When I was a teen (in the late 60s and early 70s), I’d take my allowance to WaldenBooks (and the mall record store, which carried all the Peter, Paul & Mary, Melanie, and Don McLean I could afford) or school book fairs. I didn’t buy makeup, or jeans (they weren’t allowed in my house, and my schools had dress codes until I was a senior); I bought books. I had a complete collection of Herman Hesse, having read Beneath the Wheel in an English class. I tried Ayn Rand because she was in a Paul Simon song. Death Be Not Proud led to a volume of John Donne. Catch-22 (which made no sense to me). The Bell Jar (yes, I was a pretty depressed teenager). And a lot of goofball stuff – Love Story, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and the like. I even bought a copy of The Naked Ape purely for the chapter on sex (I was very sheltered) which led to a lifelong aversion to red lipstick and placement of personal mementos on my desk at work.
All of these were paperbacks.
“Papercovers!” my father would sneer. Paperbacks weren’t books, to him; they were the dime-store westerns and romances he’d seen in drug stores and Five-and-Tens in his youth (he was born in 1908). He never accepted that a real book could be published in paperback.
Not that a real book was that good a thing, either. He worried that I didn’t spend my allowance on tangibles – things with practical use or resale value. When I’d come home with another book, he’d fret. “Books! You have books!” Records were similarly dismissed. If you have one or two books or records, after all, why would you need more?
My father was an accountant. He was born in Sweden, and came of age in New Jersey during the Depression. (and I inherited that attitude towards shoes).
I still have many of the paperbacks I bought back then. Though not The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Ilya Kuryakin, cute as he was, didn’t stand the test of time. Neither, by the way, did The Naked Ape.
When he rails against online fiction, Bill Henderson reminds me of my father. He’s someone who started something impressive and new and important back in 1975, when the first Pushcart volume was printed, someone who respects Schumacher’s Small-is-Beautiful notion, but he can’t get past this change in format to accept that there are good things out there in cyberspace. I can hear him sneering, “Papercovers!” every time I read a Pushcart introduction.
Fine. He’s entitled to his opinion (even if XXXV made a mockery of that opinion, including works available only online). I’m not interested in the debate over the validity of the Pushcart Prize. I just want to read good stories, and this one of many places to find them.
I was so excited when I went through the Table of Contents of XXXV (which was, to me, an extraordinary volume, prompting me to obtain XXXVI immediately). I’d already read the stories by Charles Baxter and Anthony Doerr, and loved them, and I recognized some other names I admired – Deb Olin Unferth, Joe Meno, Terrence Hayes – so I was eager to jump in.
I’m a little more cautious with XXXVI. I know four of the stories. I very much enjoyed “Number Stations” by Smith Henderson and “Nephilim” by L. Annette Binder for the blend of impact and quirk. I was less enthusiastic about “Soldier of Fortune” by Bret Anthony Johnston, a perfectly executed and interesting but less-than-unexpected coming-of-age tale, and Steven Millhauser’s “Phantoms” which just went over my head and left me disappointed by lack of anything I could really hook on to. So I’m thinking maybe this (stories from 2010) was just not the year for my kind of fiction. Or maybe 2009 was annus mirabilis in terms of stories that resonated with both me and the Pushcart editors, and I should not expect such a thing again.