Whoopee—it’s an Anthology
First, I hate the term “creative nonfiction.” It sounds like a genre with a serious chip on its shoulder, screaming out to anyone who will listen, “I used to be a contender.” How about noncreative nonfiction, or really creative or relatively creative or not-on-your-life-creative nonfiction? Let us just say “literary nonfiction” or “literary nonfictive prose” and proceed.
Second, as a reader, I’m not crazy about anthologies. After all, who, besides a steamrolled student, goes out to buy an anthology? Here’s a combination of words you’ve never heard: “Hey, Honey, this Friday evening let’s go out, get a bite to eat, drop by Borders, and pick up an anthology.” Take it a step further: “Hey, Honey, let’s go out, get a bite to eat, drop by Borders, and pick up an anthology of creative nonfiction.” Typically, “Anthology” has a connotation of gossamer-thin pages filled with miniscule-font-sized sentences that run into adjacent zip codes and paragraphs that meander from Eastern to Pacific Standard Time; they weigh 50 percent more than the all the other contents in a book bag and induce not only a reluctance to read, but represent the best argument I can think of for Cliff Notes.
However, as a teacher, I must admit that The Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Literary Nonfiction . . . er, I mean . . . Creative Nonfiction, [End Page 156] edited by Lex Williford and Michael Martone, is about the best collection of essays and short memoir to be found between book covers. While students may still respond to anthologies as something akin to literary torture, at least they’ll sense that Williford and Martone are sticking to the more humane procedures outlined in the U.S. Army Field Manual.
This is a book for educators, and Williford establishes in the foreword the principles by which he and Martone solicited from “teaching writers” (via a “sophisticated democratic online survey”) the titles of “the most compelling contemporary nonfiction they’ve taught in their creative writing workshops and their composition and literature classes.” Thus, in one fell swoop, the editors have produced an eclectic collection that not only captures literary nonfiction in all its variety, but succeeds in keeping teachers from those late night hours at the copying machine, surreptitiously violating copyright law.
If an anthology is a bibliographic shopping mall, then the editors must make sure to provide for anchor stores, the literary flagship equivalents of Filene’s, Bloomingdales, Sears, Dillards, etc.—the big names that hypnotically drive the consumers through their entrances, allowing for serendipitous excursions to the smaller retailers symbiotically lining the corridors. Similarly, The Touchstone Anthology anchors its pages with our own literary flagships: Dillard, Lopate, Berry, McPhee, Lopez, Sedaris—to name just a few. And while I have read Annie Dillard’s “Living Like Weasels” so many times that I could perform it as a soliloquy at my son’s next birthday party, I also try to keep in mind my reaction when I first read it. The marvelous voice and images and narrative line. We anthologize and reread certain authors because of their greatness, their ability to beguile us with the virtuosity of their storytelling techniques. An anthology, I must grudgingly concede, is probably the best way to pass those first impressions on to a new audience.
While many anthologies arrange the contents by subject or year or theme, the editors forthrightly chose to move alphabetically by author. A wise and fortuitous choice, given that the first essay, JoAnn Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter,” demonstrates all at once the gorgeous possibilities of literary memoir. From the somnambulistic images of her opening sentence, “The collie wakes me up about three times a night, summoning me from a great distance as I row my boat through a dim, complicated dream,” to the dark foreshadowing of friends and colleagues “whose lives are ticking like alarm clocks ready to go off,” to shifting points of view in which the narrator moves...