After Jean Gould published an engaging essay about climbing the Himalayas on her 50th birthday, an editor at Seal Press in Seattle offered her an intriguing assignment: compile an anthology of essays about women over 50 in the outdoors.
Ms. Gould accepted, and the resulting book, "Season of Adventure," found a receptive audience. With first-person pieces on bird watching in the Galapagos Islands, camel touring in Egypt, and mountain climbing in Alaska, the collection, Gould says, "gives women both the courage to pursue their own adventures as well as vicarious thrills." As she edited the book, Gould "got hooked" on anthologies. So hooked that she produced a second one, "Dutiful Daughters: Caring for Our Parents as They Grow Old," published this fall by Seal.
Anthologies - those literary potpourris filled with the power to surprise and delight - have long been a staple of the publishing industry. But now, rather than simply repackaging previously published fiction and nonfiction, some of the latest collections are taking an different form. Like Gould's works, they offer original essays by fresh voices.
Wide range of perspectives
Written by and primarily for women, books in this genre give readers a range of perspectives on contemporary subjects, among them adventure, travel, caregiving, transitions, the role of grandmothers, and the challenges women writers face. They create a "community of voices" and a common vocabulary of experience, editors say.
"Anthologies of works written for a specific volume tend to push thought forward into new territory," says Gilda Bruckman, co-owner of New Words Bookstore in Cambridge, Mass. "They refocus our attention on issues that have not quite made it over the horizon or have been peripheral. There's a sense of momentum that is quite stimulating."
For Gould, caregiving ranks as one of those still-peripheral subjects. Faced with the need to care for her own mother but unable to find support, she decided it would be "logical to gather women's voices on this issue." She placed ads in Poets & Writers and the Women's Review of Books, soliciting original essays. Nearly 300 manuscripts poured in. "I was overwhelmed," says Gould, who lives in Natick, Mass.
"Overwhelmed" is the same word Mary Ann Maier uses to describe her response to the 300 submissions she and co-editor Joan Shaddox Isom received after they invited women to write about transitions for an anthology, "The Leap Years" (Beacon).
"It was a difficult culling process," says Ms. Maier of Tahlequah, Okla. "Change affects all of us. Everyone has experienced it. It scares most of us, but we all come through it, usually as different people."
That theme of "coming through" an experience also underlies many essays in Susan Fox Rogers's new anthology, "Two in the Wild" (Vintage Press), a collection of writings on women adventurers.
Ms. Rogers originally planned to put together a collection showing "your classic superwoman doing amazing sports." But when she sent out a call for submissions, she received stories about "being afraid of the sport being undertaken, of bears, and of men - not necessarily in that order - while they were outdoors." Many essays show the rewards of perseverance and the triumph over fear.
"You don't have to be a female Jon Krakauer to go out and have an adventure," says Dawn Davis, senior editor at Vintage. Many writers in this genre "are just being discovered, or they're young, or they're not even writers," she says. "They're mountain climbers, skiers, or rollerbladers."
Rogers, of Tucson, Ariz., notes that without anthologies, many writers would have no place to publish pieces like these. "They're not magazine articles because they're first person. They're very reflective - classic personal essays."
For publishers, anthologies like these offer a way to discover new writers. Faith Conlon, publisher of Seal Press, explains that one role small presses play is to "nurture new voices and publish them to get them started." These anthologies, she adds, sell very well.
Anthologies also suit contemporary reading habits. "People are busy and have many other competing interests," Ms. Conlon says. "They are looking for information in small, manageable servings. You can dip into an anthology, read something, put it down, and go back without feeling too disrupted."
Most of these women's collections are published in paperback. "People want to be able to carry an anthology around," says Tisha Hooks, editor of Beacon Press in Boston. "They're less likely to purchase them in hardcover." Explaining the popularity of these books, she says, "Women are interested in women's lives. Until recently, we haven't had the opportunity to hear our voices in this way." She points to the success of people like Oprah Winfrey and Rosie O'Donnell, who offer the personal voice, as well as the recent interest in memoir.
"This is perhaps one of the strongest periods for the personal narrative," Ms. Hooks says. Anthologies have been very successful for Beacon, she adds, with others scheduled for publication in the next 18 months.
In "Grandmothers: Granddaughters Remember" (Syracuse University Press), Marguerite
Bouvard offers 20 "grandmother histories" by women writers from diverse ethnic backgrounds, among them Cuban, Asian, and Italian. By focusing on grandmothers as mentors, she hopes to counter disparaging stereotypes of older women.
Lives like 'flames that flare up'
"Older women don't die down," says Ms. Bouvard, a resident scholar with the women's studies program at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. "They're like flames that flare up when they get older. They're very powerful."
Because Americans are rooted in the present, she notes, they tend to ignore history. "Our grandmothers may not be in history books, but they lived through important historical events - Nazi occupation, political turmoil in Shanghai, the London Blitz. You can absorb the world better through this personal link."
The personal link also became evident when Gould spoke at a nursing home near Boston a few weeks ago and read from "Dutiful Daughters." Hearing the stories in the book made adult children in the audience feel less alone. "It also made them feel comfortable telling their own stories, not sort of whispering them," Gould says. "They had some sense that their experiences had value, not just for themselves, but for others."
Another new title, "Sleeping With One Eye Open: Women Writers and the Art of Survival," edited by Marilyn Kallet and Judith Ortiz Cofer (University of Georgia Press), shows how women writers succeed despite the obstacle of "no time." Last year's "An Inn Near Kyoto," edited
by Kathleen Coskran and C. W. Truesdale (New Rivers Press), features American women living or traveling abroad.
Whatever the subject, readers find the style appealing. "It's fresh, and not cut and dried," says Mercedes Anderson of Palm Harbor, Fla. "It's straight from the heart. I like that. It's very potent."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society