Emdashes—Modern Times Between the Lines

The Basics:
About Emdashes | Email us

Before it moved to The New Yorker:
Ask the Librarians

Best of Emdashes: Hit Parade
A Web Comic: The Wavy Rule


Benjamin Chambers on the "Best American Essays," Pt. 2

Filed under: Letters & Challenges   Tagged: , , , , , , , ,

Just before Christmas I published the comments of Benjamin Chambers, of the top-notch literary website The King’s English, as he daringly attempts to read every single New Yorker essay ever to be singled out in Houghton Mifflin’s “Best American Essays” series (which I first wrote about here). For his next feat, I suspect, he’ll try a record English Channel swim.

Take it away, Benjamin!
My next job was to tackle 1987, from the anthology edited by Annie Dillard: an easy list of only three essays. (One wonders if Dillard didn’t care for the stuff The New Yorker did; or if she felt obliged to go against the grain, figuring that it was better to take notice of material in other, lesser known venues; or—possibly?—The New Yorker itself was having an off year? It’s interesting that when Geoffrey Wolff edited the anthology the next year, he felt 10 NYer pieces were notable (though he didn’t select any for “best of” status). What’s odd about that, though, is that he included some very weak pieces, including one by Veronica Geng that’s actually fiction. (The Complete NYer’s index lists Geng’s piece that way, too, but it’s not infallible, as for example when it inexplicably classifies as fiction Susan Sontag’s autobiographical essay, “Pilgrimage,” which appears on Dillard’s 1987 list.)

Actually, I cheated and started out my 1987 reading by jumping ahead to 1988 and reading Joan Didion’s “Letter from Los Angeles,” which starts out shapeless but pleasing, and then turns into an acute report on the writers’ strike that had just recently fizzled out. Given the strike that’s currently going on, it was particularly timely. Then I went back to 1987, and read E.J. Kahn Jr.’s delightful profile of Helen Suzman, who was for many years the only woman in the all-white House of Assembly of the Republic of South Africa, and an internationally known opponent of apartheid. I’d never heard of Suzman, and came away feeling great admiration for her feistiness. At the time, of course, she didn’t feel very successful—she’d spent years being the only voice in opposition—but again, to read the profile after the nearly bloodless end of apartheid gave it a special flavor. (This profile led me to Wikipedia, where I found a link to an article in the Telegraph from 2004, where she had some reservations about the way current politics are working out there, although none whatever about the abolition of apartheid.)

I’ve never had much use for Harold Brodkey’s work, but in truth I’ve not read much of him, so I approached “Reflections: Family” with qualified hopes. Unfortunately, they proved unfounded—as with E.J. Kahn’s “Hand to Hand” from 1988, the size of audience that could be interested in the piece would seem to be quite limited—in Brodkey’s case, to his own family, as the essay amounts to a collection of observations about their broad experiences and personalities. The piece’s charm would’ve grown in inverse proportion to its length. Kahn’s “Hand to Hand” records in excruciating detail the sinking of a U-Boat by a U.S. craft during World War II, the latter-day reunion of men on both sides of the battle. Though a promising premise, it feels more like a war story fit for other veterans of that war, rather than a general-interest piece—at least at this distance.
That’s curious about the Geng piece. I wonder if that choice elicited any commentary at the time? Anybody know?

—Martin Schneider

Previously: Chambers on the “Best American Essays,” Pt. 1


It’s no exaggeration to say I revere Brodkey’s writing. He’s a giant, and some of his books are pretty giant, too, which makes them daunting for many, including me; I still haven’t read every word of his. The longer stories will physically tire you out, but so will a hike to the top of Mt. Monadnock. He’ll wallop you with wonder if you take the risk of trying him.

I don’t often get books signed, but when he read in Morningside Heights in the Lost Century, I spoke to him and got a book signed. It’s still one of my most beloved New York “celebrity” encounters. Paul Shaffer is another one, because he was the first star I saw on the street (and was a nice guy, too, as you’d expect) after I moved to New York in 1989. Ah, the razzle-dazzle of New York in the ’80s! Although I’m kidding, for me at 18, it was thrilling.

I’m intrigued to learn of your Brodkey advocacy, Emily. I confess my take is much like Benjamin’s. In some ways, Brodkey is a tough sell because he doesn’t have that conventional-but-good 300-page novel to use as bait. If you are not into stories and are not immediately entranced by the prospect of cracking the 848-page Runaway Soul, you’re about out of options.

Having said that, is there a story or two (perhaps even in the CNY!) that you’d care to single out for the uninitiated?

Sure! As soon as I have some time, I’ll look through the CNY and see what’s there in the way of Brodkey stories I’d recommend to anyone.

His novel Profane Friendship is 387 pages long, which isn’t unreasonable. And many Trollope novels are even longer! But on the subject of brevity, can someone really be just not that into the short story, a protean art form if there ever was one?

I was under the impression Brodkey’s long fiction was limited to Runaway Soul. Obviously wrong about that.

Short stories are not very popular, really. If you do a random count of the B&N fiction aisle, I think the numbers will bear me out. A story here or there is fine, but reading volumes of stories is (I think) the real bugbear. People don’t like to “restart” every 30 pages, and I can relate to that.

I look forward to your Brodkey fiction recommendations, Emily - I’ve only read his non-fiction, and I’m aware that I need to give his fiction a try. I remember how much the critics praised him when Stories in an Almost-Classical Mode came out (Deborah Eisenberg, whom I respect enormously and who was my writing teacher at the time, spoke very highly of it, too), but I didn’t get around to reading the collection. Sometimes too much fanfare can put me off an author for years - I have to wait until I’m confident I can approach his or her work with some degree of open-mindedness.

But I also vividly remember a few autobiographical pieces he wrote for TNY in the 90s that turned me off - unbelievably self-centered, much like the piece of his that I commented on above. The man liked his navel. That quality wouldn’t necessarily appear in his fiction, of course, but that’s one of the reasons why I’ve not been eager to try it.

Looking ahead at my essay reading list, I see there’s several of Brodkey’s, and I’m pretty sure that I read at least one of them when it was published. Be interesting to see if I feel differently about it (or them) now.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, it may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Thanks for waiting.)

2008 Webby Awards Official Honoree