BASS 2012: Getting Started

It turns out that the statement “I just have a few more pages” does not inspire patience in very busy or very young people.

– Heidi Pitlor, Foreword

The new BASS is here! The new BASS is here! (Apologies to Steve Martin)

Forgive me – but it’s been a long six weeks without a prize anthology.

And it’s a lovely navy blue – such an improvement from last year’s annoying chartreuse.

Each year, I dig in via the non-story material: the Foreword by Series Editor Heidi Pitlor, the Introduction by the year’s Editor. For the past several years, I’ve noticed each “preview” (as I call this material) gives me a different sense. In 2010, Richard Russo charmed me with a long anecdote about an Isaac Bashevis Singer lecture. But last year, I was pissed off by what felt like snobbery in both pre-sections. This year is very different, and I wonder if that’s deliberate; maybe I wasn’t the only one who felt the “slap in the face” last year (though I should say, I enjoyed last year’s stories just fine, once I got some distance from the awful preview).

Series editor Heidi Pitlor uses this Foreword now to declare this (2011 publication) the strongest year for short stories since she took over BASS six years ago, making her job more difficult as she winnowed the field of thousands down to 120 finalists. That’s a far cry from 2011’s “writing tips” for those slackers who didn’t make the cut. We’re also promised humor, satire, and “a greater diversity of themes this year, as well as more direct and imaginative ways of addressing real-world issues” like the economy, video game subculture, commercialism, and the focus on youth. Now wait – last year, “The Sleep” approached the economy from a unique direction, Sam Lipsyte did a bang-up job with videogame subculture in “The Dungeon Master,” and Havazelet’s “Gurov in Manhattan” did a great job with youth and aging.

I think now I’m just being contrary.

Editor Tom Perrotta, a name new to me, has written an engaging and personal Introduction, starting (and ending) with his childhood memory of “the best pizza in the world,” and acknowledging head-on the absurdity of anyone declaring any set of short stories to be “the best.”

… [Y]ou may also be skeptical or even mildly hostile, wondering what gives me – gives anyone, for that matter – the right to impose his or her personal tastes on the American reading public.”

Who, I hear you wondering, does this guy think he is?

He explains his own criteria using his early encounters with the twin poles of Carver-minimalism and DFW-excess, and offers the following summary of his tastes:

I like stories written in plain, artful language about ordinary people. I’m wary of narrative experiments and excessive stylistic virtuosity, suspicious of writing that feels exclusive or elitist, targeted two readers with graduate degrees rather than the general public, whatever that means.… an American vernacular tradition that includes Twain and Crane, Cather and Hemingway, Hammett and Chandler, and stretches all the way back to Emerson (“The roots of what is great and high must still be the common life”) and Whitman (“Nothing is better than simplicity”).

While I appreciated his laying out the ground rules, and admired his discussion of Carver and DFW, my heart sank a little: I’m a fan of “narrative experiments and excessive stylistic virtuosity.” At least I think I am; what I consider to be those things might be completely different from Perrotta’s interpretation. And I’ll admit, these things don’t always work out; while I adored Seth Fried’s “Animacula” I never quite caught on to Steven Millhauser’s “Phantoms,” and both use the form of academic report. Roberto Bolano baffles me. I love some of Stephen O’Connor‘s work, and just go “huh?” for others. But discovering Paul Griner and Bennett Sims was, perhaps, the highlight of my reading year, and most of the stuff in my Online Fiction Sampler is slightly off-center. Then again, another highlight of my reading this year has been “getting” Alice Munro and Carver himself in a more complex sense. So I’m not really disappointed.

I’m always a little nervous about pre-reading the Contributor Notes: will they affect my later reading of the story? I’ve found that, while I might remember a fun anecdote (last year’s Rebecca Makkai tale of editing her story a week before her scheduled C-section, for instance – or Karen Russell’s mention in 2008 of her brother’s craving for “booze with Vitamin C,” aka limoncello, that resulted in her trip to Sorrento), I’m not able to remember whatever details about the stories themselves might be included, or to associate them with the correct author, in the weeks between reading the Note and reading the story. I do often find them informative afterwards; but in no way are they spoilers before.

These Contributor Notes this year are enticing as always: a millionaire roommate, assumptions, the sorrows of dementia and bereavement, suicidal ants, and a wonderful story of loss (“fear of failure had replaced the joy I’d always found in fiction”) and reclamation through the grace of a generous colleague. Yet I expect I’ll be completely surprised when I go back as I read each story and realize which of these goes with what.

So now, the stories themselves await. I’m looking forward to reading Julie Otsuka, whose Buddha in the Attic I thoroughly enjoyed; likewise, I was lucky to discover Jess Walter’s Financial Lives of the Poets this year, and I’m eager to read his story. I’ve been reading Roxanne Gay’s Rumpus posts for a long time, but this will be my first encounter with her fiction. And I’m so glad to see offerings from Fifth Wednesday and Hobart in the mix with TNY and Tin House and Granta et al.

Want some pizza?

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