Much too personal. Go on.
In the last few years, anthologies of personal essays have appeared on the subjects of love, divorce, grief, anger, food, money, having boy children, having girl children, having toddlers, having teenagers, having dogs, dating losers, being bad, being betrayed, being fat, being thin, being sick, being middle-aged, gardening and traveling alone.
There are a lot of practical reasons why a themed anthology of personal essays is a good idea. No one has to write a whole book, and no one need be paid to write a whole book either. While the editor gets a modest advance and royalties, not uncommonly contributors are paid in copies. Should there be a fee for the writer, it is usually less than that paid your average magazine article. The editor (who often has a background in magazines, hence a Rolodex full of authors who want to stay on her A-list), need find only a few big names to put on the cover and improve her Amazon search results -- everybody else can be relative unknowns who are flattered to be included.
Finally, although single-author collections of essays have intrinsic marketing handicaps (unless they happen to be written by David Sedaris), these anthologies have a clear audience -- divorcees, say, or new mothers, or the bereaved. They are literature, but they are also self-help. They are a support group where you don’t have to say anything and someone has already edited out the boring stuff.
I have contributed to several of these anthologies, have reviewed others, have blurbed my share. I am friends, or at least Facebook friends, with many of the editors and writers of these books, and am at present writing pieces for two forthcoming collections (women and faith; writers and their favorite words). It is surely true that personal essay anthologies are hot -- and that the subject of the current review, “Behind the Bedroom Door,” is a hottie among hotties. Fuchsia kissy-lips on a chartreuse cover and what a topic. Women tell all about their sex lives! “All” is no exaggeration here.
Yet the reality is that many of the 26 essays in “Behind the Bedroom Door” do not offer pure titillation -- many are difficult, sad or disturbing rather than exciting. Editor Paula Derrow knew what she was doing -- depth, variety and intensity of personal revelation was clearly something she valued. “It’s scary to do something that lets another person in on so much private information, but it’s also ruthlessly efficient,” writes Susan Cheever in the first essay in the collection, a joyous paean to one-night stands.
Cheever was talking about casual sex, but I imagine her comment also describes the experience of the writers who reveal themselves, and their lovers, in this anthology.
These essays go deep, get naked and quickly move on. Sometimes such brief, intense self-exposures left me feeling just what the anthology’s second author, Cheryl Strayed, says she felt about her long series of one-night stands -- “grim and alone.” Strayed is one of my favorite writers, but her essay about her glorious tumble into wedded bliss with her wonderful-sounding husband made me, as I read it, feel quite grim and alone myself. Do I -- who happen to be at the moment crawling out of the year-old ruins of a disastrous marriage -- really need to read 24 more of these?
But before that reaction could take hold, I ran into Lauren Slater’s “Overcome,” which opens with the revelation that sex interests the author about as much as playing checkers. Which is to say, not much. “I am miserable about it because it makes my husband miserable and withdrawn and it is so unhappy, living this way.” Slater’s essay evokes both her and her husband’s plight and their accommodation to it.
Suddenly I was less jealous than worried. Should she really be telling me this? And I only got more worried a few essays later, reading Deanna Kizis’ outrageous tale of strap-on equipment and an ex-lover identified as P. Pari Chang’s husband being repelled by her body and preferring to watch porn while she was pregnant. Anna Marrian finally got off drugs -- but sex with the guy she’s with now is frustrating and dull. Abby Sher cut off hunks of her skin, ran on the treadmill and fantasized about a snack of low-fat cereal with chicken broth.
The questions “Should she be telling this?” and “Should I be reading it?” run like a fraying electric wire through the book, and there are plenty of shocks. Sometimes, I’ll admit, I thought the answer was no. Other times, like a good one-night stand, an essay drew me in and made me yearn for a deeper relationship. I most deeply fell in love with Hope Edelman, whose story of the intersection of her teen love affair with the school derelict and the beginnings of her mother’s terminal illness made me crave more. Stephanie Dolgoff charmed me. There are humorists -- Jenny Lee, Valerie Frankel, Bella Pollen -- who lightened things up.
Because so much in this book is so personal, I wager the reader’s experience will be personal too. I’m not completely comfortable with serving up the deepest stories an essayist has to offer on a kind of pupu platter of exotic appetizers. But the wisdom of the market is that this tasty tidbits approach is the best way for writers to meet potential readers. I hope this anthology and its many fine sisters become a door to a more extended experience for all.
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