Of all the anthologies appearing annually under the "Best American" rubric, the one whose quality appears most highly dependent on the particular choice of guest editor is the "Best American Essays" collection. Just compare the 2007 and 2008 collections, edited respectively by David Foster Wallace and Adam Gopnik, to see just how much difference a guest editor can make (DFW leaves Gopnik in the dust, unsurprisingly). So I was somewhat reassured to see Christopher Hitchens as this year's invited editor. After all, Hitchens can be regarded as a kind of literary Simon Cowell -- someone who projects the image of being way too self-satisfied with his own gleefully obnoxious persona, but who's nonetheless possessed of reasonably good judgment, with a refreshing unwillingness to suffer fools gladly. Although one might be repelled by his personality, the chances of his serving up a plateful of dud essays seemed remote. At the very least, he seemed likely to have high editorial standards and a broad range of interests. So I had high hopes for this year's anthology.
Which were, unfortunately, not quite met. The 2010 collection of "best" essays is not a complete failure. Many of the contributions are excellent, though there are few that I would classify as outstanding (Steven Pinker's "My Genome, Myself" is an honorable exception, though I had already read it twice - in the NY Times when it first appeared, and in the 2010 anthology of Best American Science Writing; James Woods's New Yorker piece on George Orwell, "A Fine Rage", also shines, as does Jane Churchon's exquisite "The Dead Book"). But there were many pieces that simply failed to take off, in that the reader could only observe the writer's passion for his subject, but was never moved to share it ("Brooklyn the Unknowable", "Rediscovering Central Asia", "Gettysburg Regress" all proved too soporific for me to finish). And I remain puzzled as to the reason for including the longest essay in the collection, a 24-page profile of former Washington DC mayor, Marion Barry, whose relevance in 2010 would appear to be non-existent. Retired ophthalmologist John Gamel's beautifully written piece "The Elegant Eyeball" was spoiled for me by being about a decade behind the times as far as available treatments were concerned. I thought Zadie Smith's recent essay collection Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays was astonishing, but "Speaking in Tongues" is not the essay I would have singled out for inclusion here. Fans of David Sedaris will be more delighted than I was by inclusion of his piece "Guy Walks into a Bar Car", but my Sedaris-fatigue is long-established, so your mileage may vary.
A breakdown of essay by general topic/type is revealing:
# of pieces concerned with writers/writing - 8 of 21
# of pieces that are autobiographical - 10 of 21
Even allowing for some double counting between those two categories, that's still an awful lot of navel-gazing for a 250-page volume. And this is ultimately what prevents this collection from being anything more than pretty deceent. Perhaps if writers understood that the world of writers and writing is nowhere near as infinitely fascinating to the general reader as it apparently is to them, there would be a greater chance of producing an anthology of pieces that are genuinely interesting.
I thought Christopher Hitchens might have the breadth of vision to produce a genuinely dazzling collection this year. I was wrong. The 2010 anthology is not an embarrassment. But neither is it particularly exciting.