5 Essayists Writing Books That Ask Difficult Questions

In an era of Tweets and news delivered in 30-second web videos, the nuances of modern life and complexities of issues are often left unexplored. That's where writers like these come in, crafting thoughtful examinations of how greater issues affect people in their everyday lives, and proving that there's more to be found beyond the headlines. This video was made with Ezvid Wikimaker.

5 Authors Penning Insightful Essays

Name Popular Works
Adrian Nathan West The Aesthetics of Degradation The Weight of Things by Marianne Fritz (translator) The Construction of the Tower of Babel by Juan Benet (translator)
Fenton Johnson Everywhere Home: A Life in Essays Keeping Faith At the Center of All Beauty: Solitude and the Creative Life
Patricia Ann McNair And These Are the Good Times: A Chicago Gal Riffs on Death, Sex, Life, Dancing, Writing, Wonder, Loneliness, Place, Family, Faith, Coffee, and the FBI (Among Other Things) The Temple of Air In Praise of Silence, Loneliness, and Boredom
Julian Hoffman The Small Heart of Things: Being at Home in a Beckoning World Irreplaceable: The Fight to Save Our Wild Places Faith in a Forgotten Place
Theresa Kishkan Euclid's Orchard and Other Essays Mnemonic: A Book of Trees Phantom Limb

Fenton Johnson Reads from Everywhere Home at the San Francisco Public Library

Organizations That Support And Encourage Writers

Name Headquarters Focus
PEN America New York, NY Works to protect free expression with initiatives on college campuses, in prisons, in nations where artists and journalists are at risk, and in communities around the world
West Coast Songwriters Chapters throughout California Network of local groups where members can build relationships and receive helpful feedback on their work
A Studio in the Woods New Orleans, LA Retreat and learning center providing artists and scholars with a space close to nature where they can pursue their work
Sisters in Crime Lawrence, KS, with chapters across the US and Canada Supports women crime writers, promoting diversity and inclusion through a professional network, quarterly journal, and research grants
PlayPenn Philadelphia, PA Guides playwrights as they craft new works with staged readings, classes, networking opportunities, and the three-year Foundry program
Authors Guild New York, NY Membership organization with resources for authors like contract reviews and legal aid, and a foundation that advocates on behalf of writers on issues like free speech and copyright protection

Patricia Ann McNair Discusses Sex, Shame, and the Short Story

In Depth

While reading can be a great way to escape from the world, it's also an ideal activity for thinking about the world more deeply. This notion is well understood by many essayists, who write with the aim of provoking reflection and intellectual expansion. The ones included here, listed in no particular order, tackle everything from religion and sexuality to environmentalism, all without shying away from tough questions.

Showing up at #1 is Adrian Nathan West, whose essays, short fiction, and translations have appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books and McSweeney's, among other print and online journals. In 2016 he released his debut book, "The Aesthetics of Degradation," which interrogates the place of pornography in contemporary life. Blurring distinctions between novel, memoir, and treatise, it considers the moral and psychological consequences of the abuse that increasingly pervades the industry.

Reviewing fiction in translation, West is a frequent contributor to the Times Literary Supplement, the Washington Examiner, and Literary Review. He has translated books from German, Catalan, Spanish, and French, as well as short pieces from Galician and Italian, by authors such as Josef Winkler, Pere Gimferrer, and Marianne Fritz. Additionally, West serves as a contributing editor to the renowned online journal Asymptote.

Reviewing fiction in translation, West is a frequent contributor to the Times Literary Supplement, the Washington Examiner, and Literary Review.

For #2 we have Fenton Johnson. The recipient of many honors, including Lambda Literary Awards for LGBT nonfiction, Johnson writes about issues pertaining to social justice, faith and spirituality, environmentalism, and human rights. His collection, "Everywhere Home," draws together essays originally published in Harper's, The New York Times, and elsewhere, along with new work. Reporting from locations including San Francisco and Calcutta, the author explores such topics as sexuality, religion, and the AIDS crisis.

Among Johnson's other non-fiction works are his memoir, "Geography of the Heart," and "Keeping Faith," which narrates his journey living as a skeptic alongside Christian and Buddhist monks. There's also "At the Center of All Beauty," a meditation on artists, writers, and musicians who led solitary lives. Further, Johnson has authored novels and written narrations for documentaries, and stands as Professor Emeritus at the University of Arizona.

Next up at #3 is Patricia Ann McNair, author of "And These Are the Good Times," an essay collection that candidly recounts her many unique life experiences. Moving through time, from Honduras to her hometown of Chicago, McNair discusses such personal subjects as her father's death, her subsequent quest to lose her virginity, and her marriage and literary career. Throughout, she boldly addresses issues of politics, sexuality, and sexual abuse.

Throughout, she boldly addresses issues of politics, sexuality, and sexual abuse.

Equally frank and challenging is McNair's award-winning fiction collection, "The Temple of Air." Spanning three decades, it presents a portrait of working class Americans in a Midwestern town whose lives intersect after a tragic accident. Other work by the author has appeared in various anthologies, magazines, and journals. Today, McNair continues a decades-long career teaching fiction writing at Columbia College Chicago.

For #4 we come to Julian Hoffman. Born in England and raised in Ontario, Hoffman now lives in a mountain village beside the Prespa Lakes in Greece, where he draws inspiration from the abundant wildlife. The region is central to his book "The Small Heart of Things," which interweaves human stories with those of wild creatures to examine the ways we can strengthen our connectivity to the natural world.

The environment is also the focus of Hoffman's followup, "Irreplaceable." Exploring treasured coral reefs, tallgrass prairies, and ancient woodlands, it traces the stories of endangered places around the globe through the voices of those fighting to save them. In the process, Hoffman asks what kinds of cultural, social, and psychological benefits we gain from a deep emotional attachment to place. The author also shares his musings on his blog, Notes from Near and Far.

Exploring treasured coral reefs, tallgrass prairies, and ancient woodlands, it traces the stories of endangered places around the globe through the voices of those fighting to save them.

Finally, landing at #5 is Theresa Kishkan. This Canadian writer began her literary career as a poet, publishing three full-length collections as well as several chapbooks. After having children, she turned to prose with the personal essay collection "Red Laredo Boots." Subsequent non-fiction works include "Phantom Limb," a study of landscape and culture through various historical lenses, and "Mnemonic," which intertwines memoir with an investigation of significant trees.

Additionally, Kishkan has penned novels and novellas exploring Canadian and European history, nature, immigration, and exile. In "Inishbream," a wanderer arrives by chance on a secluded island just off the coast of Ireland. "A Man in a Distant Field" tells of an Irish emigre trying to escape his traumatic past, while "Patrin" centers on a young Canadian woman who travels to Czechoslovakia to trace her family's nomadic history.