Without particularly meaning to, I’ve been reading a lot of good nonfiction lately. I love popular science and cultural history, and so the personal essays I respond most to tend to at least flirt with those genres. There’s a kind of alchemical line-walking in great creative nonfiction that’s amazing to witness as a reader, watching an author uniquely positioned to report on their narrow subject do so in a way that moves a broad audience. This is probably true of all or at least most writing, but the author is so on display in creative nonfiction that it feels especially magical when it all comes together, the essayist and their situation and the questions they obsess over aligning in a way that is meaningful, deeply, to an audience of strangers from outside the essayist’s demographics and subculture. When I fall in love with a collection of personal essays it feels like something almost supernatural has happened—how remarkable that I’ve gotten to know a specific and real person (or at least feel like I have) without ever meeting them, and without them ever knowing that I, particularly, exist.
Thoughts about how this applies to fiction-writing aside (feel free to extrapolate them based on previous and no doubt future blog posts), here are a few recommendations of nonfiction collections I’ve found recently:
Life, in Pictures by Will Eisner
I talked recently about the joy of reading fiction of expertise—this is some close cousin of the genre. This collection includes all of comics legend Will Eisner’s autobiographical work (including several “fictional” stories that are apparently real life with the serial numbers filed off). It was published after Eisner’s death, which raises a few questions for me about his wishes regarding packaging one or two of these tales as autobiography. (If something is published as fiction, who gets to decide there’s a veil to be pulled back, and do so officially?) But however it’s labeled, it’s all lovely and virtuosic. I particularly love the way Eisner writes about his own childhood and adolescence in New York’s various, mostly outer, boroughs—and his parents’ origin stories, as people and as immigrants. Stories like To the Heart of the Storm are profound and gripping accounts of Eisner surviving anti-Semitism and financial struggle, as well as keeping a flame of artistic passion alight in an industry unprepared for the revolution of his vision. (These lofty interpretations are mine; throughout Life, in Pictures, Eisner has a clear-eyed and humble view of his own experience, always endearingly ready to point to how much he learned from and owes to others.)
Beyond the narrative itself, the graphic aesthetic of Eisner’s reimagined adolescence is very charming; nostalgic but gritty. He draws his younger self, though with affection, as a more than slightly daffy kid with a lot to learn. I guess such is the attitude of any essayist worth his salt, though we don’t often get to literally see it:
I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son by Kent Russell
There are several reasons you might say that Kent Russell’s writing reminds you of David Foster Wallace’s. The one that struck me first is that this is a collection of essays, arranged around the central tentpole of Russell’s relationship with his father, is that both Russell and Wallace are convincing and compelling outsiders despite being from the ultimate Insider demographic—as Russell himself has termed them, “white American dudes,” writing in a grand tradition “where we just keep getting sucked back to these ideas and ideals and myths and stuff.” More, perhaps much more, than Wallace ever did, Russell sets out from the start to critique and attempt to implode these icons and tropes of American masculinity, though he’s also at least partially in a guilty, complex thrall to them to the end. In these essays he chases the legacies of Daniel Boone and Robinson Crusoe, visits cultures and subcultures as diverse as the Amish of Lancaster County; the Gathering of the Juggalos; hockey enforcers and their rabid fans; and amateur practitioners of mithridatism—men trying to build up an immunity to the venom of poisonous snakes, for reasons that are complicated at best.
In this day and age, I come to any tome focused on American Masculinity cautiously, my weight on my back foot. But this is a collection of earnest essays, with Russell asking questions rather than positing answers, and his dismay and fascination are catching. Many of these pieces are, if not objectively the best kind of essay, then at least my favorite kind—they concretely teach me something new, though a flawed by likable surrogate, and in the final page(s) do a kind of stage-magician jackknife flip into being about not just immersion journalism but also writing, or life, or life and writing. My favorite line from the self-immunizers’ essay: “A self that is its own antidote—there’s something to be hellaciously proud of.”
Let Me Clear My Throat by Elena Passarello
I first encountered this collection quite a while ago now, but I’m still not nearly done evangelizing for it. I seem to be recommending it constantly, every time convinced that whoever I’m talking to will love it especially—as an essay collection about the human voice, I suppose it may be as close to a universally relatable subject as you’re likely to find. But as John Hodgman has it, specificity is the soul of narrative—there are deep and thorough essays on the Rebel Yell, the Wilhelm Scream, Judy Garland, the Voyager Golden Record, and much else. If Kent Russell is an emerging master of outsider immersion journalism, skipping over the surface of subcultures ready to try anything once, Passarello is something entirely different—her prose stuns with expertise, her exhaustive knowledge of her subject. Do you need a thorough, music theory-informed analysis of why poor old Howard Dean’s "BYAH!” was his undoing? Of course you do.
There are multiple essays here about screaming, in various ways and for various reasons—including a few that make mention of the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival and its “Stella!” shouting contest. There may be no greater credential for Passarello’s expert qualifications in writing this book than that she was the first woman to ever win the contest, in 2011. Paired with her writing breaking down the physicality and context of both Brando’s scream and hers, the video of her lightning-quick performance is mesmerizing. This is what great creative nonfiction does—simply, frankly, it educates, but with the author’s body and soul on the line for the lesson: