The Anthology Orgy

“I keep getting e-mails from people saying, ‘I’m putting together an anthology about early menopause,’ or ‘I’m doing an anthology about miscarriage,’ or another one about interfaith relationships,” said the writer Lynn Harris, whose essay “Someone Old, Someone Blue” pops up in the recently published Sex and Sensibility: 28 True Romances from the Lives of Single Women (Washington Square Press), edited by Nerve co-founder and expert anthologizer Genevieve Field. “I’m in a bunch of forthcoming anthologies. There’s one about only children. And another one about Jewish stuff I’m part of the proposal for. I had a letter in the Hell Hath No Fury book, a book of women’s breakup letters …. Is that it? I can’t remember.”

For a particular sort of female writer-one plugged into the appropriate social network, with multiple glossy magazine features on her C.V. and a few novels or a memoir in the can-a curious new task has arisen in her professional life: anthology-request management. It involves fielding e-mail solicitations for stories about [ insert life crisis here], producing said story and then trying to keep track of all the anthologies one’s work appears in.

“Remind me again of what I wrote in there?” said the fiction writer Pam Houston, sounding a touch bleary-eyed while speaking by phone from Iowa City (the latest stop on a book tour for her novel Sight Hound), when asked about her essay in Sex and Sensibility. Ms. Houston strained to recall the other essay collections she’d surfaced in recently. There was one on women and aging, another based on a Bruce Springsteen song, another called Dog Is My Co-Pilot. “I do get asked at times when I have to say no, either because my schedule’s too busy or there’s no compensation involved. Sometimes it’s about sisters or whatever. And I don’t have any sisters.”

Ms. Harris also found herself eluding anthologizers on occasion simply because her résumé didn’t fit the mold. “Not every writer will both be in an interfaith relationship and have had a miscarriage and have been an only child and have been single,” she said. “I don’t feel like, ‘ Ugh, this is so oppressive,’ because they don’t all apply to me. I like to play the game of ‘Who can I forward this to?’ It’s fun.”

Readers might want to prepare themselves for the conclusion of the anthology e-mail-forwarding cycle: The coming months will see a flood of essay collections-mostly nonfiction-subcategorizing every aspect of the feminine (and the odd masculine) experience. It could all be a sign that the confessional personal essay has reached the peak of its power, culminating in a breathless surge of self-help chick-lit-a combination of memoir, therapy and girl talk.

The anthology frenzy also suggests that the publishing industry is furiously trying to replicate one huge success by producing countless imitators. The collective rant The Bitch in the House: 26 Women Tell the Truth About Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood, and Marriage, a best-selling and hotly debated anthology published by HarperCollins in 2002, alerted book mavens to the fact that women were itching to read about the grievances of other women just like them-almost 100,000 copies each of hardcover and paperback are in print. ( The Bastard on the Couch soon followed.)

“[At first] it was, you know, ‘Ugh, this is too hard to sell. Anthologies-what a yawn,'” said Elizabeth Kaplan, the literary agent who represented Cathi Hanauer, the editor of The Bitch in The House. “The biggest thing was not that it sold so well, but that it was an anthology that sold that way. It changed everyone’s mind about anthologies-both the publishers for doing them and writers for being in them. Personally, it’ll be interesting to see how the others do.”

According to Marjorie Braman, the vice president and executive editor at HarperCollins who published Bitch, the book had the right attitude. “It was one of those books I had a lot of confidence in from the second I got the proposal and read it. I just knew,” Ms. Braman said. But she’s not sure what Bitch’s popularity means for similar collections in the future. “The problem with trends is, a book works and we say, ‘Wow, that’s great-let’s do more.’ It’s kind of like the sequel to a Hollywood movie: Maybe you’ll get lucky, and maybe you won’t. Just because one book works doesn’t mean that others will work. And publishers tend to either create or jump onto a trend and then exploit it so much that it goes bust.”

The success of Bitch has spawned offspring as varied as an upcoming anthology about in-laws, edited by New York Times Magazine editor Ilena Silverman (Riverhead); It’s a Boy! and It’s a Girl!, two separate collections edited by Andrea Buchanan (Seal Press); Party of One, about “the single transformative episode that defined [the writers] as only children,” co-edited by Deborah Siegel and Daphne Uviller (Harmony); an anthology on the decision to have children or not, by Salon editor Lori Leibovich (HarperCollins); The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt, by Ruth Andrew Ellenson (Dutton); About What Was Lost, 20 women writers ruminating on miscarriage, edited by Jessica Berger Gross (Chamberlain Bros.); Tales from the Scale, about women losing weight, edited by Erin J. Shea (Adams Media); and reflections of women in their 30’s (Tarcher/Penguin), as well as meditations on insomnia, “pilgrimage,” suburbia and manhood. Women writers and agents have also reported recent solicitations for essays on caregivers, interfaith love affairs, interracial friendships, dual-faith parents, cooking, stepparents, jealousy and divorce.

“I’m having a great run with them,” said Sally Wofford-Girand, a literary agent who just helped sell three anthologies, all to Doubleday.

One of Ms. Wofford-Girand’s projects, The Friend Who Got Away: Twenty Women Tell the True Stories Behind Their Blowups, Burnouts, and Slow Fades, is a high-profile entry due in May, co-edited by novelist Jenny Offill and Vanity Fair contributing editor Elissa Schappell.

According to Ms. Wofford-Girand, Ms. Offill and Ms. Schappell first concocted the book (about women’s friendships imploding- Catfight might have been an apt title) two years ago. They penned a six- or seven-page proposal and attached their own personal essays on their former chums. They included a list of possible contributors such as Francine Prose, Jennifer Egan, Elizabeth McCracken, Heidi Julavits and A.M. Homes (Ms. Prose, who wrote the introduction, was the only one to appear in the final book).

“We had 10 publishers vying for [it],” said Ms. Wofford-Girand. “Some publishers said, ‘It sounds great, but it’s too speculative.’ Then there were 10 other publishers who just got it and were really excited.”

The Friend is rumored to have sold in the low six figures, although Ms. Wofford-Girand wouldn’t confirm this. (Most anthology advances are in the low five figures.)

Ms. Braman, who appeared on many agents’ submission lists in the wake of her success with Bitch, said that the Friend proposal had crossed her desk and that she liked the idea so much that she actually bid on it.

“I just felt that I didn’t want to overpay to get on the bandwagon of a trend,” said Ms. Braman. “I thought it was a great project, and I hope it does really well. I just felt that at whatever point I dropped out, they had exceeded my comfort level …. I think that’s part of the boom and bust that we create. We not only publish too much of whatever the trend is, but we pay too much for it, and then who suffers?”

Once the deal is made, anthology editors might revel in the prospect of getting a book published. But the process of hunting down talented writers who also have the desired sub-niche of womanly life experience can be an administrative nightmare. Some editors pointed out that many collections had only one or two very strong essays because it was almost impossible to get 27 or 30 submissions edited to the same level of quality. Exceptions were sometimes made for lower-caliber writers who had compelling tales to tell. And then there were the agents to deal with; it was possible to end up negotiating with 10 or 20 agents individually over a standard contract.

Even so, according to Genevieve Field, “it’s an editor’s dream job: You get to edit the best writers in a format that lets them shine.

“Sure, there are a lot of anthologies out there,” Ms. Field wrote by e-mail, “but the best ones, in my opinion, aren’t super-specific. They’re not collections by women about their type-A grandmothers, they’re collections that illuminate a topic most everyone can relate to.”

From a writer’s perspective, the reason to say yes usually isn’t financial. Advances are famously low (for all but a handful of books); contributors typically receive between $500 and $1,500 per essay, although reselling essays to magazines can net a few thousand more. ( The Friend Who Got Away is filling the women’s-magazine first-person lineup for several months: Pieces have been excerpted, or are expected to appear, in Real Simple, O, Organic Style and Good Housekeeping.) The decision to contribute often has more to do with an interest in the topic, or because someone prestigious is involved, or because the writer already has written an essay that’s gathering dust in a drawer.

“First of all, there’s no reporting, so it takes much less time to write,” said Ms. Harris. “But I also feel like you have fewer opportunities to write personal essays. It’s not just résumé-padding; it’s nice to see your writing on a matte page rather than a glossy one.”

Some writers seem to have mastered this art. Flipping through a cross section of anthologies reveals a remarkable amount of overlap in the names, with certain writers clearly on more e-mail lists than others. One who is said to be in high demand, for example, is Rebecca Walker, whose multicultural background (the daughter of Alice Walker and Mel Leventhal, she is at once black, white and Jewish) and credentials as a feminist and mother allow her to fit into many categories. But not all.

“I get at least two requests a week,” Ms. Walker wrote in an e-mail. “I say no to most of them because I don’t feel connected or interested in the subject, or because I don’t have the time or the energy to write another essay. Anthology essays can be a real distraction. I have a book due in June, 10 lectures to give by May, and a newborn baby.”

But Ms. Walker also understood the impulse on the part of writers-particularly female writers, who seem drawn to the company of other women.

“An anthology can feel like a whole community, and no matter how independent and powerful we are, women still want to feel connected to others,” she said. “In terms of deepening one’s humanity, reading an anthology has got to be at least as beneficial as watching Fear Factor or Project Runway.”

Another writer who has developed something of a cottage industry out of anthologizing is Ms. Schappell, who didn’t respond to requests for comment from The Observer. In addition to co-editing The Friend Who Got Away, she and Ms. Offill have another anthology in the offing, about money, on top of Ms. Schappell’s own essays in The Bitch in the House (“Crossing the Line in the Sand: How Mad Can Mother Get?”), Sex and Sensibility (“Confessions of a Teenage Cocktease”), Child of Mine: Original Essays on Becoming a Mother (“In Search of the Maternal Instinct”) and the forward to Falling Backwards: Stories of Fathers and Daughters.

But who will read all of these confessional collections before the trend burns itself out? Aside from the inevitable graduation gifts, are there enough biracial divorced women who love dogs, hate their in-laws and listen to Bruce Springsteen to buy all these books?

“My sense is that people are so isolated these days, for some reason we’ve reached this new low of isolation and confusion,” said Francine Prose, who wrote the introduction to The Friend Who Got Away. “I think maybe the market for these books does have something to do with people who are either experiencing a certain crisis or know someone who is. It used to be something people could get from their neighbors and friends-but now that community has completely disintegrated, we have these books to help us through.

“Listen-a glut of books?” Ms. Prose continued. “At this point, I think that’s the last thing we have to worry about.”