The golden age of essay collections is upon us. Stop yawning. This is a good thing. By Jenna Schnuer.It doesn't take me long to pack for a trip. That is, until it's time to decide which book I'm going to bring with me. I stand in front of my bookshelves, choosing, putting back, trying to figure out which one will do the trick - which book will indulge all the moods I might swing through while I'm away. Luckily, publishers aplenty have been churning out a solution to my problem: single-topic essay anthologies. Each pulls together the writing of 10 or more authors who, at some point, responded to an editor's request for pieces about relationships, food, high school, or whatever other topic he or she successfully pitched in a book proposal. Now when the funny doesn't do it for me, I can flip the page. Soon enough, I'll land on an author well suited to my needs.
I checked in with the editors of some recent collections to find out why they did it and what they learned while wending their way through all those essays on the topic at hand.
Jenny Offill: Elissa said [another] thing that everybody is fascinated by but that we're not reading stories about, because it's too painful for most people to write about, is money. We worked up a proposal about why it's so difficult, it seems, for Americans to talk about money. They either feel like they have too much and feel guilty or that people will be jealous of them, or feel like they have too little and that they're sort of a failure.
Elissa Schappell: Everybody talks about their marriages and their drug habits, but people will not talk about money.
So did it make you nervous to ask people to contribute to the book?
ES: Yes. I wasn't prepared - it was more difficult than I thought it would be. I thought people might be a little dodgy but [that they'd] come through. I thought people would be resistant; I didn't think they would be as resistant as they were.
What surprised you most about the essays?
ES: I was surprised at how vulnerable people made themselves in the pieces. The stories are very emotional. People made themselves very naked. I think money does that. It really strips us down to our core.
What do you think readers get out of anthologies?
JO: It's not just sort of looking through people's windows. A lot of people like to read anthologies because they give them a little mirror to their own lives. They don't feel like "it's just me."