A collection entitled The Best Canadian Essays begs the question: what, exactly, is an essay? Our anthology editors borrow a definition from British writer Ian Hamilton: “An essay can be an extended book review, a piece of reportage, a travelogue, a revamped lecture, an amplified diary jotting, a refurbished sermon. In other words, an essay can be just about anything that it wants to be…”
The editors take Hamilton at his word and present 14 diverse pieces of prose, including a critique of Canadian theatre by Kamal Al-Solaylee, theatre critic for the Globe & Mail; an exploration of unconventional mourning, by journalist and author Katherine Ashenberg; and a reflection on feminism and porn by feminist porn awards pioneer Alison Lee.
What the editors overlook in their desire to be inclusive is that while an essay can take many forms, it does not follow that any piece of prose is an essay. Anthologists and editors have been grappling with the definition of the literary essay since Michel de Montaigne invented the form in the 16th century. While there may not be consensus on the definition, there are a few characteristics that crop up with relative frequency: the strong presence of the author in the work (implicit or explicit), a certain depth of inquiry into the subject, and an underlying honesty, especially in the case of the personal essay. It is these characteristics that, for this reader, are the heart and soul of the form.
Many of the works contained in this slim volume do not feel like essays. “Lost in Translation” by Nicholas Hune-Brown, about censorship in Chinese-Canadian newspapers, makes for interesting reading, but the author’s voice is largely absent. Ashenburg’s piece is similarly missing a distinctive voice, although it too is interesting and informative. There are pieces that are more idiosyncratic in nature – the aforementioned theatre review, the reflection on women and porn, a personal essay by Alberta musician Kris Demeanor – and even some that approach this reviewer’s idea of an essay, (e.g. “Where the Muskox Roam” by Jessa Gamble and “The Return of Beauty” by Nick Mount), but overall the context does the work a disservice.
Also missing from this anthology are two ingredients one would hope to find in the “best” of anything literary: humour and innovation. The collection is sombre in tone and conservative in structure. (The most imaginative piece in the anthology is “Helen Koentges,” Chris Koentges’ tribute to his mother.) The lack of humour seems to have been a conscious decision on the part of the editors who reassure us in the introduction that here we will find no navel-gazing, but writers who “addressed themselves directly, and fearlessly, to serious subjects.” A little levity among these serious subjects would have been welcome.
In an article in The Globe & Mail, co-editor Alex Boyd writes that the essays included in this book were “stubbornly objective.” This, perhaps, is the root of the problem. Stubborn objectivity is something we want from our journalists, not from our essayists.
Maria Schamis Turner is the editor of carte blanche. (www.carte-blanche.org)