I eagerly await the yearly anthology Best American Essays (I am that nerd) but I was extra invested this year because of the guest editor, essayist Leslie Jamison. Jamison’s essay collection, The Empathy Exams, is among my very favorite books, and her work in The Guardian and other publications is always intriguing (particularly her defense of personal writing).
However, I also admit to being a bit wary, as past BAE collections that have been edited by favorite writers have fallen flat for me. Fortunately, I found Jamison’s collection to be excellent.
There are so many excellent pieces of writing posted all over the internet and shipped to mailboxes every day. I can appreciate the tough work of choosing “the best” of the year and I am thankful for these anthologies – the 2017 edition in particular.
I always love the BAE intros, but Jamison’s is hands-down the best I’ve read. I’d recommend grabbing a copy for her introduction alone. I don’t envy her the task – after all, 2017’s political and cultural climate is… well, what it is. Jamison opens with America, segues immediately into the election, and sustains her essayistic writing throughout a discussion of the inherently political nature of the essay. As a lover of the essay (and a wannabe essayist), I can’t tell you how spot on and comforting Jamison’s introduction was.
As for the essays she has curated, I found them to be relevant, varied, and insightful. I read a few Goodreads reviews that complained a bit about the politics of the essays, and I’ll agree that these essays felt incredibly of-the-moment and often wrestling with political themes. But I think that this is the point that Jamison’s introduction makes, and I think that it’s extra important in this very strange year to capture the moment with our literature.
One essay that captures the current times in a personal way, for example, is Eliese Colette Goldbach’s “White Horse.” This gorgeous but brutal essay is about a rape. It’s highly political and an important example of what we mean when we say “rape culture,” yet Goldbach’s prose stays close to her. She doesn’t address culture or larger implications of her experience, but those things are there.
Other standout essays include “H.” by Sarah Resnick (originally published in N+1), a look at the opoid epidemic and harm reduction that is simultaneously astute, empathetic, and aching; Alia Volz’s “Snakebit,” (from The Threepenny Review) an arresting and informative peek into the mind of someone with a severe phobia; and Heather Sellers’ gorgeous contemplation about her father in “Haywire” (from Tin House).
Overall, what sticks out to me is how well Jamison has selected essays that are self-aware and that have a strong persona – these essays are all personal, yet the “I” appears in different forms. I appreciate how well the range of essays represent our current time, and how they each represent a worldview to experience empathetically.
I came away from BAE 2017 feeling more hopeful and feeling inspired to write and read. Like many others, the awfulness in the world has made it tough to write, read, or even feel much of anything besides despair. Luckily, I have the wonderful writers in BAE and beyond to rouse and provoke me.
Find The Best American Essays 2017 at your local bookstore or online here.