In a year that has been just stupid with essay collections, Once I Was Cool by the Megan Stielstra to name just one of the many acclaimed collections this year, we have read all kinds, including not just the Stielstras, but I Was a Fat Drunk Catholic School Insomniac by the Jamie Iredell and Slouching Towards Bethlehem by the Joan Didion. And yet with all this essay goodness in the air, we still must pause to note how truly accomplished Notes from No Man's Land by the Eula Biss and Bad Feminist by the Roxane Gay truly are in this suddenly crowded, and highly electric, genre. We could add, that celebrating two authors that seem to be everywhere right now is not so original or daring, but nor should their insane success overshadow what they are in fact actually doing.
In essence both are writing personal essays, that are not on the whole especially fraught with criticism, though both are doing that as well. Nor are these pieces specifically academic, though their works are constructed as such. Instead, what they are both doing is taking the personal and making it political, providing commentary on race, gender, class, violence, and the America as a grand experiment in democracy and equality. And it is in this that both are doing something not just wholly unique, but something the rest of us ideally could strive for: using the personal as a filter for seeking an understanding greater than our own lives, and examining that which makes the world around us tick. The policies and structures that control the world we exist in, and the motivations, simple, sophisticated, and unseemly, that drive them. They are arguably two of our great public intellectuals, and at their greatest moments, which are many, they challenge us to change lives, both ours, and those around us.