Monday, January 01, 2007

Best American Whatever

I am sitting in an airport terminal, stoked on Diet Coke With Lime, feverishly trying to get my thoughts online before the stroke of midnight.

Because if this is dated Dec. 31, I figure that I will qualify for the “Best American Essays 2006,” forcing a massive recall of the already-published volume; the publishers will then reissue the collection to include the very essay that now sits before your hung over, bloodshot eyes.

It’s not that this “essay” is better than everything in “Best American Essays,” but I know that it’s better than something in the book, certainly better than a few I’ve already read. It’s not that the writing is pedestrian or bad, as everything in this collection is competent and sensible.

But that’s just it. Many of what’s in there is merely competent: either the ideas or writing is interesting, but never both. It only gets halfway there. It’s like a doctor who makes a proper diagnosis and then prescribes “Doc Bonar’s Miracle Elixir” as the cure.

I don’t want competent. I don’t want merely engaging. I want transporting. I want power. I want Charlize Theron, Angelina Jolie, or Uma Thurman. (Any one will do! Though Uma would be tops.)

I’ve always found that these books are more of a point of comparison rather than inspiration, as in, “I can’t believe that this whale turd of a story even got published in the first place.” This sentiment always followed completion of a particularly lame entry in “Best American Short Stories of 20__” (Or of “19__”).

The reason I’m even reading “BAE 2006” is that I’m trying to work on another “project” as I watch my most recent book sink like Captain Ahab attached to the Great White Whale (Turd), that Whale (Turd) being my unpublished novel. This yet-as-fleshed-out work of non-fiction is about my addiction to ________, and figured “Best American Essays” would help kick start the project.

It hasn’t worked. I’ve read barely half of this collection, but it feels like I’m reading the same old shit again and again. Some of the pieces follow a well-worn template, the Voyage of Discovery under the guise of a Larger Issue: Racism, Human Sexuality, Addiction & Recovery, The Length of My Armpit Hair. Those types of essays are the Doc Bonars of the group, the ones I’ve read so far and prompted me to put pen to paper as I await Accidentally On-Time Airlines to get a damn plane to the damn gate.

Didion: the real deal

The fully accredited surgeons in this group are the usual suspects: Adam Gopnik, Susan Orlean, Oliver Sacks, otherwise known as 2006’s Traveling All-Stars of The New Yorker. I haven’t read the latter three’s entries as of yet, but I know that they will be interesting and well-written, and have nothing to do with Armpit Hair. (Even before I peruse them I know Gopnik’s will be a first-person account of a personal matter like fatherhood or life in Paris; Orlean’s will be about a person far more unusual than we meet in daily life; and Dr. Sacks will regale us with a medical condition dealing with the brain, like the Dude who Mistook His Weiner for a Cadillac Escalade SUV).

This is all good but hardly a inspiration to write about my addiction to _________. Perhaps I was expecting something along the lines of Mark Twain, Joan Didion, H.L. Mencken. I pulled out an old volume of essays and read a couple by Didion — short, brilliant, and packing more power in a single paragraph that some essayists can generate in a lifetime.

It makes me wonder about the “Best American” series. To say that it has spawned a life of its own would be a folly of understatement. There’s a “B.A.” collection for everything: short stories, essays, travel writing, science writing, music writing, erotica, sports writing, and several more; I suspect that soon we will be subjected to “Best American Letters to the Editor, ” “Best American Classified Ads, ” and “Best American Footnotes. ” The “Best” has become a publishing genre into itself. They'll have the “Best of the Best American Writing Series” within a few years.

That’s what I should be aiming for. Not to write a piece that will provoke and promote debate, as an essay, or writing that entertains and challenges and gives insight into the human condition, as a short story. Or something simply to inform, such as a book review or a travel piece. I should be writing a Best American Crap of Some Sort That Involves Words.

Completely gratuitous photo of yet another woman I will never meet

Well, I didn’t quite finish this before 2006 ended, as I actually got on a flight, landed, took a cab home, spent New Year’s Eve with a cold that staged its own Phlegmapalooza, annoyed Wife with my incessant whining, went to sleep at 10 p.m., and awoke to a new, damp year. Maybe this will make it into “Best American Essays” of 2007. All I need is a magazine to pick up this essay.

You know you want to. It will make 2007 the Best year ever.