BASS drop 2014

This year, I detected a certain uncertainty in short stories, a sense of disorientation, perhaps a reflection of these unsteady times for publishing and readers. A lot of story writers relied on a character’s intuition or impulse to fuel the forward motion of their stories. As a result, many stories tended to wander – sometimes intriguingly, often into unsettling territory – rather than accelerate towards some definitive endpoint. While some stories that I’ve read this year were built up on or around some narrative roadway – and many of those appear in this volume – plenty were not.

~~Heidi Pitlor, “Foreword”, BASS 2014

Renovations on a recently-vacated storefront near my apartment building indicate a new shop is moving in. What will it be? Maybe a sandwich shop like the last tenant – will they be a great place to go for a late lunch, friendly neighbors willing to change a dollar once in a while? – or maybe a store selling something I never knew existed – I never realized foot soaking could be a commercial venture until Soakology opened – or something totally boring like insurance, or something completely unexpected, like a druid shrine or a sock store (there’s already a sock store opening down the block, I doubt my small city could support two specialty sock stores)…

Photo: 'ready to jump' by ouzouzouz; see more on deviantartAnticipation is fun.

My anticipation of each annual Best American Short Stories starts when I close the cover of the prior one for the last time. What stories have I read, or heard about, that might make it, or that I dread seeing in the table of contents? What authors would I like to see more from – or fear encountering? What would I pick?

That’s why one of my favorite moments of what has become my Annual Blogging of the BASS is the trip home from the bookstore, before I’ve looked at the table of contents, before I’ve read a word of the foreword or introduction or any of it. Maybe I’ll find confirmation of my opinion of a story from the year, or a new something from a favorite author; maybe I’ll discover an author new to me, or someone new to everyone. Chances are I’ll find a story that will make me wonder what the hell is so great about it, but I’m pretty sure I’ll also find several that will end with me staring at the page in awe, or maybe show me something new that, yes, you can do in a short story.

Last week, series editor Heidi Pitlor began tweeting single lines from stories in this year’s edition of Best American Short Stories. I was surprised to recognize two of them right away, stories I’d read during the year, from these single lines (I later recognized another, but it was after I’d seen the TOC so it doesn’t count; I also missed one. The tweets continue still).

Pitlor’s foreword begins, as quoted above, with an indication that these stories are not all linear. I found it interesting that the foreword was also not linear. In fact, it seemed as if the bulk of it – adapted into a Huffpo post – was written as a standalone, and the above opening paragraph and a few others added on to connect it to BASS. In large part, it’s a concern that writers might be outnumbering readers.

I don’t know anyone, other than writers, who reads short stories (low-end writers’ workshops openly acknowledge this; they’re writing for writers). Oh, maybe they read the one in The New Yorker once in a while (skimming it is more likely, followed by a complaint that “stories don’t make sense any more”), but when the Reading Group at my library got to Alice Munro’s Dear Life, the most frequent comment was, “I don’t like short stories.” It seems most people decide the stories are over before they have a chance to get into them; but that’s when the story starts, for me. Some have this idea that short stories aren’t “serious” literature, and since they aren’t on best-seller lists, they’re not party-talk, so what good are they?

What good is Mozart, Picasso, the doily your nearly-blind 93-year-old grandmother crocheted for your wedding gift? The good of art is in how it changes the way we see the world, the things we notice, in how it changes us. And that changes the world.

I’m rambling. Must be this unsettled, wandering thing in the air. Then again, rambling is one of my favorite things.

Jennifer Egan guest edited this edition, meaning she had the final say of which of the 120 pre-selected stories would appear.

I’m biased toward writers who take an obvious risk, formally, structurally, or in terms of subject matter, over those who do a familiar thing exquisitely.
If there was a single factor that decided whether a story ended up in my ongoing pile of contenders, it was its basic power to make me lose my bearings, to envelop me in a fictional world.… The vehicle for this transport into alternate worlds is vivid, specific language.

~~Jennifer Egan, “Introduction”, BASS 2014

As it happens, I have a similar bias: I like some kind of weird in my stories, and I’m not fussy about how or where the weird comes in: odd sentence structures? My kind of thing. Unusual narrative technique? Great! A character I’ve never seen before (and, since I’m not that widely read, this one tends to be easy), a bizarre plot? Bring it on. First person plural, second person, third person plural, fluid povs? My favorites (though I think they’re my favorites partly because editors do a good job of weeding out the “ok” stories in the selection process – a second-person story has to be really good to make it into a magazine, or a prize collection). A good sign?

Maybe the table of contents is a more reliable sign. Out of the 20 stories, I’ve read four of them; two of them I loved, one I seriously appreciated, and even though I wasn’t convinced by the fourth, it included a spectacular scene. I’m looking forward to seeing what Karen Russell brings. I’m downright thrilled to see Stephen O’Connor; his “Another Nice Mess” from One Story #162 was one of those miracle stories that left me open-mouthed, and though I followed up with a collection of his, I wasn’t able to connect, a miss I hope to rectify now.

I’m always slightly peeved to see how clustered the selections are around the same cluster of big-name journals – The New Yorker, Granta, McSweeney’s, etc. I understand there’s a reason those are big-name journals, but I also know there’s some wonderful work out there from less-obvious places. I see an unfamiliar title in the list this year: Image. No idea what the journal is, no idea what the story is, but I’m glad to see it there.

Another confession: I miss the old cover design. I'm just not the glossy-slick-bright-shiny-colors typeI confess: I haven’t been reading current stories in 2014. It isn’t lack of interest, it’s lack of time. As I take more and more MOOCs (right now, I’m juggling Kierkegaard, logic, music history, Dante, and a poetry course, as well as a variety of MOOC-inspired math learning projects), I have less time for contemporary reading. That makes me sad, but I don’t know how long MOOCs will be around, how long they’ll be free, and how long they’ll be as unique as some of them are right now (Robert Pinsky is teaching the poetry MOOC, and, by the way, the University of Iowa is running a “How Writers Write” MOOC; you haters can get over yourselves) so I’m cramming everything in while I can. I’ve taken the time from reading/blogging TNY and One Story. I’ve even dropped the O.Henry prize volume from my anthology rotation.

If I ever drop BASS, check my pulse; I’m probably dead.


4 responses to “BASS drop 2014

  1. I love your enthusiasm! I am indeed very sad that the audience for short stories now primarily consists of other writers. I wish I knew how to create more readers and how to make literature more relevant in the culture.

    • Hi Ken – You know, 2013 was supposed to be the “year of the short story” – Munro, Saunders, Dias, Russell – but seems not. I think they need to be televised – like the old GE Theatre, or Twilight Zone. But network TV has gone the way of housewives and idiocy, and premium’s more about series (why do people who complain about time so insist on longer forms??!?!) so I guess that’s not gonna happen.

      We’ll keep reading. And posting.

      (I have the Pulchra Nota post coming tomorrow, with a nod to your analysis)

  2. This is why I like your blog so much, Karen. It is important to have a place to discuss contemporary writing (even if you’re mostly a dick about it, like I am). The BASS should have buzz somewhere among people like us just like the Oscars do among people not like us. This is an important thing you do.

    • Jake – not many short story readers out there; and of course, most are writers, who read them differently. I’ve been on both sides, I remember what it’s like to read a story and wonder, “So how come this piece of crap got a prize and I can’t even get my story, which is better, I’m sure of it, into the Podunk Quarterly?” I read much better now that I’ve finally come to terms with the fact that 1) I can’t write fiction, and 2) I don’t like writing fiction.
      So I’m kind of unique, someone who reads short stories just because I like short stories.
      One thing I’ve learned is that there’s a difference between “I don’t like this story” and “this is a crappy story.” Sometimes I spend more time working on stories I don’t like, to see if I can figure out why it doesn’t work for me. Once in a while, I change my mind during that process, which is really cool.
      Mostly, I’m teaching myself to read, one story at a time.

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