The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms

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The Millions Top Ten: April 2019

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for April.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style

4 months

2.
2.

The Friend
5 months

3.
4.

The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms
3 months

4.
3.

Severance

6 months

5.
7

Milkman
4 months

6.
5.

The William H. Gass Reader

5 months

7.
6.

Educated: A Memoir
3 months

8.
8.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation
6 months

9.


Becoming
1 month

10.
10.

Transcription
6 months

What pairs better than Haruki Murakami and our site’s Hall of Fame? Running and The Beatles? Spaghetti and cats? This month, Murakami sent his fourth book, Killing Commendatore, to our hallowed Hall, equalling our site’s all-time record for works from a single author. (If someone ever asks you what the author has in common with David Mitchell, you’ll know what to say.)

For the most part, our list held steady from last month, with the exception of one high-profile newcomer. After spending four months in our “near misses” section, Michelle Obama’s Becoming finally cracked our April lineup. Surely Millions readers need no introduction to Obama, and don’t need to be handsold such a blockbuster memoir, but in case someone needs a nudge out there, it’s worth noting that Marta Bausells dug the audiobook in our most recent Year in Reading series. “[It] did GOOD things to me and I recommend,” Bausells wrote.

Next month a minimum of three slots should open on our list, so we should get some excitement. Stay tuned!

This month’s near misses included: The New Me, The Golden StateCirce, The Practicing Stoic: A Philosopher’s User Manual and The Great Believers. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: March 2019

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for March.

This Month
Last Month
 
Title
On List

1.
1.

Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style

3 months

2.
3.

The Friend
4 months

3.
4.

Severance
5 months

4.
10.

The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms

2 months

5.
6

The William H. Gass Reader
4 months

6.
5.

Educated: A Memoir

2 months

7.
8.

Milkman
3 months

8.
7.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation
5 months

9.
9.

Killing Commendatore

6 months

10.


Transcription
5 months

March sent Esi Edugyan’s novel Washington Black to our site’s Hall of Fame, opening one spot for a newcomer on our list. As it happens, instead of a newcomer, we welcome something more familiar. Kate Atkinson’s novel Transcription had been on our Top Ten lists last September through December, yet for reasons unclear it dropped out of the running in January. Since then, it’s hovered in the “near misses” section at the bottom of these posts, and now it’s officially back as if to say, Spring is here and perennials return.

Meanwhile, Benjamin Dreyer’s instructive Dreyer’s English solidified its position in the top spot. Not long ago, our own Adam O’Fallon Price pondered the book’s popularity. “It would be difficult to think of a current subject that feels, superficially, less likely to top a list of best sellers,” Price wrote. “But beyond the pleasure of Dreyer’s prose and authorial tone, I think there is something else at play with the popularity of his book,” he explained. “To put it as simply as possible, the man cares, and we need people who care right now.”

Elsewhere on the list, little changed. Some titles swapped positions, some other titles moved up or down a spot or two, and outside the birds chirped and the planet spun and we completed just about one 12th of a rotation around the sun.

This month’s near misses included: Circe, Becoming, The Golden State, The New Me, and How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: February 2019

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for February.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
4.

Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style

2 months

2.
1.

Washington Black

6 months

3.
3.

The Friend

3 months

4.
5.

Severance

4 months

5.


Educated: A Memoir

1 month

6.
7.

The William H. Gass Reader

3 months

7.
6.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation

4 months

8.
8.

Milkman

2 months

9.
9.

Killing Commendatore

5 months

10.


The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms
1 month

Spring approaches but has not yet come. It brings a fresh start, and all around buds await the best moment to bloom. Naturally, some jump the gun, and so it’s fitting that we welcome two new titles to our final Top Ten of the winter season: Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover and The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms, which was edited by Kim Adrian. Even on a list with William H. Gass, snowfall’s poet laureate, there’s no stopping the season’s change.

This timing has its logic. Westover’s memoir was recently named a finalist for the National Book Award. Detailing the author’s journey from backcountry Idaho to Cambridge University, Educated underscores both the propulsive, transformative power of schooling and also the complexity of leaving family behind.

The Shell Game deals as well with transmutation, or in this case so-called “hermit crab essays.” These pieces, as Vivian Wagner explained for our site last summer, “like the creatures they’re named after, borrow the structures and forms they inhabit.” These are essays as quizzes, grocery lists, and more. “Hermit crab essays de-normalize our sense of genre, helping us to see the way that forms and screens, questionnaires and interviews all shape knowledge as much as they convey it,” Wagner writes. “For essays like these, message is always, at least in part, the medium.” (If you’re intrigued, I highly recommend Cheyenne Nimes’s “SECTION 404,” originally published in DIAGRAM, and included in Adrian’s anthology.)

Elsewhere on our list, things thrummed and lightly fiddled. Dreyer’s English rose from fourth to first. The Incendiaries is off to our Hall of Fame. Outside on bare tree branches, some leaves begin to grow.

This month’s near misses included: BecomingTranscription, Circe, and The Practicing Stoic. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: January 2019

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for January.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
2.

Washington Black

5 months

2.
3.

The Incendiaries

6 months

3.
5.

The Friend

2 months

4.


Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style

1 month

5.
4.

Severance

3 months

6.
8.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation

2 months

7.
7.

The William H. Gass Reader

3 months

8.


Milkman

1 month

9.
9.

Killing Commendatore

4 months

10.


The Golden State
2 months

Three spaces opened on our list this month, and filling them are two newcomers and one reappearance.

First, congratulations to Tommy Orange and Aja Gabel, whose novels There There and The Ensemble were so beloved by Millions readers that they’ve been immortalized forever in the site’s Hall of Fame. On the other hand, Kate Atkinson’s Transcription dropped out of the running after four months of strong showings on our list.

Keep faith, Atkinson fans. It’s quite common for books to leave our list one month only to reappear the next. How common? Well, the exact scenario just occurred with The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling. After debuting on our list in November, the book dropped off in December and has since reappeared to kick off 2019 in 10th position. At this rate, Kiesling will be joining Orange and Gabel in our Hall of Fame next September.

Two newcomers on our list this month are Milkman by Anna Burns and Dreyer’s English by Benjamin Dreyer. Burns’s novel won the 2018 Man Booker Prize for fiction and was briefly previewed by our own Carolyn Quimby last month, and is said to be “a story of the way inaction can have enormous repercussions.” Dreyer’s English, meanwhile, was described by Kiesling in our Great 2019 Book Preview as “a guide to usage by a long-time Random House copyeditor that seems destined to become a classic.” (I’ll echo Lydia’s request: please don’t copyedit this write-up.)

Next month’s list should open up for at least one new addition to our list, but as we’ve seen time and again: sometimes those new additions are blasts from the past.

This month’s near misses included: BecomingThe Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed FormsThe Practicing Stoic, and How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. See Also: Last month’s list.

Essays in Strange Forms and Peculiar Places: ‘The Shell Game’

The term “hermit crab essay,” coined in 2003 by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola in their book Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction, refers to essays that take the form of something un-essay-like—such as a recipe, how-to manual, or marriage license—and use this form to tell a story or explore a topic.

These essays, like the creatures they’re named after, borrow the structures and forms they inhabit. And these borrowed homes, in turn, protect the soft, vulnerable bodies of the crabs within. As Miller and Paola write in their original description of the genre:
This kind of essay appropriates other forms as an outer covering to protect its soft, vulnerable underbelly. It’s an essay that deals with material that seems to have been born without its own carapace—material that’s soft, exposed, and tender and must look elsewhere to find the form that will best contain it.
The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms, edited by Kim Adrian and published in 2018 by the University of Nebraska Press, is the first collection devoted entirely to this still rather new form. And if this lively and energetic anthology is any indication, it’s a form that will be around for a long time to come.

Hermit crab essays are a fascinating genre, one that I’m drawn to as both a reader and a writer. There’s something about them that represents the spirit of our era—with our infinite distractibility and our distrust of meta-narratives. They capture, perhaps, the inability of traditional storytelling to tell our most traumatic, fragmented, and complex stories—and our longing for structures that can.

Hermit crab essays de-normalize our sense of genre, helping us to see the way that forms and screens, questionnaires and interviews all shape knowledge as much as they convey it. For essays like these, message is always, at least in part, the medium.

Miller says in her foreword to The Shell Game that “with every iteration, both the hermit crab creature and the hermit crab essay become more deeply understood, and the possibilities for the form grow by the day.” And it is indeed a form that’s constantly growing and expanding. As long as there are new forms and structures created in the world, there are new possibilities for hermit crab essays.

Kim Adrian’s introduction to the volume is itself a hermit crab essay. Subtitled “A Natural History of the North American Hermit Crab Essay,” the introduction takes the form of a field guide about hermit crab essays, as if they were living creatures. In a section called “Number of Species,” for instance, she says that the family is “theoretically infinite, realistically somewhere in the thousands. Maybe tens of. Some of the more conspicuous include: grocery lists; how-to instructions; job applications; syllabi and other academic outlines; recipes; obituaries; liner notes; contributors’ notes; chronologies of all orders; abecedarians of all types; hierarchies of every description; want ads; game instructions,” along with dozens of other examples. In other words, the forms that hermit crab essays can take are as endless and ever-changing as human culture itself.

Adrian raises in her introduction the possibility that hermit crab essays could “be a self-limiting phenomenon: a somewhat charming blip of literary trendiness.” Time will tell, she says, but it’s also possible:
…that instead of disappearing like a spent trend, the hermit crab essay may yet spawn an entire new breed of essays—essays we can’t even imagine from here, essays that refuse to draw a line between fact and fiction, that refuse even to acknowledge such a line, and that throw on disguises of every description…in order to more fully inhabit some internal truth and in this way do what the best specimens of the noble order Exagium have always done: get to something real.
It’s interesting to note, as she says, that one of the things these essays do is to “refuse to draw a line between fact and fiction.” Many hermit crab essays are a strange hybrid between fact and fiction, calling attention to their constructedness and their made-up qualities even as they presumably tell “true” stories and are rooted in actual experiences. It’s difficult to consider them strictly nonfiction, since they are themselves inventions. When an essay in this volume takes the form of a legal document or a marriage license, after all, it’s pretending to be those things in order to tell a deeper story, or, as Adrian says, to “get to something real.”

It’s no accident, I think, that this form is gaining popularity precisely at a moment in American culture when the distinctions between fact and fiction are becoming increasingly blurry. That’s not to say that hermit crab essays don’t teach us to think critically about that blurriness. Rather, they do just the opposite: They call attention to the ways that cultural forms and expectations create reality. They make us see something about the forms and the stories they embody, helping us to understand how the forms of our culture both shape and limit our understanding of the world.

The essays in this volume cross a lot of territory and, as would be expected, take many forms. One of my favorites is “Solving My Way to Grandma” by Laurie Easter. It takes the form of a crossword puzzle in order to tell the story of the narrator’s coming to terms with becoming a grandmother. Since I love word puzzles, I worked on the puzzle as I read the essay, which was composed of small snippets of story turned into clues. Here, for instance, is 1 Across: “‘Mom, I have something to tell you. You might want to sit down.’ When my daughter said this, my first thought was Uh-oh, who died? Not Oh my god, she’s pregnant. (Expect the _______).”

Solving the puzzle while reading the essay lets the reader experience the narrator’s own process of puzzle-solving about her life. It’s a moving essay that works especially well because the form and the content are so well-matched. Reading this essay is a visceral experience in puzzle-solving.

The collection is full of similarly surprising and delightful essays. Sarah McColl’s “Ok, Cupid,” for instance, uses the form of a dating profile for self-revelation, with the narrator answering questions like “What I’m doing with my life” with elaborate and seemingly tangential answers that actually become more truthful than a real dating profile ever could.

Brenda Miller’s “We Regret to Inform You” is a brilliant collection of imagined rejection letters from art teachers, dance teams, and would-be boyfriends and husbands. The essay ends, finally, with an acceptance letter from a pet rescue, congratulating her on the adoption of her new dog—a letter that comes in stark and moving contrast to the years of rejection.

The essays in this collection bring with them a sense of hope about literature and its capacity for evolution and change. In Tell It Slant, Miller and Paola tell those interested in writing hermit crab essays to look around and see what’s out there: “The world is brimming with forms that await transformation. See how the world constantly orders itself in structures that can be shrewdly turned to your own purposes.”

In a postscript to The Shell Game, there’s an eight-page list by Cheyenne Nimes of many possible forms for hermit crab essays, from game show transcripts to eBay ads. I couldn’t help reading this as a list of writing prompts, circling some that I’d like to try. It’s a fitting way to end a volume that is as much an inspiration for other writers as it is a definitive collection of a constantly evolving genre.

Ultimately, maybe it’s this promise of transformation and adaptation that makes hermit crab essays so appealing. They encourage us to move forward, and they show us how many different paths we might take.

Surprise Me!

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