On Fiction and Reality in the Modern Essay

“If there’s anything I love, it’s information told in a passionate way...that’s what a good essay is.”
— Robert Atwan
From left: Alexander Chee, Jordan Kisner, and Robert Atwan speak on the nature of the modern American essay. 

From left: Alexander Chee, Jordan Kisner, and Robert Atwan speak on the nature of the modern American essay. 

On Thursday evening, I attended a reading at favorite local bookstore BookCourt with authors featured in the newly published Best American Essays 2016hosted by series editor Robert Atwan. The Best American series is a fantastic anthology series, with books on Short Stories, Mystery Writing, Travel Writing, Non-Required Reading, and more. Each book in the series is curated by an expert in their field, and this year's collection was selected by none other than Jonathan Franzen. 

On Thursday, essayist Jordan Kisner read from her piece "Thin Places" from n+1, about a radical new procedure called Deep Brain Stimulation meant for OCD patients.  

Robert Atwan himself read a satirical essay he wrote many years ago called "The Greatest Poetry Workshop Ever," which seems to be no longer available anywhere and is not featured in this new collection. Which is a shame, because it's a pretty hilarious send-up of poetry competitions. 

And finally, novelist Alexander Chee read from "Girl," a memoir piece originally published in Guernicaabout feeling comfortable with his own face for the first time after dressing in drag.

Afterwards, the authors engaged with the audience in a conversation about the changing nature of the modern essay. It was an extremely insightful conversation, with one gentlemen starting off by asking what each writer thought about "where the essay is going." Several people in the audience (myself included) worked in education, so the main conversation revolved around the difference between what we've come to understand as an "essay" from school, i.e., a well-argued piece of writing with a clear thesis statement and a long list of paragraphs to back that thesis up, and the essays published in this book.

Atwan in particular is incredibly well-informed about not only the history of the essay, citing Montaigne several times. He shared several great nuggets about what makes the essay a valuable part of the literary landscape. "Essays started off as a way to show off your prose," he said, and when talking about the nature of arguments in essays, added, "A lot of good essays are arguments with ourselves." 

Robert Atwan, writer and editor of  The Best American Essays  series.

Robert Atwan, writer and editor of The Best American Essays series.

Then the conversation turned towards the place for fiction and imagination in essays. Kisner's piece in particular was interesting because it begins with a description of the DBS procedure from the point of view of a woman who doesn't exist. Instead, Kisner created a character who is an amalgam of the research she did. "The beginning of the piece is fiction, but in a way it's also the most factual, since it's the most researched," she said. The same for Atwan, who read his piece, which was not based on a true story but is meant as satire, as a means to point out that Jonathan Swift used to write what people called "essays" because they had something important to say about society. "If Swift wrote 'A Modest Proposal' today, no one would publish it as an essay," he said. It's an interesting point. 

The event definitely made me think about my own nonfiction writing and how to open it up a little more. The best part about publications like Best American Essays, Creative Nonfiction and others is that they show how varied the essay can be, not only in subject but in structure and style as well. Essays are still separate from fiction, but that doesn't mean that they can't be imaginative. They still open up worlds we might never experience and show us perspectives that differ from our own. It made me excited to write more essays of my own.