BASS 2013: At Last

"Retro Phone" by Emily Sams

“Retro Phone” by Emily Sams

A reader is in the position of saying hello. Tentatively, enthusiastically, or even with trepidation, the reader approaches a piece of writing with the unspoken question What do you have to say? And the writer answers, This. I have this to say, and I want you to listen to my voice, to the tone of my voice, because that will tell you what I have to say.

— Elizabeth Strout, Introduction

It’s been a while since my last short story prize anthology. Heidi Pitlor’s been tweeting out bits and pieces from the stories over the past week or so, adding to my frenzy. Hmmm… this sounds a lot creepier than I’d intended. Hey, let it stand: I’m psyched. To be honest, I’ve had the 2013 O.Henry Prize collection sitting on my bookshelf for two weeks, but I’m still miffed at them for messing up my schedule by changing their pub date from spring to fall; they’ll have to wait for me.

This is my fourth annual Blogging of the BASS. I find that I read better when I know I’ll be writing posts about the stories, and as I’m putting a post together, I often discover something I’d overlooked on first read. Some stories suggest their own approach to discussion; others are more of a challenge. I don’t know how to do “reviews” so I don’t even try; I just write about how the story affected me, and why I think that might be. I’ve always aimed for two stories a week, but that might be tricky, given the workload I’ve got going on in my MOOCs. It’s probably going to be more like one story a week, at least until mid-November.

Heidi Pitlor’s preface is particularly personal and somber; she focuses on literature’s reaction to catastrophic events via her own reaction to the December 2012 Sandy Hook massacre. I remember how determined we all were back then, that this time something would be done, something would change, would have to change after such an unthinkable tragedy, the petitions, the emails, the hope… Yet here we are, after a bunch of failed votes and filibusters and recalls, with a few lunatics still firmly in charge of the asylum. It’s been a tough year to tear my eyes away from the down side, on many fronts.

But this is supposed to be about stories. I just need to acknowledge my own filter; I’m looking through glasses that are not rose-colored, are sometimes in fact blood-red with horror and rage, and that scares me sometimes.

Snap out of it. Stories.

Guest editor Elizabeth Strout’s introduction likens the reader to someone answering the telephone, with the author and story as caller: the reader answers the phone with a pre-existing attitude, and voice conveys as much information as words. Reading a story is a conversation. Or, really, half a conversation, since the reader can’t respond directly to the writer. She can, however, blog her responses, keep the conversation going, perhaps even expand it to other parties, in a sort of conference call. As always, I welcome whatever participants are interested.

So if you wonder why I chose the stories I chose, I would say it had a great deal to do with voice. That sound – if it is working well – has authority, probably the most important dimension of voice. … I don’t think readers think about this analytically, but instead, they experience it as a feeling about the writer that grows stronger as they read: I want to be in your company, I want to keep going, I like the way you sound.

— Elizabeth Strout, Introduction

I was a big fan of last year’s volume, so this year has some big shoes to fill. Will I discover another Taiye Selasi? Will there be another story that will charm me in spite of my doubts, like “Beautiful Monsters” and “The Navigators”? Will I find far more in a story I was originally iffy about, as happened with “Miracle Polish”? On Page 1, anything is possible.

basscover120x180I’m thrilled to see some familiar stories included (“The Semplica-Girls Diary” by George Saunders in particular) surprised to see others (“Chapter Two” by Antonya Nelson faded from memory pretty quickly, and while Junot Díaz was, deservedly, inevitable, “Miss Lora” was not the 2012 story of his I expected to see here). I’ve previously read six of the twenty stories; something new may leap out at me, demanding a new post. For an extra-exciting touch: just as I scheduled this post, the news came in: Alice Munro – who is, of course, featured in this volume – won the Nobel Prize in Literature. I’m happy to see fourteen authors I’ve read in the past, and eager to meet the six who are new to me.

Hello? Who’s there? What do you have to tell me?

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