Welcome to the website of A Personal Anthology, which also exists as a weekly TinyLetter. Each week a guest is invited to pick and introduce twelve of their favourite short stories and, where possible, link to them online. You can browse guest editors and featured authors in the sidebar, or just start reading below. Click here to sign up for the mailout.
Increasingly, and not for the first time, I’ve become more interested in true stories, rather than fictional ones. There are many ways to describe it: Creative Non-Fiction, with that funny use of the negative – non – in the middle; Lyric Essay; New Journalism; Autofiction… each with its own bandcamp and cheerleaders. What seems evident to me is that some of the most interesting prose work is happening in these borderlands – where poetics are brought to bear on the true story, mixing up poetry and reportage, the polemic, the witness statement, the argument – I’m thinking Carmen Maria Machado, Claudia Rankine, Annie Ernaux, Jenn Ashworth – who in turn were preceded by James Baldwin, Joan Didion, Truman Capote, Walter Benjamin, Stefan Zweig, Susan Sontag, even Virginia Woolf, whose essays are some of the finest of her writing. Short form versions of these proliferate online – with the internet’s insatiable need for more and yet more content. So quite a few of these selections are available for free. I’ve picked pieces that I’ve just recommended to my current Creative Non-Fiction class. Pieces in a range – let’s call them essays – which I think make for great examples of work written with all the care and attention over language and storytelling that we would expect from fiction. In these difficult times, the writer is called to witness, as much as to interpret. To look at the phenomenon of life as it is lived, to look to use one’s life as evidence for an argument. All these pieces try to do that in their own way.
This essay – the title in her collection – gets me every time, with its description of the end of the 60s, covering everything from hanging out with The Doors to the Manson Murders to Black Panthers and the swirling paranoia of both the writer and the times. The strategy is to cut it all up, present us with fragments, lists – everything from her psychiatric report to her list of things she packed to take on assignment. The end refuses to make a conclusion, her ambivalence is her weapon of choice and her sharp skills of observation still to me evoke something of the times, and in a weird way, the times we live in now. My favourite of all her essays – even the famous one about the toddler taking acid in Slouching Towards Bethlehem which in the end just has shock value – this essay really speaks to the way that form can be used to mirror content. And it starts with one of the most famous sentences in all of non-fiction: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
Collected in The White Album, Simon & Schuster, 1979. Currently available from Fourth Estate, 2017
Jia Tolentino, ex-editor of Jezebel and now staff writer for the New Yorker, as well as author of the brilliant collection Trick Mirror, tackles the identity warping effects of face-tune filters on Instagram, and more broadly points out the way in which beauty standards are increasingly being driven by digital software. So we no longer take our aesthetic cues from the real world, but from software which can distort the human face in all kinds of wrong ways. Her observations are kind of terrifying, as they are in Trick Mirror, too, what I like about her writing is that she is asking the ethical questions about the internet that we all should have been asking all along. She is a deeply moral writer in an age when it seems hard to define what morality might actually mean.
First published in The New Yorker, December 2019 and available online here
Apart from the intense – and necessary – political observations about Kanye West’s identification with Trump, what moves me about this piece is Coates’ relationship with music – one of my favourite topics (of which more later). His memories of seeing Michael Jackson as a kid opens this piece with two beautiful rhythmic paragraphs which evoke childhood and that sense of wonder of seeing something culturally important for the first time. He also reflects on his own fame – post the publication of Between the World and Me, which became a bestseller.
First published in The Atlantic, May 2018, and available online here
Jace Clayton works as a DJ (DJ Rupture) and as a writer. His collection Uproot: Travels in 21st Century Music and Culture reflects on the shift from the physical to the digital in music culture but also the effect that software has had on the actual making of music. My favourite piece from the whole collection – ‘Auto Tune Gives You a Better Me’ – goes from explaining Whitney Houston’s natural melisma, to Cher’s infamous use of autotune, to travelling to the Atlas mountains to meet musicians from the Berber communities, where auto tune has become the most widely used form of musical manipulation. Clayton has some examples on his website, but to read the essay you’ll need to buy the book.
First published in Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Digital Culture, FSG, 2016. Taster available here
The idea of the flâneur – or flâneuse – is intrinsic to certain kinds of non-fiction writing: that notion of being, as Baudelaire described, ‘the botanist of the sidewalk’. One of the things which made me slightly jealous of Jayce Clayton was his freedom to go places without needing a chaperone/veil. This difference is addressed in the book Flâneuse by Lauren Elkin – and is further complicated here by Garnette Cadogan, who finds the experience of walking around New Orleans very different and decidedly more dangerous than when he walks around Kingston, Jamaica.
First published in Freeman’s: Arrival, Grove, 2015, and available to read on Lithub
This coruscating piece by Rebecca Solnit, which indirectly gave us the word ‘mansplaining’, launched her from being a San Francisco poet and political writer to an internationally known one. The scenario she describes of having her own book explained – or mansplained – back at her is so commonly familiar that it went viral. Yes, Rebecca, in our own ways, we’ve all been there too.