Best Canadian Essays 2016

Edited by Christopher Doda and Joseph Kertes

A collection of essays is a tough sell. The very word “essay” sounds like a work assignment, and it covers so much ground it’s hard to find the right shelf for such a volume in the bookstore. The Best American Essays series, for example, is one of a stable of annual titles brought out alongside Best American Sports Writing, Best American Science and Nature Writing, and Best American Travel Writing. In Canada, one volume has to cover everything.

Beginning with definitions, most people would understand an essay to be a species of non-fiction. But the distinction between fiction and non-fiction is not always that great. Any piece of writing, at least any that’s worth reading, involves the exercise of art and imagination. As editor Joseph Kertes puts it, “The art of non-fiction lies in the storytelling ability of its creator, just as it does in fiction. I want to feel compelled to read it, compelled to know.”

These are the magazine pieces that weren’t just skimmed or glanced at, but which, to quote the master essayist Francis Bacon, had to be chewed and digested. They require being “read wholly, and with diligence and attention.”

The vast range of topics are approached from perspectives that run from the intensely personal (memoir, anecdote, family history) to the professional (journalism and reportage on news and current events). Leona Theis’s speculative alternative biography “Six Ways She Might Have Died Before She Reached Nineteen” is a remarkable example of the former, while Richard Poplak’s “Dr. Shock,” a profile of a serial sex offender who worked as a psychiatrist in South Africa and then Canada, is typical of the latter approach. They’re very different essays, but both are eye-opening, compelling reads

Blending the two approaches is Kenneth Sherman’s terrific essay “Living Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor.” A scholar and poet in his own right, Sherman examines Sontag’s famous work in the light of his recent bout with cancer (a subject he deals with in more depth in his excellent cancer memoir Wait Time). Sontag’s intellectual distance from the subject is counterpoised to Sherman’s immediacy, with the result being a profound piece that’s made all the stronger for its grounding in personal experience.

2016 was a year of good reads, so enjoy! The house of the essay has many mansions, and every door here opens onto one worth entering.

Review first published in the Toronto Star January 1, 2017.

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