As an avid Best American Essays reader, I really can't think of better news than this. Since its inception in 1986, each of the BAE volumes have reflected the fluid, ever-changing nature of the essay as a form, with each guest editor defining the terms as s/he went. Through much of the Nineties, thanks to practitioners/advocates like Phillip Lopate, Ian Frazier, and of course series editor Robert Atwan, the term "personal essay" became accepted as a sort-form hybrid of criticism, lyric meditation, argument, and/or personal memoir. For the last fifteen years or so of the series, though, I've noticed less stability in definition of what exactly an essay is, which I think is a good thing for the essay as a form - it's more shapeshifting and mellifluous than ever because of this instability - but has made for some wildly varied BAE volumes. Last year's volume, edited by David Brooks, was on the whole stolid and reportorial; 2011, edited by Edwidge Danticat, was intensely personal and memoir-laden; 2010, edited by Christopher Hitchens in the last year of his life, was heavy on argument and did little to alleviate the conception of the essay as the domain of old white guys.
This year, with Strayed as Guest Editor, we get a bona fide superstar. Her bestselling memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail made her as close to a mainstream name as nonfiction writers get, and Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of her Dear Sugar columns for The Rumpus, kept her in tight with the more literary types. From a PR point of view, there's no possibly better choice for Best American Essays.
Of course, I'm no publicist. I'm a writer, and as such I can see no better choice. I actually wrote a review of one of her earlier essays in my BAE series on Hunger Mountain, with some rudimentary photoshopped splicing of a photo of her with some Sugarcubes album covers that had my editor considering killing the review so neither she nor the Sugarcubes management would come after us.
I eventually convinced my editor that the Sugarcubes were sufficiently broken up and wouldn't care; I did worry a bit about Strayed though. One of the splices in particular could be interpreted as disrespectful, though I didn't mean it that way. I wanted her to like me, and didn't want her not to like me.
Less than a day after the review was published online, I saw a tweet from Strayed:
@HungerMtn What a cool piece. Thank you, John Proctor.
Now I'm not typically prone to be starstruck, but I'm unashamed to admit my first reaction was, "She liked it!" And my brief interaction with her was not atypical. Cheryl Strayed, more than most writers, welcomes the social, interactive nature of writing, or more specifically essaying, a form of writing which, however it is defined, is characterized by interaction - with memory, with experience, with other texts. Can't wait until October 8!