Nonfiction Essayists

There’s something about a shiny new collection of essays that makes my heart beat a little faster. If you feel the same way, can we be friends? If not, might I suggest that perhaps you just haven’t found the right collection yet? I don’t expect everyone to love the thought of sitting down with a nice, juicy personal essay, but I also think the genre gets a bad rap because people associate it with the kind of thing they had to write in school.

Well, essays don’t have to be like the kind of thing you wrote in school. Essays can be anything, really. They can be personal, confessional, argumentative, informative, funny, sad, shocking, sexy, and all of the above. The best essayists can make any subject interesting. If I love an essayist, I’ll read whatever they write. I’ll follow their minds anywhere. Because that’s really what I want out of an essay — the sense that I’m spending time with an interesting mind. I want a companionable, challenging, smart, surprising voice in my head.

So below is my list, not of essay collections I think everybody “must read,” even if that’s what my title says, but collections I hope you will consider checking out if you want to.

1. Against Interpretation — Susan Sontag
2. Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere — André Aciman
3. American Romances — Rebecca Brown
4. Art and Ardor — Cynthia Ozick
5. The Art of the Personal Essay — anthology, edited by Phillip Lopate
6. Bad Feminist — Roxane Gay
7. The Best American Essays of the Century — anthology, edited by Joyce Carol Oates
8. The Best American Essays series — published every year, series edited by Robert Atwan
9. Book of Days — Emily Fox Gordon
10. The Boys of My Youth — Jo Ann Beard
11. The Braindead Megaphone — George Saunders
12. Broken Republic: Three Essays — Arundhati Roy
13. Changing My Mind — Zadie Smith
14. A Collection of Essays — George Orwell
15. The Common Reader — Virginia Woolf
16. Consider the Lobster — David Foster Wallace
17. The Crack-up — F. Scott Fitzgerald
18. Discontent and its Civilizations — Mohsin Hamid
19. Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric — Claudia Rankine
20. Dreaming of Hitler — Daphne Merkin
21. Self-Reliance and Other Essays — Ralph Waldo Emerson
22. The Empathy Exams — Leslie Jameson
23. Essays After Eighty — Donald Hall
24. Essays in Idleness — Yoshida Kenko
25. The Essays of Elia— Charles Lamb
26. Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader — Anne Fadiman
27. A Field Guide to Getting Lost — Rebecca Solnit
28. Findings — Kathleen Jamie
29. The Fire Next Time — James Baldwin
30. The Folded Clock — Heidi Julavits
31. Forty-One False Starts — Janet Malcolm
32. How To Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America — Kiese Laymon
33. I Feel Bad About My Neck — Nora Ephron
34. I Just Lately Started Buying Wings — Kim Dana Kupperman
35. In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction — anthology, edited by Lee Gutkind
36. In Praise of Shadows — Junichiro Tanizaki
37. In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens — Alice Walker
38. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? — Mindy Kaling
39. I Was Told There’d Be Cake — Sloane Crosley
40. Karaoke Culture — Dubravka Ugresic
41. Labyrinths — Jorge Luis Borges
42. Living, Thinking, Looking — Siri Hustvedt
43. Loitering — Charles D’Ambrosio
44. Lunch With a Bigot — Amitava Kumar
45. Madness, Rack, and Honey — Mary Ruefle
46. Magic Hours — Tom Bissell
47. Meatless Days — Sara Suleri
48. Meaty — Samantha Irby
49. Meditations from a Movable Chair — Andre Dubus
50. Memories of a Catholic Girlhood — Mary McCarthy
51. Me Talk Pretty One Day — David Sedaris
52. Multiply/Divide: On the American Real and Surreal — Wendy S. Walters
53. My 1980s and Other Essays — Wayne Koestenbaum
54. The Next American Essay, The Lost Origins of the Essay, and The Making of the American Essay — anthologies, edited by John D’Agata
55. The Norton Book of Personal Essays — anthology, edited by Joseph Epstein
56. Notes from No Man’s Land — Eula Biss
57. Notes of a Native Son — James Baldwin
58. Not That Kind of Girl — Lena Dunham
59. On Beauty and Being Just — Elaine Scarry
60. Once I Was Cool — Megan Stielstra
61. 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write — Sarah Ruhl
62. On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored — Adam Phillips
63. On Lies, Secrets, and Silence — Adrienne Rich
64. The Opposite of Loneliness — Marina Keegan
65. Otherwise Known as the Human Condition — Geoff Dyer
66. Paris to the Moon — Adam Gopnik
67. Passions of the Mind — A.S. Byatt
68. The Pillow Book — Sei Shonagon
69. A Place to Live — Natalia Ginzburg
70. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination — Toni Morrison
71. Pulphead — John Jeremiah Sullivan
72. Selected Essays — Michel de Montaigne
73. Shadow and Act — Ralph Ellison
74. Sidewalks — Valeria Luiselli
75. Sister Outsider — Audre Lorde
76. The Size of Thoughts — Nicholson Baker
77. Slouching Towards Bethlehem — Joan Didion
78. The Souls of Black Folk — W. E. B. Du Bois
79. The Story About the Story — anthology, edited by J.C. Hallman
80. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again — David Foster Wallace
81. Ten Years in the Tub — Nick Hornby
82. Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man — Henry Louis Gates
83. This Is Running for Your Life — Michelle Orange
84. This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage — Ann Patchett
85. Tiny Beautiful Things — Cheryl Strayed
86. Tuxedo Junction: Essays on American Culture — Gerald Early
87. Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints — Joan Acocella
88. The Unspeakable — Meghan Daum
89. Vermeer in Bosnia — Lawrence Weschler
90. The Wave in the Mind — Ursula K. Le Guin
91. We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think— Shirley Hazzard
92. We Should All Be Feminists — Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi
93. What Are People For? — Wendell Berry
94. When I Was a Child I Read Books — Marilynne Robinson
95. The White Album — Joan Didion
96. White Girls — Hilton Als
97. The Woman Warrior — Maxine Hong Kinston
98. The Writing Life — Annie Dillard
99. Writing With Intent — Margaret Atwood
100. You Don’t Have to Like Me — Alida Nugent

If you have a favorite essay collection I’ve missed here, let me know in the comments!

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It was online that I first read Gay and Jamison (who has since become a Bookends columnist), and it’s online that I’ve done most of my essay reading in recent years, discovering and sharing work by writers both new and already known to me. In this insular yet influential milieu — where the measure of success has nothing to do with book deals or best-seller lists but is quite simply many people posting a link preceded by a sentiment along the lines of You have to read this — the personal essay is king. Online, any number of women essayists have found, if not fame, at least a fervent following of the sort that would be hard to imagine happening elsewhere. Among even the noblest publishers, essay collections are generally as popular as a kid with head lice at a slumber party, thanks to the oft-repeated mantra that essay collections don’t sell. Never mind Joan Didion, Anne Lamott, Alice Walker, Nora Ephron, Annie Dillard, Meghan Daum, Sloane Crosley, Zadie Smith and Sarah Vowell, among many others — and I haven’t even mentioned all the men essayists — whose collections definitely sell in spite of the fact that they aren’t supposed to. (I also wonder about the maddening chicken-and-egg situation of those essay collections not made available for sale because, well, they “don’t sell.”)

When I saw “The Empathy Exams” appear on the best-seller list in April and “Bad Feminist” appear there in August, I felt that the ground had shifted ever so slightly. Not for women, necessarily, but for the essay itself. Surely many factors can be rightly credited for the success of those books — that they’re intelligent and beautifully written, for starters. That they were well served by editors, designers and marketing and publicity teams who knew what they were doing counts too. But I can’t help thinking their success also owes something to those in the online literary community whose You have to read this enthusiasm spilled over into the real world. By which I mean a whole lot of people went out and bought books by authors they probably wouldn’t have found if it weren’t for the Internet. If we’re in a golden age of anything, I’d say it’s that: a slightly more democratic route for essayists of both sexes to get themselves on the literary map.

Cheryl Strayed is the author of the #1 New York Times best seller “Wild,” the New York Times best seller “Tiny Beautiful Things,” and the novel “Torch.” Strayed’s writing has appeared in “The Best American Essays,” The New York Times Magazine, Vogue, Salon, Tin House, The Rumpus — where she wrote the popular “Dear Sugar” advice column — and elsewhere. The movie adaptation of “Wild,” starring Reese Witherspoon, will be released in December. Strayed holds an MFA in fiction writing from Syracuse University and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota. She lives in Portland, Ore., with her husband and their two children.

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By Benjamin Moser

Much has changed — Sontag’s department head at Harvard did not “believe” in female graduate students — but one thing has not.

“Above all, they thought of women as ‘we,’ ” Carolyn Heilbrun wrote of the poets — Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich — born between the wars. Would Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, Elizabeth Hardwick, Renata Adler, Maya Angelou, Janet Malcolm — essayists of roughly the same generation — agree even to be described as “women essayists”? The adjective “women,” after all, so often places them in quarantine, suggesting, in Clarice Lispector’s words, “a closed community, separate, and in some sense segregated.”

If these writers thought of women as “we” — surely none thought of women as “them” — they rarely agreed on what, beyond biology, that meant. Biology was the starting point for what the French feminist Hélène Cixous called l’écriture féminine, and Rich urged women to “begin, at last, to think through the body.” Others feared that writing too explicitly as women would mean erecting a ghetto wall. Unwilling to brick themselves into traditional subjects like education, romance, motherhood and fashion, they tried to carry on as if sex didn’t really matter. “I would lie to myself about how complicated it is to be a woman,” Sontag had one of her characters confess. “Thus do all women, including the author of this book.”

But what did it mean to be honest about how complicated it is to be a woman? What, besides a sex, did women share? As only Jews announce that they aren’t really that Jewish, only women announce that their sex is irrelevant. But in artistic matters, it is disagreement rather than agreement — texts and their responses — that lay out territory, that make up a tradition. And the creation of a tradition where there was none before is the great legacy of the women essayists born between the wars.

This tradition came to life with all the energy of a people freed from a ghetto. In 1929, the year Adrienne Rich was born, Virginia Woolf could still ask: “Who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet’s heart when caught and tangled in a woman’s body?” As if on cue, essays by Rebecca West, Simone de Beauvoir and Hannah Arendt began pouring forth. It was a start, but not yet a tradition: Carolyn Heilbrun, born in 1926, titled her intellectual memoir “When Men Were the Only Models We Had.”

No essayist young enough to be Heilbrun’s granddaughter could say the same. If entering a golden age means stumbling forth from a desolate medievalism, the successors of Sontag and Didion have a high bar to clear. But the good thing about having such illustrious predecessors is that they don’t have to try. Tradition, like grammar, is something that exists for a writer to rubbish or pervert, elevate or refine; it lays out paths of expression but does not confine its users to them. It is a great conquest of feminism that women writers today no longer have to write as women. That does not mean writing as men; it means writing as writers.

But if the feminist revolution was a movement for individual liberation (“the poet’s heart”), it was also, like the gay and black revolutions to which it was intimately connected, a movement for social justice: for “women as ‘we.’ ” Barriers have fallen, and much has changed — Sontag’s department head at Harvard did not “believe” in female graduate students — but one thing has not. With its thicket of allusions and the expensive education required to grasp them, the essay has largely been a bourgeois form. It doesn’t have to be. A generation might prove itself worthy of those predecessors who opened the genre to women by opening it to more people, women and men, black and white, gay or straight, who didn’t go to Harvard, who never took a seminar on l’écriture féminine.

Benjamin Moser is the author of “Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector,”a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award, and the general editor of the new translations of Clarice Lispector at New Directions. A former New Books columnist at Harper’s Magazine,he is currently writing the authorized biography of Susan Sontag. He lives in the Netherlands.

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