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, and “Meatless Days” by Sara Suleri. The great canonical essayists that appear in the collection are too many to name. It’s probably easier to say that Lopate included pretty much all of them. And while there’s plenty of room for discussion and debate about The Canon, I’d still recommend this anthology as a primer for anyone serious about personal nonfiction as a writer or reader. I mean, don’t JUST read the canon, but do read it.
The Next American Essay edited by John D’Agata (Graywolf)
As an anthologist and as a writer, D’Agata tends much more toward the lyrical than Lopate. Many of the same essayists appear in The Next American Essay, but D’Agata chooses their more experimental work. He also features more contemporary writers who are very much worth encountering, many of whom are mostly known for poetry: Jamaica Kincaid, Anne Carson, Lydia Davis, Carole Maso, Mary Ruefle, Jenny Boully, Joe Wenderoth. This is a great anthology to adopt as a creative nonfiction course text to expose students to the elasticity and possibility of the nonfiction form.
The Lost Origins of the Essay edited by John D’Agata (Graywolf)
This other D’Agata anthology shares the same aesthetic preoccupations as the other, but I love it a lot more, as a reader if not as a teacher. It’s wilder, weirder, less contemporary (as the title implies), and not at all American. After I first encountered it in 2010, I kept starting my poetry readings with parts of “Definitions of Earthly Things,” which is excerpted from a 12-volume, firsthand study of the Aztec civilization and by the 16th century Spanish missionary and ethnographer Bernardino de Sahagún. It is one of the most bracing and bewildering pieces of literature I’ve read. Here are a few sentences from the entry on “Forest,” which I vehemently recommend that you read aloud:
It is a place pf stony soil, stony-soiled places; a place of round stones, round-stoned places; a place of sharp stones, of rough stones; a place of crags, craggy places; a place of tepetate; a place of clearings, cleared places; a place of valleys, of coves, of places with coves, of cove places; a place of boulders, bouldered places; a place of hollows.
“Definitions of Earthly Things” happened to be the essay that seduced me, but the anthology is replete with other mystifying and language-stretching selections. I just love it so much, though I don’t usually teach from it, except for a few authors that I already taught anyway (Sei Shõnagon, Natalia Ginzburg, Virgina Woolf), but’s mostly due to the limits of teaching, or at least my teaching. I don’t know what I’d say to students about it, other than, “Here you go, you need to read this,” or what discussion questions I’d ask, other than, “What in the world?”