Each of the nominated essays was published, produced, or performed sometime during 2008.
Nominated by Brian Lennon, author of City: An Essay and professor of creative writing at Penn State University
"The seventh volume of The Grand Piano, a serially published collective autobiography composed through a listserv interchange, both documents and re-enacts the historical formation of an essayistic literary community. During a period of economic stagnation--which was marked at the time by most world-system historians as the beginning of the end of the U.S. empire--a group of writers in San Francisco developed a genuinely independent indigenous U.S. literary intellectual culture, one which has left its mark, thirty years later, on both sides of the still largely divided house of U.S. literature. That many of these writers have been absorbed by the academy ought not to obscure their important independence from university culture during this formative period, when they lived at once as writers and as genuine intellectuals without university affiliation. They lived, in other words, as essayists, in a space between soullessly bureaucratic literary scholarship and mindlessly narcissistic 'creative writing.' As we enter an era of retrenchment, with systemic crises eroding the credit-based luxury of our era of ultra-individualist literary hypercommoditization and hyperconsumption, we might learn a lesson or two about what the future may hold from this historiography of a productive secession."
Nominated by Julie Shapiro, Artistic Director of the Third Coast International Audio Festival
"After a year of listening to radio docs about everything under the sun, I've decided to nominate Elizabeth Arnold's '90 Degrees North' for the 2009 Essay Prize. This story, produced for the Stories from the Heart Land series from Transom.org and the Nature Conservancy, struck a chord the first time I heard it. Since then I've listened probably a dozen times to it, and am still overwhelmed in the same places, surprised in others, and, inevitably, shivering a little by the end. Arnold's narration drives the story forward while her field recordings ground you in her experience. She writes succinctly and includes perfect details--the chocolate craving, the golf outing, the cell phone call home--that give clear impressions of both her unique external surroundings and deep internal reflections. She asks some questions, answers others, and ultimately lets you draw your own conclusions. While she comes across as the consummate public radio host and narrator, Arnold's own personality and voice are unmistakable in the piece, and I think it's her own allure, as a curious, brave and persistent human being, that draws you in every time. (As we like to say . . .) Radio has the power to 'transport' listeners to places they'd never experience otherwise, and '90 Degrees North' certainly does that--inviting you along on a very private, distant adventure from the comforts of your own home, cubicle, or wherever else your ipod takes you. And you just may ponder some of life's biggest questions along the way."
Nominated by David Shields, author of The Thing About Life is That One Day You’ll Be Dead and professor of creative writing at the University of Washington
"I've long been a serious and passionate admirer of Julian Barnes's work--especially the more overtly meditative books such as Flaubert's Parrot and A History of the World in 10 Chapters, along with his brilliant translation of and introduction to In the Land of Pain--but I think Nothing to be Frightened Of might be my new favorite book of his. It's the most unsprung and naked; it's the riskiest, the most full of feeling, existentially the deepest and most searching, and the most moving. It's a great book."
Nominated by Maggie Nelson, author of The Red Parts and professor of critical studies at the California Institute of the Arts
"What would an essay on our condition as beings of both language and labor look like without words? What would an essay look like if it were constructed post-apocalypse, in a landscape that rendered previous functions of language and logic no longer viable? What would an essay do if it had to sift through, haul, organize, and transform not only the detritus of language, but also the material detritus of earth and human waste? What might the fate of the essay be in a landscape of decimated resources and transformed models of communication and relation, in which visual ceremony and non-verbal sound displaced normative linguistic structures? 'All Together Now' sets up shop in the wreckage of these questions, utilizing a language which both manufactures a felt sense of the ineffable while also allowing the viewer a strange, incomparable access to it, in all its terror and glory."
Nominated by Aaron Kunin, author of Secret Architecture and winner of the 2006 Essay Prize
"Francois's essay is a work of academic criticism, written in a highly specialized language, and densely footnoted. Its seemingly modest contribution to literary history is to close an 'intertextual loop' connecting a group of Hardy's poems to passages in Virgil's Aeneid and Eclogues. In the process, Francois discovers a previously unremarked mode of love. She calls it 'the missing of love' or 'that strangely imperceptive capacity sometimes designated as 'faith' or 'trust' . . . that odd power, which is no power, thoughtlessly to count on the other's continued presence or to rest so securely in possession of one's love as to forget its vulnerability.' On this account, one way of being loved--and not a bad way--is to be taken for granted. The argument is built out of painstaking studies of the tones of Hardy's and Virgil's lines. Not only is Francois an extraordinarily sensitive reader of the tones of poetry, but she is also able to test and exemplify them in the medium of the essay. She fixates on a line or a word and turns it over and over, and with each turn she allows you to hear it a little differently. Who knew that the academic essay could be such a sensitive instrument, or that the powerless powers of criticism could achieve so much?"
Nominated by Ross McElwe, director of “Sherman’s March” and professor of film studies at Harvard University
"I nominate this essay because it is whimsically profound."
Nominated by Ander Monson, author of Neck Deep: And Other Predicaments and professor of English at the University of Arizona
"This film is incredibly bizarre, visually spectacular, and like some/all of his other work is quite obviously an essay in both its aims (unclear, changing, exploring, roaming) and its methods (documenting, interviewing, editing, narrating, asking and rarely answering its own questions) so much that it ends up becoming far more about the investigating mind than its ostensible subject. It becomes increasingly hilarious as it goes on, culminating (to my mind) in the penguins scene. The DVD itself is in some ways more essay—offering a variety of sidetracks—than the actual film itself; and also in the way that DVDs are increasingly forced to offer more of the original art than the original work of art itself, so that they are productions in themselves."
Nominated by Heidi Julavits, author of The Mineral Palace and founding editor of The Believer
"When an essayist attempts to write about a book, or a painting, or a film, or music, the biggest obstacle is this: how not to bore readers who have never read that book, seen that painting, viewed that film, or heard that music? How, even, to engage readers without defaulting to lengthy or technical descriptions that are, at best, a second-generation experience, often created using the tools of an entirely different artistic medium? Theodore McDermott, in his essay about the music of an obscure (to most people) band, deftly navigates the trick of making readers feel like they've heard these songs that they've never heard before. While he occasionally attempts to quantify the sound in concrete terms, his essay relies more heavily on evoking an atmosphere, a kind of emotional low pressure zone, that leaves the reader feeling (yes, feeling) after-effects that are akin to having listened to the music."
Nominated by Eula Biss, author of The Baloonists and visiting instructor at Northwestern University
"Marilynne Robinson's two most recent novels are more essayistic than they are anything else, and the voice of the narrator in Gilead is not unlike Robinson's voice as an essayist, but her work has received considerably more attention and acclaim when published as fiction than it has when published as nonfiction. I suspect this may have something to do with genre-based prejudices about where true artistry resides, but then there is also the fact that Robinson's essays tend to be almost unpleasantly hard--they demand the unpacking of highly compressed ideas, the spanning of centuries of thought, and the forwarding of a certain degree of earnest social concern. This essay, titled 'A Great Amnesia' by Harper's, is less difficult than some of her other essays (perhaps because it was originally presented as a speech) but the density of ideas and the urgent desire to reclaim a misunderstood history of thought is still there. I am drawn to what Robinson is saying in this essay (in part because it explains something I've noticed but could not explain myself--the eerie echoes between the small college towns of New England and the small college towns of the Midwest) but I also find how she does this saying quite lovely. She makes some glorious statements ('Walt Whitman was right about everything...' and 'Anonymity is beautiful, and so are particulars.') that function as sentence-long essays of their own. This aspect of this text reminds me of Baldwin, who I find similarly poetic at moments. I've read many lovely essays this year, but this is one of the few that I've returned to many times. Perhaps this is because it is lush with lucid thought, unlike so many of the contemporary essays that a good friend of mine has aptly dubbed 'post-content.'"
Nominated by John D’Agata, professor of creative writing at the University of Iowa
"When a writer manages to reignite our imagination by merging traditional forms in unexpected ways, the effect can be exhilarating. It's a gift, opening our eyes to the poignancy of our own experiences by skewing perspective just slightly enough that we notice that something's different. Mary Ruefle's The Most of It is a book of confident, delicate, and inconclusive essays, hovering between the traditions of argumentative and associative forms, which is a little like hovering spiritually between certainty and doubt."
Nominated by Thalia Field, author of Point and Line and professor of creative writing at Brown University
"By far the best piece of essaying this year was the complete narrative infiltration of the news media by The Yes Men and their 1.2 million copies of a fake July 4, 2009 issue of the New York Times. Its greatest success as art is how the paper foregrounds the nature of 'story' as it simultaneously works in the pre-text of 'non-fiction' news. Nothing compares to the impact, aesthetic provocation, or insight of this project. It is, grandly, a lyric essay—condemning and beautiful. It spins its story virally, mimicking the way we tend to follow 'stories,' and thus it achieves a total blurring of all boundaries of 'truthfulness.'"
Nominated by Jenny Boully, author of The Body and professor of creative writing at Columbia College
"There are many characters and scenes in Tarsem Singh's The Fall that are beautiful and dreamy and colorful, but what I love most about the film is Alexandria. Her mind is the mind that I am in love with. In her broken arm—always in her broken arm—she carries a box containing remnants of her former life. She takes these remnants with her from ward to ward, room to room. Whatever Roy tells her, she believes, and it is this believing that makes the film possible. She can only tell stories about the items in her box, the suffering she has known: she needs Roy's stories. For Alexandra, there is no distinction between story and life, and she incorporates nonfictional elements into Roy's stories. I think that essays should also operate on this level: there should always be belief, and there should also always be room for the fantastical to intervene. Alexandra never disposes with what is in her box; instead, she uses these "nonfictional" elements to infuse her imaginings with subtext, thus her extreme need to be a daughter, to have a father. Outside of the narrative, we can see how the filmmaker also employs elements that I see as essayistic: although Roy's stories take place in imagined places, Singh shot in 18 different, actual countries. He uses the real to achieve the unreal. When Roy imagines a town of blue buildings, Singh shoots the scene in an actual town of blue buildings; we can then believe that such fantasies are real and believable. Singh too allows fantasy to intervene in reality; or else, he takes reality and shows it to be fantastical. What stays with me is the ending: Alexandra buries the dead man's dentures inside an orange peel. She is back in the orange groves. No one here will tell her stories. The dentures are mute and must be buried, but Alexandra believes that something—out of her real life (the orange peel) and her former fantastical life (the dentures)—will grow. It is this combination throughout the film—of the real and the unreal, the mundane and the miraculous—that drew The Fall to me essayistically."
Nominated by Philip Lopate, editor of The Art of the Personal Essay and professor of creative writing at Hofstra University
"I admire its honesty and the way it connects such disparate subjects."
Nominated by Philip Lopate, author of Against Joie de Vivre and professor of creative writing at Hofstra University
"The elegant flow of language, the jazzy style, the way it explores Charlie Mingus and Marcus Aurelius all caught my eye, and approval."
Nominated by Darcy Frey, author of The Last Shot and creative writing fellow at Harvard University; also nominated by Honor Moore, author of The Bishop’s Daughter and instructor of creative writing at The New School University
"In a rich, complex and evocative essay , Wendy Walters takes on the phenomenon of slavery and its impact on the quotidian existence of a contemporary African American woman, herself. Suffering depression, she hears on NPR about a slave museum in Maine, which she visits. As the piece progresses, she begins to understand her ennui as a loneliness that is the consequence of living in a landscape where the remains of her ancestry are invisible, buried either beneath sidewalks and parking lots, or kept from comprehensible acknowledgment in language. Executed with austere wit and a prose of crisp beauty , the essay is part travel piece—she makes a trip to the remains of a family home in New Orleans, destroyed in Katrina, as well as to a commemorative slavery trail and a paved-over slave cemetery in New England—and part reflective, philosophical memoir in which the narrator is able to name her predicament and to metaphorically and graphically face the remains of both her ancestry and her ancestors. The piece's importance lies in its novel and powerful approach to American commentary on slavery, and in the new ground that it opens in both tone and technique for the American memoir."
"Somewhat in the style of the old great Joe Mitchell essays ('Mr. Hunter's Grave,' 'The Rivermen,') and also borrowing a trick or two from Joan Didion, Wendy Walters sets out in 'Lonely in America' with a seemingly mundane quest—to understand her present loneliness—and manages, in the space of a fairly short piece, to begin to connect her own experience with the still-unresolved legacy of slavery in America. The essay is personal, political, conversational, poetic; and the weave of these elements, along with the accumulation of images (Hurricane Katrina, drowned slave ships, a watery just-unearthed African-American burial ground), keeps the reader constantly on her toes. The voice, too, is a marvel—sometimes intimate, sometimes journalistic, and always unflinchingly honest. She takes a subject—the residue of slavery in the U.S.—and makes us look at it in an entirely new way."