Each year at AWP, those of us who edit presses or journals compare notes about what we are and aren't seeing in our slush piles, what we are or aren't wanting to see: are there too many poems about colony collapse disorder? Too many stories featuring alien abductions? Not enough pieces featuring colony collapse disorder and alien abductions? One of the glories of the small-press literary scene in America at this time is the sheer breadth and diversity of tastes.
That said, what I heard again this year, as last year, over and over, is: where is the high-quality creative nonfiction we're looking for?
Wasn't there supposed to be a revolution? It seemed so, with the launching of journals like Creative Nonfiction (1994) and Fourth Genre (1999) and especially the publication of John d'Agata's provocative anthology The Next American Essay (Graywolf, 2003). What these developments promised was a new, outward-looking, nuanced, and formally innovative approach to what had been called the "personal essay": at times taking its cues from the best prose, at times bordering on the formal and lyric complexity of poetry.
Instead, what we got was memoir. And more memoir. And yet more memoir.
As a colleague who teaches creative nonfiction asked me some time ago, "why is it always about me, me, me? There's a whole world out there." Memoir makes nonfiction look easy, because we all have access to our own autobiographies. The formula is an artless compilation "this happened, and then this happened," capped with a winsome life lesson and/or epiphany.
If you are going to go artless, then the story you tell had better be breathtaking and unusual, on its own terms.
To be blunt: here at West Branch we receive far too much memoir, in the most basic and formally derivative sense. We do not receive enough of anything else.
What we are looking for is creative nonfiction that is artful: that exhibits the same rich, vivid qualities and challenging approach we demand of the poetry and fiction that interests us. Whether the work evinces the subtleties of good prose style and observational panache one associates with Joan Didion, John McPhee, Annie Dillard, or Barry Lopez, or whether it seeks the sort of formal electrification produced by Anne Carson, Brian Doyle, Thalia Field, or Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, we want to see essays that challenge the complacencies of the merely autobiographical, that tyrannical "I" and its small kingdom.
So: send us colony collapse order, send us alien abduction narratives, send us speedboat chases; send us medieval Cistercian monasteries and Jupiter's moons. We await the world.