THE BEST AMERICAN ESSAYS 1991
Joyce Carol Oates
Oates, in her introduction, defines the essay, a la Randall Jarrell, as "prose works of certain lengths that have many more things right about them than wrong" Montaigne, Hazlitt, Mandelstam would roll in their graves! Only Richard Rodriguez's "Late Victorians"--domestic architecture as sexuality in gay San Francisco--brings a remarkable voice to bear on an idea worthy of the great essay masters. From most everybody else here, the essay seems to he something that (1) can't quite he fiction and (2) must he too long (or, if short, smug). Gerald Early's intriguing piece about black female self-image overshoots the runway and travels on and on and on...forever. Likewise Mark Rudman's at first genial piece about walking. Ditto pieces by Reg Saner, Jane Tompkins, Garrett Hongo. On the short, smug side, Elizabeth Hardwick's impressions of New York's desuetude must he the most pretentious thing she's ever written, Gretel Ehrlich's contribution the same. Intellectual and stylistic mediocrity is the province here of Woody Allen, Judith Ortiz Cofer, Frank Conroy, Dorien Rosa, Amy Tan, and Joy Williams. A few modest personal pieces do hold their own, powered by self-analysis--by Diana Hume George, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Marianna De Marco Torgovnick; and Margaret Atwood's "The Female Body" is vinegary fun. Overall, though, not the essay's finest outing.