PEN/O.Henry 2011 – Final thoughts, and Comparison to BASS 2010

The Royal College of Arts and Grand Eastern Hotel collaboration: readable bedcovers

When I finished BASS 2010 (which covers about the same time period), I ran through a series of parameters, and now I can compare PEN/O.Henry 2011 in these areas (some are difficult to determine, so these aren’t absolute definitions):

Stories I found to be amazingly wonderful:
BASS: Kevin Moffett, “Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events“
POH: Jim Shepard, “Your Fate Hurtles Down At You”
Kenneth Calhoun: “Nightblooming”
Tamas Dobozy, “The Restoration of the Villa where Tibor Kalman Once Lived”
Jane Delury, “Nothing of Consequence”
Leslie Parry, “The Vanishing American”
Mark Slouka, “Crossing”

Stories that made me shake my head and wonder why they were included:
BASS: Ron Rash, “The Ascent“
Wells Tower, “Raw Water“
POH: Helen Simpson, “Diary of an Interesting Year”

Authors I’ve read more of since reading their stories here:
BASS: Jim Shepard (two – well, one and a half – collections)
Joshua Ferris (debut novel Then We Came To The End)
Steve Almond (all kinds of stuff)
James Lasdun (online story)
Ron Rash (New Yorker story)
Rebecca Makkai (Tin House story)
Lori Ostlund (P/OH sory)
POH: David Means (New Yorker story)

Authors I plan to read more of:
BASS: Charles Baxter, “The Cousins” (though I’m still intimidated)
Kevin Moffett, “Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events“
Wells Tower, “Raw Water” (because he must be better than that story) (and he is, see Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned.
Danielle Evans, “Someone Ought To Tell Her…” because she’s got chops at a young age.
Brendan Mathews, “…Lion Tamer” because Zin loved it.
POH: Lori Ostlund

Journals represented by multiple stories:
BASS: Tin House (4)
McSweeney’s (3)
The Atlantic (3)
The New Yorker (2)
POH: Ecotone (2)
Kenyon Review (2)
Narrative (2)
Paris Review (2)

BASS: Men wrote 11, women wrote 9 of these stories.
POH: Men wrote 10, women wrote 10

Stories by writers of color:
BASS: 1 (possibly more, not certain)
POH: 1 (possibly more, not certain)

Stories by writers born outside the US:
BASS: 2 (London, Yugoslavia; Wells Tower not included)
POH: 5 (Canada, England, South Africa, France)

Oldest author:
BASS: 64 (Charles Baxter)
POH: 72 (Lily Tuck)

Youngest Author:
BASS: 26 (Tea Obreht)
POH: 27 (Matthew Neill Null)

Stories with non-traditional narrative structure:
BASS: 1 (Jill McCorkle, “PS” uses a letter)
POH: 1 (Diary)

Stories primarily based on humor:
BASS: 2 (Joshua Ferris, “The Valetudinarian” and Jill McCorkle, “PS”. YMMV.)
POH: 0

Stories set outside the US:
BASS: 5 (Africa (2), France, Australia, The Netherlands)
POH: 7 (Switz, England (2), Hungary, Africa (3))

Stories set entirely outside of the present time:
BASS: 4 (The Depression, WWII, Near Past, Near Future)
POH: 9 (WWII, future, Depression, Reconstruction, Undefined)

Per the editor: “New” authors:
BASS: 5 (Harrison, Mathews, Obreht, Ostlund, Shipstead).
POH: Uncertain

Additional category: Stories with gay characters (as opposed to stories in which the gayness of a character is a problem):
POH: 3 (Ostlund, Adrian, Foulds)

I think PEN/O.Henry has more variety and the stories in general are more accessible. Overall, I enjoyed it more, but I think a lot of that has to do with my natural stubbornness: if you tell me, “Here are the best stories of the year,” my nature is to say, “Oh, yeah, says who?” and to be extra-picky, to expect each story to dance when the strength may be more subtle. And there’s no arguing with my lack of sophistication. Add personal preference to that, and it’s really hard to compare volumes. I do think BASS, at least in this edition, aims more for technical and narrative sophistication, while PEN/O.Henry gives equal credit to story and engagement. But I can’t quantify that at all. Other than the list of multiple stories: While BASS culls The New Yorker, and The Atlantic, POH gathers from Ecotone and Kenyon Review. These are, of course, excellent journals, but you’re not likely to find them in your lawyer’s reception room.

I like both volumes. For me, the main draw (besides the likelyhood that I’ll find something to learn about writing from each story, even those not to my taste) is the Contributor Notes. And they are both great places to mine for collections I want to read, authors I want to see more from. That this year I found less of that in PEN/O.Henry is a matter of time. I simply got to BASS first.

And what’s next? I’m in a bit of a quandary. I’m toying with the idea of declaring this the year of the short story, and moving on to novels next year. But… I love stories! I’m going to go pick up the new BASS any day now, Steve Almond has a new collection coming out, Zin’s workshop is going to do the “European Stories,” and I still have some unread collections and anthologies calling to me. There is only so much that can be read. And I have the journals I’m following: One Story (which I love dearly), Tin House (which I will probably drop, very reluctantly at the next renewal; it’s lovely, #46 is a treasure and I’ve found treasures in other issues, but I may want to try McSweeney’s for a while too), the weekly New Yorker fiction (which I may become more selective about, though it’s hard to say; again, there are treasures in there)… there is only so much that can be read, and it breaks my heart to have to choose between gems.

And I have this overall tendency towards inertia – to keep doing what I am doing unless something forces a change, at which point I scream and stamp my feet and a short time later am just as inertive on the new path as I was on the old.

So I don’t know what will be happening. I suspect I’ll be starting BASS 2011 very soon. But who knows. I wish I could start writing again. And that’s the kicker: I started all this high-end reading (and have neglected a great deal of excellent less-recognized fiction) because I wanted to develop a better aesthetic sense, a better intuitive knowledge of what is good, what is great, what is not up to par. I’m not sure that’s happened, but I’ve become convinced that I can’t do what these folks do. It’s not a matter of practice and learning; it’s an intrinsic thing, a grasp of motivations and actions and characters and voice that I simply lack. It’s a colorblind artist trying to work in oils. I fear I may be stuck sketching in pencil forever (this – this here – is pencil. Tell someone you spend a lot of time writing a blog, and they give a tight little smile and say, “That’s nice.” Pencil sketches. But right now I have a place to say what I want, without worrying about pleasing anyone, and I no longer care that no one’s listening – it’s the saying, for now, I want).

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