Best American Essays, University Writing Programs, and their Literary Journals: A Work in Progress

Red FlowerCuriosity is the best part of an essayist’s job. This fall, I got curious about the relationship between Best American Essays, the journals represented, and the writing programs that house those journals. Thanks to Assay’s editorial assistant, Nick Nelson, we have more data than I expected–and it’s thought-provoking enough that we want to share it. We are presenting that information without commentary or opinion, but just as straight data. Make of it what you will. We didn’t intend this data for public consumption, only for our internal information, but we believe it’s interesting enough and important enough to share with the wider world, even at this stage. There are some errors here and there, but again, we did not intend this for an audience beyond our own staff. We also don’t pretend this is comprehensive or complete.

Nick’s process unfolded this way: he took the last five years of Best American Essays (excepting 2012, which I didn’t have on hand for him) and he collated all the journals represented in the Notables and the frequency of representation. Nick then took that information and investigated the university writing programs attached to the journals in the top 30 spots. In the interests of transparency, we are including here the raw Top 30 (which includes commercial journals not attached to writing programs, like The New Yorker), but we are also including the Top 30 with those commercial journals removed. We anticipate adding more years and more information in the future.

I am incredibly grateful to Nick for doing this work–thank you!


BAE University Data Best American Essays and What It Shares

BAE Journal Data

BAE University Data

 Assay Home Page

The Best Best American Essays & Our Affinity for Lists: A Sentimental View

DonnaSteinerDonna Steiner’s writing has been published in literary journals including Fourth Genre, Shenandoah, The Bellingham Review, The Sun, and Stone Canoe. She teaches at the State University of New York in Oswego and is a contributing writer for Hippocampus Magazine. She recently completed a nonfiction manuscript and is working on a collection of poems.  A chapbook of five essays, Elements, was released by Sweet Publications.

“Which Best American Essays volume is your favorite?”

Karen Babine, founder and editor of Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, prompted a Facebook discussion a couple of weeks ago by asking this deceptively simple question.  I had no quick response, although I’m fond of Mary Oliver’s (’09) volume and Edward Hoagland’s (’99) volume.  Oliver’s aesthetic resonates with me, and her choices include Ryan Van Meter’s beautiful essay, “First,” which I reread twice a year, having added it to a syllabus I use in classes for beginning nonfiction writers.  Among the pieces I return to in Hoagland’s collection are “Torch Song” by Charles Bowden, “Visitor” by Michael Cox, and “The Lion and Me” by John Lahr.

I’ve heard objections to particular volumes in the series.  Too many men, too few writers of color, too much emphasis on death as a topic, too journalistic… It’s probably a failure on my part that I’m not more critical, but it’s difficult to be objective about a gift one loves, and I do love these volumes, and do see them as gifts.  They’re gifts I give myself, rewards for getting through a tough part of the semester or a kind of pre-gift for enduring a long winter in Central New York.  I don’t want to criticize them, in other words – I want to love them.  Continue reading