Happy Birthday Assay

April 24, 2015 § Leave a comment

Here at the Brevity blog, we like to boast that we are the single best resource for all things nonfiction, but we are boasting a lot more softly these days, sort of whispering actually, because the new website Assay — a magazine, blog, pedagogical resource, research hub — is doing such a stellar job.  Assay just completed its first year and has published an Annual Report outlining what has been accomplished and great plans for the coming year.

Hint: Blog reports from NonfictioNOW, an exploration of Best American Essays (both critical and statistical), more syllabi and topic lists for classroom use.

Someone’s breathing down our neck. And we couldn’t be happier.

Assay 1.2 Shakes the Stick of Brilliance

March 5, 2015 § 1 Comment

A Famous Essayist Shakes a Stick

A Famous Essayist Shakes a Stick

Assay, Karen Babine’s brilliant brainchild, a place to “test and analyze the nonfiction texts we read, to attempt our determinations of their ingredients and quality,” has birthed a second issue, and there is more good material than we can handle in one blog post. Meaning, you should go visit.

In addition to some of the highlights listed below, there’s a fascinating conversation between Paul Gruchow and Brian Turner on what happens when the Modernist essay goes Cubist, a mediation on aliased essayists from the uber-insightful Patrick Madden,  and an interview with the sassy and brilliant essayist Michael Martone. Plus pedagogical discussions, a data bank of syllabi, and more resources than you can shake a stick at.

If you had a stick, that is.

Here are links to some of the main articles, but the whole site is chock-full of valuable resources:

Then and Now: A Study of Time Control in Scott Russell Sanders’ “Under the Influence”
Kelly Harwood

Laces in the Corset: Structures of Poetry and Prose that Bind the Lyric Essay
Diana Wilson

A Taste for Chaos: Creative Nonfiction as Improvisation
Randy Fertel

Why the Worst Trips are the Best: The Comic Travel Travails of Geoffrey Wolff, and Jonathan Franzen
Lynn Z. Bloom

What Lies Beside Gold
Ingrid Sagor

Ego, Trip: On Self-Construction–and Destruction–in Creative Nonfiction
Catherine K. Buni

Assay, the New Journal of Nonfiction Studies

September 1, 2014 § 3 Comments

0013_1900_BeachTWC_650x366We were barely unpacked from our summer vacation in Southampton, consumed with reopening Brevity submissions and screaming at the new interns to take their feet off the mahogany desks in our recently-renovated corporate towers, when we received notice of the first issue of Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies.

We plan to read the entire issue once we’ve unpacked all the seashells and surplus cases of champagne, but we did dive into Ned Stuckey-French’s brilliant essay on the essay, “Our Queer Little Hybrid Thing.” Not only is Ned an absolutely essential resource on the tradition of nonfiction and the essay going all the way back to that peculiar French guy wrote about his own body odor, he also just saved us about an hour the next time we teach a workshop and someone asks, “Can you define those terms?”  Here’s an excerpt followed by a link to the full and amazing and thoroughly fascinating essay:

The personal essay arrived almost two millennia after Aristotle wrote the Poetics, and after several centuries of perhaps too much universality and church doctrine, too many answered questions, too much deferral of particularity and the self, and too little democracy. As a consequence, Montaigne flipped Aristotle’s assertion, arguing instead, “Chaque homme porte la form entire de l’humaine condition,” or “Each man [or person] carries [or bears] the entire form [or impress, or stamp] of the human condition.” For Montaigne, history isn’t less than poetry, because history carries the universal within it. Any living individual can represent the whole of humanity, the possibilities within each of us. Montaigne did not apologize for himself and his new approach, but laid down a challenge instead: “If the world find fault that I speak too much of myself, I find fault that they do not so much as think of themselves.”

The essay sits somewhere between an edited, organized, largely voiceless, researched, fact-based, history-based article and a narrated, made-up, speculative, climactic, imaginary story. It offers a third way, another way to find everyone’s story in one person’s story. The personal essay differs from the inverted checkmark story in that it doesn’t tell (or just tell) the story of an event. Instead it lets you into what a particular person thinks about an event…or a subject, person, place or problem. It offers – or essays – an answer to a question, a question such as “What is an essay?” As a consequence, an essay is more digressive and meandering than a story. It may be a story, says Hoagland, but it is the story of a mind thinking.

Read “Our Queer Little Hybrid Thing” at Assay.


Rebutting Shivani

January 23, 2012 § 6 Comments

There seem to be two states of mind regarding Anis Shivani, the constant critic of contemporary creative writing who has somehow found a regular spot on the Huffington Post books page.  One side says “Ignore him, he only wants the attention and is encouraged by our outrage.” We were about to be swayed in that direction until we read Karen Babine’s crisp rebuttal.  Here is a bit of her opening:

…it was my instinct to employ silence as a rhetorical device and not even engage him, because it really seems like his purpose is to incite, not provoke legitimate dialogue—but then once I realized that not saying anything was part of his goal in silencing, that put my back up, and here we are.

And then she moves on to her major arguments:

…the main issue that Shivani overlooks—whether intentional or not, in his purpose to incite as much reaction as possible in his readers—is the difference between creative writing and literature: literature is artifact. As my fiction students identified last week, artifact brings to mind archaeology, digging, brushing away, interpreting this long-dead item for what it can tell us. Creative writing, on the other hand, considers a text as a living, breathing thing, something that puts my students in a chair next to Raymond Carver, because “Cathedral” did not spring, fully-formed, from the mind of Carver. He was once a beginning writer too. He wasn’t always Raymond Carver.


What is clear, however, that Shivani has equated creative writing with the feminine, and “real” writing with the masculine, for the purpose of silencing voices other than his own. Calling creative writing “Oprahfied” certainly genders the creative writing in terms that call to mind powerful women, mass appeal, and to him, little substance.From this argument, only women go to therapy; men do not. But what is particularly interesting about this phrasing is that it is a female mindset that phallically penetrates the workshop. He genders the workshop itself in other ways, using “she” to represent the creative workshop teacher—though it is interesting that as Shivani also argues that students are guided to imitate the models that the female teacher brings to class (Carver, Hemingway, Barthelme, Plat, Glück, and Levine are the ones he mentions), two women, four men, but the method of imitation that he rails against comes strictly out of this classical, masculine, rhetorical tradition.

… Until recent decades, women writing about their bodies and their experiences has been confined to “confessional” writing—and demeaned in the doing—but even as I write those phrases, women writing illness narratives, addiction narratives, and other deeply personal things is still largely dismissed in the writing world, often shelved in “self-help.” Even Susan Sontag, writing Illness as Metaphor at the beginning of this phase, could only write about her experiences will illness in a form that did not recognize her personal experience as a valuable source of knowledge and understanding.

Many folks are taking Shivani’s arguments apart these past few days, but Babine’s counter-punch is one of the best. Her extensive and thorough argument can be read in full on her blog State of Mind.

How About that Best American?

October 21, 2009 § 1 Comment

In our effort to seem young and jazzy, the Brevity editorial team hangs out on Facebook way too much.  Along the way though, we noticed that former Mid-American Review nonfiction editor Karen Babine had posted a thoughtful, personal reaction to the latest Best  American Essays volume, edited by Mary Oliver.  We like her enthusiasm (as a reader and a teacher) toward the BAE series, so we asked Karen if we could post her Facebook review to Brevity as a bonus between-issues book review, and we did, and we hope to spark some discussion here.  If you want to comment, go ahead and comment here, or if you have your own review of BAE 2009, send it to us for the blog.

Here’s an excerpt from Karen’s full review:

When my 2009 Best American Essays arrived and it was only half the thickness of my Best American Travel Writing, I frowned at it. What is this? Where’s the rest of my book? But I sat down on the couch with it and my highlighter and did what I always do: I flip to the back and check out the Notables, because this is where I think the neat stuff is happening. I highlight people I know or magazines I really like. My highlight was back in 2003, when my brother-in-all-but-blood Matt had an essay in the Notables. This time around, there were quite a few names I recognized and that thrills me as much as anything else about my BAE.

Here’s my overall impression of this collection: well done. I’ve got a fairly specific aesthetic, one that likes to see essays not only work through an idea, but I want to be able to see the author’s brain on the page working through the idea. But there has to be more than that. I want the author’s work to illuminate some other area that I didn’t expect, something that’s at stake for me as the reader.  And I want language. Too many of the essays I’ve seen in past years have completely neglected the language.

Karen goes on to discuss specific BAE essays by Brian Doyle, Sue Allison, Richard Rodriguez, Jill McCorkle, Gregory Orr, and Janna Malamud Smith.  We really think the full review is worth reading, with Best American Essays 2009 at your side.

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