Readers' Delight: Best Fiction and Nonfiction While Short Stories Are Less Artistic in 1996 Than Earlier in the Century, This Year's Essays Are the Best They've Ever Been

By Wood, Carl | The Christian Science Monitor, December 3, 1996 | Go to article overview

Readers' Delight: Best Fiction and Nonfiction While Short Stories Are Less Artistic in 1996 Than Earlier in the Century, This Year's Essays Are the Best They've Ever Been


Wood, Carl, The Christian Science Monitor


The Best America Essays: 1996

Edited by Geoffrey C. Ward and Robert Atwan

Houghton Mifflin 370 pp., $27 (cloth) $12.95 (paper) The Best American Short Stories: 1996 Edited by John Edgar Wideman and Katrina Kenison Houghton Mifflin 363 pp., $25 (cloth) $12.95 (paper) Here's an annual treat for all who follow developments in current American prose: this year's versions of "The Best American Short Stories" and "The Best American Essays." A mere glance at the tables of contents might make a book lover grab one or both collections for the daily train or bus commute or the bedside table. As usual, each volume's contents are selected by a distinguished guest editor backed up by an industrious series editor and staff who have surveyed nearly every story and essay published in the United States and Canada in the past 12 months. Who could resist titles like "Slouching Toward Washington," "The Incredible Appearing Man," "Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot," and "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Elvis"? As a literary diptych, these two books portray the contrasting states of our contemporary fiction and nonfiction: American essay writing has never been better, while current American fiction, compared with writing earlier this century, is lower in artistic quality though high in social merit. Rich essays In the past few decades, a rich stew of expository prose has bubbled up covering a nearly infinite range of topics and producing continual, superb examples of the American essay. The 1996 collection illustrates the genre's basic divide since Michel de Montaigne and Francis Bacon independently pioneered the essay more than 400 years ago. Some of these essays show a Montaigne-like introspection or mental play, like such delightful selections as Nicholson Baker's "Books as Furniture," and Joseph Epstein's "The Art of the Nap." More frequently, however, and typically for pragmatic America, these essays are more extroverted or didactic in the Baconian tradition. In this vein we have well-written scientific essays on owls, black widow spiders, and the nature of diseases; political pieces on Indira Ghandi's assassination and the Million Man March on Washington; an absorbing socio-environmental discussion of "The Trouble With Wilderness"; and even an academically stilted but arresting report, "Understanding Afrocentrism: Why Blacks Dream of a World Without Whites." Novelist Joyce Carol Oates is the only writer to appear in both volumes, although neither her story nor her essay is among the finest works here. This award-winning author illustrates the failing of contemporary American fiction in general: The artistic quality of her work, like fiction generally today, does not reach the heights attained by great writers earlier in this century. Very few 20th-century American authors have been more prolific or enjoyed more success than Oates, and her ghost story and her essay on abandoned homes are thoroughly competent. Yet few literary critics would find in her style and themes the greatness of earlier authors such as Ernest Hemingway or Edith Wharton. On the other hand, these writers succeeded in part because of their wealthy, socially prominent families. So if the poor farm girl Oates had been born 50 years earlier, into a less socially progressive American society, her worthy productions might never have appeared in print. Democracy of fiction If contemporary American literature hasn't yet matched the greatness of the best of this century's achievements, at least, as the 1996 collection demonstrates, US authors today represent a much broader cross-section of society. It is heartening and fascinating to meet, in this collection, fine works not only by women who are not wealthy, but also those by African-Americans, Latinos, and Americans whose families have arrived recently from three parts of Asia. …

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