Happy Anniversary to BASS 2015

Where we'd be living if nothing had progressed in the past 250 million years.

Where we’d be living if nothing had progressed in the past 250 million years.

One hundred years ago, when Edward O’Brien inaugurated this annual volume in celebration of the short story, things were both different and the same….The Model T gave way to the Model A and to the Ferrari and the Prius, the biplane of the First World War to the jet of the Second, modernism to postmodernism and post-postmodernism. We advance. We progress. We move on. But we are part of a tradition and this is what makes O’Brien’s achievement so special 0 and so humbling for us writers bent over our keyboards in our own soon-to-be-superseded age. The Best American Short Stories series still follows his template and his aesthetic too, seeking to identify and collect some of the best short fiction published in the preceding year.

TC Boyle, Introduction, BASS 2015

Happy 100th Anniversary, BASS!

This year, we have not one, but TWO Best American Short Stories: this one, the 2015 volume anthologizing selected fiction published in the calendar year 2014 (yes, it’s confusing, deal with it), and a 100th anniversary celebration including stories selected from the past 100 published volumes. That will have to wait for another day; for now, I’m going to stay in the near-present, and see what TC Boyle and Heidi Pitlor have chosen for this year.

For the first time since I’ve been blogging BASS, I don’t recognize a single story in the Table of Contents. As I started MOOCing more, I started reading less, and now I’m down to Pushcart and BASS. That saddens me, but, as Boyle says, everything changes, and next year or three years from now, I may be doing something entirely different. I was doing something entirely different three years ago, after all (remember the Project Runway years?).

I’m excited to see what I’ve missed.

I recognize many of the authors, of course, and see a lot of new names. I like that. It’s nice to feel some sense of continuity, but also nice to discover new people, perhaps writers others know well, but who are new to me. Things change. We progress. I have to remember that, since there are days when the news seems to indicate we’re going backwards. That, too, may be progress, like crouching low before taking a jump. I hope so.

Pitlor’s Foreword deals with the “unlikeable character.” I’m always puzzled by this debate. I can only think of one book where I liked a character – to the point where I truly missed him at the end of the book – and I’m pretty sure it had more to do with my personal psychology than with any personal affection, and certainly nothing to do with literary or aesthetic appreciation. When I read Coetzee’s Disgrace for a MOOC, I clearly remember despising Lurie in a visceral, physical way, but it never occurred to me this would be a flaw in the book. I likewise found Emma Bovary to be hilarious – as well as Manon Lescaut – but judging them as people wasn’t as important as understanding how those characters fit into the stories they inhabited, how they interacted with other characters, why things happened as they did – and how that fit with my view of people, the world, life. Pitlor seems to have a similar approach:

To readers who tend to think primarily in terms of liking or disliking characters: these people are fictional. They do not stand before us asking to be liked. They stand before us asking to be read. They asked to be seen and heard and maybe even understood, or at least for their motives to be understood, if that is what the author is after. But for the sake of argument, let’s pretend these characters are in fact real, that they are human beings standing before us. Let us open up at least a little to those we might not like – in their presence, we might experience something new.

Heidi Pitlor, Foreword, BASS 2015

TC Boyle’s Introduction was equally puzzling to me, though for a different reason. After a brief rant about the non-existent commercial market for short fiction today (a problem my blogging buddy and TC Boyle fan Ken Nichols is facing by creating new readers via his latest project, Reading is Not Homework), he goes on to pretty much eviscerate the stories in the early BASS volumes: “I’d like to report that there are hidden gems here…but that ‘s not the case. The stories are rudimentary…..” Oh. Well, that’s a surprising approach for a BASS guest editor. And, perversely, it makes me more curious about the stories: could I tell if they’re that bad?

Ultimately, though, what I was looking for wasn’t much different from what O’Brien was: stories that grabbed me in any number of ways, stories that stood out from the merely earnest and competent, that revealed some core truth I hadn’t suspected when I picked them up. Another editor might have chosen another lineup altogether from them 120 finalists, but that only speaks to its subjectivity each reader brings to his or her encounter with any work of art. If I expected anything, I expected to be surprised, because surprise is what the best fiction authors, and there was no shortage of such in this year’s selections.

TC Boyle, Introduction, BASS 2015

Time to progress: Annoy me. Surprise me. Change me.

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5 responses to “Happy Anniversary to BASS 2015

  1. Once again, thanks so much for taking the time every year to blog about the BASS, Pushcart and O’Henry. There is such a dearth of literary community online. For literary folk, the yearly publication of the BASS ought to be a big deal, like our Superbowl. But there really aren’t that many places to go to talk about it. It’s sad to think that you could find no end of places to talk about a new music video or even commercial, but so few outlets to talk about what that great story means.

    I also like your emphasis on being changed from reading. As a young Protestant, I thought that was the whole point of reading, and this was emphasized from the pulpit every Sunday. I’ve put away that faith since then, but the idea of being changed by words still seems sound to me. It’s both why I read and why I sometimes question reading. Does fiction really change me? Or do I use my vicarious sympathy to replace real-world sympathy with those who need it? I guess it’s up to me. Having a community of people looking to be changed by what they read helps to make reading count for something more than just having a thing to talk about.

    Look forward to this year’s blogging on this.

    • Nice to have you along for the ride, Jake!

      I’ve found that sometimes, when I’m encountering a person who’s annoying me, I might remember a character who acted in a similar way, and I realize: everyone has a story. We don’t know the story, but it’s there, just the same. This is one way fiction can change people – give real life people the same empathy, the same benefit of the doubt as fictional people.

      • There does seem to be some actual research behind it. Of course, as critics of literature have been noting since at least Augustine, there’s downside to empathy. You can end up empathizing too much. You can end up taking the side of Satan in Paradise Lost, or Ahab in Moby Dick, or even, to some extent, Humbert in Lolita. (Humbert is an example of rationalizing anything, which I suppose some literary-minded people end up doing if they empathize too much.) Most lit fic doesn’t really condemn bad behavior very strongly. To get that, you have to read fantasy or crime fiction.

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