As a student of writing in Annie Dillard’s class at Wesleyan in the spring of 1989, she taught us a way of using the Best American anthologies as a roadmap to contemporary publishing, a real tool for writers–it wasn’t just an honor roll. Annie herself, it turned out, was editing an edition of that anthology, Best American Essays of 1988, as well as finishing work on her book, The Writing Life. Her Best American was one I’d keep for years because it had essays that I kept learning from, like Anne Carson’s amazing “Kinds of Water”, later collected in her book Plainwater. I read that essay repeatedly, for about a decade.
Also, Annie’s introduction to the edition was a manifesto, a call to action:
A bizarre switch has occurred in this century. Fiction is newly intellectually respectable. Some writers want to call their work fiction, no matter what it is — as if the word “fiction” were not descriptive but honorific, as if fiction didn’t mean fabrication but artfulness. Truman Capote called In Cold Blood fiction, and Norman Mailer called The Executioner’s Song fiction. Few readers or critics care much about genre, actually, and each of the writers may have had motives wholly unrelated to genre. But the issue interests me. Both narratives are meticulously factual. Dramatic and vivid narration, and character, dialogue and so forth, are not exclusive to fiction, nor forbidden to nonfiction, as both writers presumably knew. It might be then, that they judged, or their editors judged, that calling these nonfiction works “fiction” would alert readers and critics to the possibility that there was meaning afoot here, or skill — as indeed there was. But why fudge genre?
And then a paragraph later:
My guess is that the writers (quite reasonably) want to be understood as artiss, and they aren’t sure that the essay form invites the sort of critical analysis the works deserve. One purpose of this volume, then, is to encourage essay writers out of the closet.
Ironically, this was before the bloom of the memoir. Annie’s career was apart from that, it should be said. Elizabeth Wurtzel was still at Harvard, Prozac Nation was undiscovered territory, much less what lay beyond it. In a few years we would all see the birth of a different kind of narrative — the Memoir as the new “Great American Novel”, only to see it then wracked by scandal — memoir after memoir discredited as invented. Discredited for being…an actual novel, with one practitioner publishing his next book as an actual novel (see under James Frey). In a way, the time she called for still hasn’t quite arrived.
Annie was a shrewd Scout Leader, and understood several things about publishing that she was at pains to have us know right up front: “Nonfiction makes more money than fiction,” she announced in class one day. “It sells more copies and publishers pay more for it.” Even just a few essays could help us keep afloat, she said, and I remember thinking about this when a commission from Edmund White for my essay “After Peter”, published in his anthology Loss Within Loss, helped me afford to go to a writer’s colony and work on my first novel.
Personal essays, Annie told us, were also the best way for an editor to meet your voice. And as they were written on experiences that had already happened, it meant the editor and the magazine didn’t have to spend any money to send you anywhere. You had already done what was needed to write the piece.
Annie taught out of Best American Essays in part, she told us, because it took the temperature of what was being published and who was publishing it. But there was more to it than that. Here’s basically how she taught us to use the book, in a three easy steps.
- After every essay or story (these rules apply for Best American Short Stories) take a look at the magazine who published the story, and if you feel like your work is at all close to the essay or story, note that and consider it as a place to send your work.
- In the back of the anthology is a list of the magazines the editors consulted, and these magazines are where you want to be published, in order to be noticed by editors and agents. Also, implicitly, being published in those magazines means a chance to be included in a future edition of the anthology.
- Do not use these addresses directly to submit work, but double-check them against live issues of the magazine, the most current one, for two reasons. The first is that they may have moved offices. The second is that some use a version of their published address in both this anthology and in Literary Marketplace to tell them who is basically just getting their address and sending them essays or fiction blind, and who is a real reader of theirs, who actually knows what’s in the magazine. And you should read the magazine to make sure it’s the right place for your work. Part of submitting work is making it easy for the editor to say yes, and that means, knowing what they like and what they publish.
- And then this last bit is my twist: you can use Best American Short Stories this way, also Best American Travel Writing, and Poetry, and so on. And the O. Henry Prize and Pushcart Prize anthologies as well.
None of this of course expresses the devotion I felt to the Anne Carson essay, which I loved desperately, and which I had to read again and again. Nor does it speak to the way in which the collection consistently is a portrait of the sensibility of the series guest editor each year, and how this is of a subtle but important value to a student writer who’s perhaps studying that writer’s work. In my case, Annie had forbade us to read her while we studied her. “I’ll have enough of an impact on you,” she said. “You’re going to try to please me anyway, so at least wait, so you won’t imitate me.” When, that fall, after I’d graduated, I found her edition of that anthology, I remember I bought it the moment I saw it, in a burst of homesickness for school. I was living in San Francisco, working in a bookstore and feeling a little lost now that the writing and what happened to it was all up to me. Reading that edition turned out to be a way to keep her considerable wisdom with me in the years that followed, like a kind of guide and a bullwark against total inertia. I still have it in my office.