BASS 2011: Beginning

"Blue Girl Reading" by August Macke

I got my copy of the new BASS collection from my Fiercely Independent Local Bookstore yesterday, and stopped at a nearby grill & pub because I couldn’t wait to start reading.

That isn’t quite true; the charred wood smell of the grill, combined with my memory of the best fries I’ve ever had, and a server who remembers me and knows exactly what I’ll order (though I’ve only been there six times total in the past six months) and will run after me for a block when I forget my sweater has a lot to do with it, too. It’s my favorite place to read the latest New Yorker story I’ve photocopied at the library, or the MaineCat treasure I’ve just picked up, knowing I’ll get perfect service (friendly but not intrusive) and a tasty (if fat-and-calorie laden – soup for dinner) lunch. I just wish the outside didn’t look so much like a strip club, but most things in life are trade-offs, and anyone who’s spent any time in Portland knows there aren’t any strip clubs in Monument Square. You have to go a half mile up Congress Street to the Video Expo for that.

Anyway, I was talking about BASS…

I read the Contributor’s Notes first. They’re my favorite part of BASS, to be honest, though of course without the stories, they’d be meaningless. I wanted to read seven or eight stories right away, the notes sounded so clever or interesting or different. A story of overnight wealth in Lagos. A writer who wrote a story to explore why he can be such “an insufferable dick.” Someone who appropriated (with permission) an idea from Etgar Keret, whose name I wouldn’t know if it weren’t for One Story. A long and entertaining note about how one writer wishes he could describe himself. A story that took twenty years of hibernation to come to flower (I hope some of mine turn out that way). A duel between an editor’s hand injury and a writer’s impending c-section.

See why I love BASS?

I recognized several stories and names. “Housewifely Arts” is one of the first One Story tales I read, though for some reason I never commented on it here; I remembered neither the title nor the author’s name (I’m so sorry! That’s why I blog stories to begin with, to remember those things better) but as soon as I read the tease about a parrot who held the mother’s voice, I remembered the story fondly. I’ve already read about Peter Torrelli falling apart and Joyce Carol Oates’ “ID” and will enjoy doing so again, though I won’t make separate entries for these (the addendas on the original posts may accumulate, though). And some have already been waiting patiently on my to-read list, courtesy of rumors and whispers of greatness: Allegra Goodman’s “La Vita Nuova,” George Saunders’ “Escape from Spiderhead.” There is one other that fills me with trepidation, but I won’t say which. Or why, since that would require saying which. Let’s leave it with, I shamefully take full responsibility for my inability to “get” some things. Some books. Even those that win the Pulitzer Prize. (Oops, did I just say which?)

The Foreword, by Heidi Pitlor, left me depressed, as usual, but for a different reason. Often it’s a dirge for the death of American Short Fiction, or for Publishing, or for The Art of The Story, or whatever. This time it was pretty much a slap in the face for those who weren’t chosen. A backhanded “Some of my best friends are domestic realists but….” And tips for those who just aren’t measuring up to BASS standards. Don’t attempt a triple lutz, which seems to include second person with sudden switches to other POVs, florid or jerky language, generalizations about gender, descriptions of rain that reflect the narrator’s inner state, and something about a barista who ends up naked on top of “me.” I’m not sure why those are triple lutzes; they sound like pretty basic things to avoid, except for the barista which isn’t something I want to even think about (I’m very proud of never having been inside a Starbuck’s or knowingly drunk their coffee). Then she wants writers to choose unfamiliar settings and characters, which seems like my idea of at least a double lutz (I hope everyone knows what a lutz is; it’s a skating move, a relatively difficult jump though a double is pretty routine for any women hoping to go to Nationals, and a triple is pretty much required for Olympic-level skating). Oh, and no stereotypes or characters who serve only to advance your sociopolitical agenda.

What she likes is far more appropriate: ease of language, a sense of intimacy with the writer and/or the story. And then we get the usual thing about what a shame it is that plot has become passe.

Interestingly, this series was in part developed to showcase stories that shunned a ubiquitous sort of plot that had “poisoned” much of the writing at the time, nearly one hundred years ago. But I fear that a new normal has evolved in its place, one conspicuously void of momentum and uninterested in maintaining the reader’s attention. Happily, each story in this year’s edition creates and sustains its own momentum, whether through premise or language, character or even perfectly placed silence. Each writer demonstrates an astonishing understanding of their characters and the worlds in which they live, wherever these worlds may be.

Then Geraldine Brooks does her Introduction. I look forward to these every year. Sometimes I glean a wonderful piece of writing or attitude advice (like Barbara Kingsolver: “Tell me something I don’t already know”). It’s usually fun to read, whatever it is – like Richard Russo’s Isaac Bashevis Singer anecdote culminating in the refrain: “To entertain, and to instruct.” But this one felt like another slap in the face, this time to the one hundred story writers who didn’t make the final cut. They are, of course, listed in the back, as “Other Distinguished Stories of 2011.” According to Ms. Brooks (whom I foolishly confused with Gwendolyn Brooks, wondering why a poet was editing a short story volume and isn’t she 150 years old by now? Of course, Gwendolyn Brooks, who passed away in 2000 at the age of 83 [a perfectly respectable age though not typically the age at which one volunteers for a task like this], was a completely different person, and I felt very stupid about that, not to mention ageist) some of the failing of these 100 also-rans are:

- “those that seemed afraid to tell stories, that handled plot as if it were a hair in the soup;”
– “seemed bleak without having earned it;”
– “the emotional notes were false;”
– “the writing was tricked out or primped up with fashionable devices stressing form over content.”
Or perhaps they did not adhere to her principles, which apparently preclude adultery, bleak outcomes, setting stories in the US, not writing about war, not writing about religion except as humor, not doing enough humor (presumably other than about religion)…

And I wonder which of these failings applies to Molly Antopol’s “The Quietest Man” from One Story; Dan Chaon’s “To Psychic Underworld” or Zachary Mason’s “The Duel,” both from Tin House (the same glorious issue that begat Peter Torrelli); the trio of PEN/O.Henry 2011 winners “The Junction” by David Means, Brad Watson’s “Alamo Plaza,” and “Something You Can’t Live Without” by Matthew Neill Null; or Jim Shepard’s “Poland is Watching” or “The Track of the Assassins” from his collection You Think That’s Bad. Perhaps she’d care to list them. I guess that’s what a Pulitzer Prize gets you – you get to diss writers of this calibre publicly. Maybe she didn’t mean to diss them, this writer who admits she’s never written a short story herself. But she did. There’s a difference between complaining about those nebulous “so many stories today” and letting the reader assume the stories on the long list were different (because that’s what everyone does, every year), and specifically declaring how so many of those long list stories fell short.

All this – plus my usual defensiveness when anyone sets a book in front of me and declares it to be the “best” stories of the year – sets me in a foul state of mind that taints the eagerness I felt on reading those wonderful Contributor Notes. Maybe I’ll go back and read them again. Then I’ll be ready for Page 1.

Note: Thanks to GoogleBooks, you can find the Table of Contents, Foreword, Introduction, and a few tantalizing tidbits of stories online.

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6 responses to “BASS 2011: Beginning

  1. Karen, GREAT post! I usually get the new BASS for Christmas from my husband, so I haven’t seen iy yet, but your observations about the introductory material are spot on! Those remarks can hugely influence how I feel about the collection as a whole. I’ll probably wait to read your remarks about the stories until I’ve read them myself, but I always appreciate your thoughtful posts.

    • Hi Jeanie, thanks! I was going to complain about the chartreuse color, but that seemed really petty. ;) Maybe I’ll get a book cover! Last year’s black, and the Rushie burgundy, spoiled me. Lots of reading going on right now. And lots of reality-TV coming up in a couple of weeks – Zin and I are both going to be busy!

      • It’s interesting to see how deeply conservative their criteria are. They’d probably think Gwendolyn Brooks was avant garde.

        Somehow words like “moved”, “imaginative”, “profound” don’t seem to come up.

        • Hi, Marko. To be fair, she does classify great writing as affecting the reader – you feel it on your skin, it makes the heart beat faster or the hairs stand up, provokes laughter or tears. She just seems to think these things on her check-off lists are how you get there.

          If a piece is moving or profound, it doesn’t really matter what else it is. And if it isn’t moving or profound – it doesn’t really matter what else it is…

  2. Pingback: BASS 2012: Getting Started | A Just Recompense

  3. Pingback: BASS 2011: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “Ceiling” originally from Granta | A Just Recompense

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