A Q&A with “Best American Essays 2022” Guest Editor Alexander Chee
On publishing unpublished authors, what it means to de-tokenize an anthology, and a plethora of (unplanned) Maine connections.
Either you’re someone who buys and reads The Best American Essays anthology put together by Robert Atwan annually since 1986, or you reserve your shelf space for a cast of contributors you recognize and admire. This year, I urge you to step into what could be unknown territory. While the guest editor, Alexander Chee, the bestselling author of the novels Edinburgh and Queen of the Night, should be no stranger to this audience—he happens to be from Cape Elizabeth, a fact I learned when reading his beautiful essay collection How to Write an Autobiographical Novel—when we spoke, Chee told me how he went out of his way to include writers who have never before been featured in the BAE. For a collection that’s steeped in literary kudos, that is no small detail. As Jennifer Chong Schneider writes in her review “No Party Like a Chee Party” for the Medium magazine ANMLY, “from his introduction right through to the last pages, [Chee’s] done something difficult and magical: he’s used the platform to de-tokenize otherness in a mainstream anthology.” Here, Chee and I discuss the book’s process and limitations, its brimming Maine associations, and the joy of discovering an author who speaks to you.
Rachel Hurn: I was surprised at just how many Maine connections there are within the book. From you, of course, to Robert (Bob) Atwan’s foreword, which discusses E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake,” and then to the writers within—Jason Brown’s “The Wrong Jason Brown” from the New Yorker, and then also Alex Marzano-Lesnevich’s “Futurity” from Harvard Review. Were you looking for Maine connections as you were choosing these essays?
Alexander Chee: Not at all. In the case of Jason Brown, for example, I thought it was uncanny that he was from Portland, but the essay is so overwhelmingly powerful. All of these essays found their way to me in different ways. Jason Brown’s is something that I found on my own, whereas, in the case of Alex’s essay, while I do follow Alex on social media and I follow their career pretty intensely, it was actually a finalist that Bob sent to me. In both cases I was thrilled to find them, but I certainly wasn’t like, “And now it’s time for more Maine representation.” [Laughs.]
RH: Every writer in this selection has not been in BEA before, which is not always the case, as you know. How many of these pieces were ones that you did come across on your own and, and how much of the process was a collaborative effort with Bob?
AC: The process is intensely collaborative with Bob, or at least mine was. He told me up front that I would be able to make my own selections, but that he would be sending me lists. I had the ultimate say over what was included, but there were certain restrictions placed on the collection all the same.
I found myself very disappointed by a lot of what I was reading that year. And by disappointed I mean I felt like most of what I was reading was falling into certain staples of the convention of writing an essay, certain cliches. And then, once Bob started sending me his selections, and it became sort of “go time,” I realized that I had to start thinking about, how do I approach this body of work that I haven’t seen yet? In the anthology’s introduction, I address my attempt to create a criteria for myself, which involved not only doing the reading for the anthology, but also rereading favorites from the past, so as to reestablish some intuitive connection as to what I thought was “the best.” The thing about the adjective “best,” you know, is that it’s both a medal and a target. And what I saw in rereading past editions, was that every editor admitted that this was their own subjective opinion. No one tried to say that they were some kind of objective judge of all essays.
RH: What were some of the limitations you came across when looking for your selections?
AC: I was sad that many of my favorite writers had not published essays that year. In a few cases, I was sad they had not published essays in a way that I could find. I was trying very hard to find them, through Google and JSTOR. And at a certain point Bob had asked me, what is a list of writers you really admire? And he tried to keep an eye out also. But there were still essays that I missed all the same. But that’s partly the limits of the process, and it’s why I encourage people to nominate themselves.
RH: Excuse me for quoting you to you, but I love when you write in the introduction: “Keeping them [the essays] keeps me. They retain a sense of who I was, when I first found them, and the possibilities they offered me returns when I reread them. And so I can follow the trail of those thoughts farther each time, following a sense of who I meant to be, and who I might still become.”
That reminded me so much of that feeling one gets, especially a young reader and writer, that they have discovered a writer. And that the writer belongs to them. I used to do this a lot in my twenties. I would see the writer’s name all the time and be like, their work speaks to me and I’m the one who appreciates it the most in the world.
AC: [Laughs.] Yes.
RH: Which is absurd, obviously, because I had thoughts like that about Joan Didian, for example. But what you write is so true about how writing speaks to us. This is your collection and not anyone else’s collection. Each essay that spoke to you will bring you back to a certain time in your life, and you can almost relive your life through that experience.
AC: I think that speaks to that “private anthology of best essays” I mention in the introduction. It functions as a kind of key to memories of experiences of the self, that intimate part of our reading lives. And that is sometimes otherwise difficult to access.
RH: Yes. You also write about how something you do regularly is to read old literary magazines. That you don’t always read the most up and coming thing, the most recent issue of whatever, to be able to say that you did. That it’s not the point.
AC: Correct. And when I was writing that intro, we were seeing two magazines getting into trouble, possibly in danger of closing, which were Conjunctions and The Believer. Sort of an old school magazine and a newer one. I think of The Believer still as a very young magazine.
AC: And it’s why it’s also so devastating to see Astra go under.
RH: I was just thinking that as you were talking, yes. I was a happy subscriber. It’s very sad.
I wanted to also touch on what you mentioned about what kind of message you’re trying to present with this collection of essays. You talk about having lost faith at one point that writing can improve things between people. And how you go from that feeling to persisting both as a reader and a writer, mostly maybe as a writer, that what you write could change someone’s mind.
AC: Well, I think it can and does. I wasn’t suggesting that I had completely given up. It’s more about how I felt like I had found the urge to give up a little too tempting. And I had come back around because of the essays I had found. But I was also finding myself increasingly wary of the idea that we had to be in service to a particular kind of effort as it were. In the sense that there’s a limit to what this writing can accomplish. Which doesn’t make it unvaluable or less valuable. It’s a way of acknowledging what the actual problems are.
You know, something I did have to search for was writing by writers of color and marginalized peoples where the essays didn’t feel like they were created only to speak to that. People have talked about it, how white writers get to write about whatever they want to, and writers of color are only ever asked to write about racism. That does add up on a submission level when I’m looking at the finalists. I can see what the editors in a sense were up to.
RH: Right, right.
CH: And so finding an essay by Vauhini Vara, something I found on my own that did not come out of the submission pile, where she’s writing about her own difficulties with writing about her sister who died, but none of that is centered necessarily on her experience as a South Asian. It’s coming out of a personal sense of grief, and it’s about the presence of technology in our lives. Which is something that I think is on a lot of people’s minds in general in 2022, especially as we see what’s happening with Twitter.
RH: Right. [Laughs.]
AC: And that speaks to the value of magazines like The Believer.
RH: That’s right. So going back to Bob writing in the foreword about E.B. White’s essay “Once More to the Lake,” which was published in Harper’s in 1941. I haven’t done a lot of reading about E.B. White as a person, and I hadn’t realized he had struggled with mental health issues. It was interesting to take that in the context of—this is kind of silly, but there’s this line that shows up around Portland a lot. I don’t know if you have seen these, but there are these posters of Maine with a quote by White printed on top. They’re so prevalent here; they’re in people’s houses, they’re in stores for sale. The line says, “I would rather feel bad in Maine than feel good anywhere else.” Do you know what I’m talking about?
AC: [Laughs.] Um, I have not seen these.
RH: Well, so, in light of reading more about him, I’m like, Oh, wow, that has such a different meaning now. Because he probably was struggling a lot of the time, which then, you know, makes that poster feel really inappropriate.
AC + RH: [Laughs.]
RH: But yeah, it was interesting to get more of a picture of him as a person. Do you have a history with E.B. White?
AC: I haven’t really thought about E.B. White much in the last couple of decades. I know that Bob always goes back to the classics. That’s his thing, right? He has that really deep sense of the essay as an art form and its legacies and so forth. I think it made for a nice contrast or supplement to what I was trying to do, to take the conversation in a direction I hadn’t seen any previous editor take, which was to address the question of how much should we write about our own trauma and to what end?
I don’t know if you saw this review of the anthology—in one of the Medium magazines called ANMLY—by Jennifer Chong Schneider, who I really appreciate. In it she talks about how I de-tokenized inclusivity in the way that I did this collection. And then near the end, she says,
“Like all the volumes in the series, the foreword is by series editor Robert Atwan. For 2022, he writes about ‘Once More to the Lake’ by E. B. White. ‘Open any first-year writing anthology and there it was,’ Atwan writes. I took him up on this challenge, opened the book I use to teach my freshman comp class, and easily found it. In a beautiful essay that is destined to be plagiarized by freshmen for years to come, Atwan offers a well-contextualized close and critical reading of the classic essay. But my recurring thought while reading through this anthology is that, actually, this 2022 collection would be a much better Freshman Comp textbook than almost anything I’ve used in class (I’ve taught intro English for well over a decade). The volume opens with a professor getting arrested. What more could entice a new college student to get lost in these pages?”
AC + RH: [Laughs.]
RH: Right. I guess that’s what I was trying to get at when talking about writing that changes people’s minds, but also just writing that’s good because it’s good, and then there’s writing that does both. Your essay choices make this a very refreshing read.
I imagine it’s hard not to feel like you’re still reading with this collection in mind, after having been so immersed in it for a time. Who are the people that are still speaking to you now, who you feel readers should check out?
AC: So, Chelsea Hodson was one of those favorite essayists who did not publish an essay that year. And Neema Avashia whose collection, Another Appalachia just came out. Also Lars Horn. They had a book-length essay called Voice of the Fish that was excerpted, and I was very sad to find that it wasn’t eligible as a result. Also Raquel Gutiérrez’s Brown Neon. That’s an essay collection that came out this year also. And there’s a really remarkable book that came out by the writer CJ Hauser called The Crane Wife: A Memoir in Essays.
RH: This is great, thank you.
So I want to let you move on with your life, but is there anything else you wanted to say about this process and about your choices?
AC: I think what I want to say is, part of what I was doing was trying to welcome into the anthology the people who I thought were really pushing at the limits of what essays can do. Whether it’s Elissa Washuta publishing an essay about becoming sober in Harper’s Bazaar, or whether it’s Brian Blanchfield, the aforementioned professor who was arrested…
AC + RH: [Laughs]
AC: Blanchfield is a poet and an essayist, and I thought what he did was so fascinating, the way he arranged it with every paragraph of the essay beginning with the same first line. And writing the essay in such a way that the reader is always playing catch-up to what has already occurred in the events described. It’s a fascinating mix of these kinds of efforts. I was also trying to concentrate on, where are readers finding essays now? And the answers are often social media, whether it is a newsletter like Roxane Gay’s The Audacity, where she publishes new and emerging writers and where this collection’s penultimate essay comes from, or whether it is me finding Tanner Akoni Laguatan’s remarkable memorial essay in Wired. His first ever published essay.
RH: Yes. The first thing I read when I picked this book up was the contributors’ notes. And that stuck out to me immediately, learning that it was someone’s first published essay. There isn’t this presumption that someone couldn’t be included in an anthology like this if they didn’t have an existing book, or several, or whatever.
AC: There’s a long running frustration that I’ve had, for example, every time the Whiting Awards are announced. Where the awards have gone a great deal to support a more inclusive sense of our literature. But it often means that when these writers are being featured, and you go to look for their work online or in magazines, they aren’t there. It took, in some ways, them getting the award to get the kind of attention from literary magazines—or other magazines, period—that they might otherwise get. And that’s messed up. That’s just wrong.
So I don’t know how that changes at the level of magazines all across the country, but something that was certainly visible to me when I was going around checking the mastheads of different magazines to see what they published last year, was the remarkable lack of diversity still in so many of them. So it becomes more likely that, say, Tanner, working with a black editor at Wired as a freelancer, could pitch and publish that essay than he might have done somewhere else. Which is why we have to, for those of us doing this kind of work, why we have to pay attention to the places where we aren’t necessarily expecting to find this kind of literary writing.
RH: Right. Yes.
AC: That was a very long answer.
RH: No, it was great. It was a beautiful answer. Thank you. It’s been lovely to chat.
AC: My pleasure.
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