Most of the credit can go to David Foster Wallce, this year's guest editor, whose terrific introduction tells me that most of the credit should not go to David Foster Wallace, actually, but to series editor Robert Atwan, whom Wallace envisions
as by now scarcely more than a vestigial support system for an eye-brain assembly, maybe like 5'8" and 90 lbs., living full-time in some kind of high-tech medical chair that automatically gimbels around at various angles to help prevent skin ulcers, nourishment and waste ferried by tubes, surrounded by full-spectrum lamps and stacks of magazines and journals, a special emergency beeper Velcroed to his arm in case he falls out of the chair, etc.
I love Wallace's stuff, and loved it even through the years when he was most hyped (as a result of Infinite Jest, ironically the one thing of his I never much got into), and I happen to think the essay is where he's at his most excellent. He says that just because you think somebody is a good writer, doesn't mean he's a good reader--but it turns out Wallace is, because these essays are great.
They're characterized by a distinct lack of navel-gazery, thank God; there is almost no memoir here at all. The essays are about stuff. Many are, inevitably, political, like Mark Danner's stunning Iraq piece, which I read when it came out in the NYRB; others are personal, but in strange, oblique ways (case in point: Jo Ann Beard's fictionish "Werner," and what a treat to see her stuff again after she seemed to drop off the face of the earth like ten years ago. If you haven't read her fictionessaywhatever book The Boys of My Youth, go get it immediately).
One thing that characterizes all of these, however, is absolute clarity; another is voice. They are all inalienably written by who they're written by. I think these qualities are the result of Wallace's winnowing, and I wish I could have him in software plugin form, to act as a filter for my book buying. Indeed, it is as a noise filter that he sees himself here.
One note though: I don't like what they've done to the covers of this series, this year. They should have stuck with the basic force-justified serif on nubbly matte paper they arrived at in the eighties; these days the series has moved to this smooth satin cover stock, a two-tone color theme, and what seem to be one-point lines just sort of stuck between the words. It's ugly, and a pointless adjustment to something that had been working just fine.