BASS 2019: Let’s Get This Party Started

Last fall, when the indefatigable Heidi Pitlor sent me a first batch of forty stories, I dove right in….
By Thanksgiving I felt as though I had lucked into the best gig ever….I was discovering brilliant similes everywhere; I was meeting adulterous Alaskan moms and White House switchboard operators and nuns buying beehives. I kept thinking: there are so many brave voices singing out there!
it was mid December when I remembered, Shit. I’m supposed to decide why some of these stories are better than the others. I panicked. I spent an entire mourning constructing a spreadsheet; I built fields to score and summarize and evaluate, and in about fourteen seconds all the pleasure ribboned away.
Evaluating is a very different experience than enjoying, and I suppose this is true when it comes to parenting, traveling, eating, having sex, and reading short stories. Evaluating sucks. Evaluating turns eating a delicious piece of pie into homework.

Anthony Doerr, Introduction

It’s maybe the most narratively engaging Introduction since Richard Russo told the story of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “To entertain, and to instruct” lecture back in BASS 2010. Considering the guest editors are themselves short story writers, it’s odd that so few use their storytelling skills in their introductions, preferring to use more of an essay style to outline their process and thoughts on the state of fiction in general, and how it relates to the real world. But Doerr starts out with some wonderful anecdotes about his writing as kid: his stories usually featured a boy leaving school on some adventure, because “[t]o a kid with a science-teacher mom and a perfect attendance record for four years running, walking out of school in the middle of the day and never returning was the most epic beginning to a story imaginable.”

We read about his first short story competition during his junior year in high school,

My current story-in-progress was “Avalanche”, about a boy who strolls out of a trigonometry test, steals a delivery van containing thousands of chocolate bars, and drives to the Yukon only to become caught in (surprise!)an avalanche. I had loads of fun describing the snow whooshing and tumbling and grinding around the van , then switched to the point of view of a nearby dog who, out of the goodness of his dog heart, begins searching for the buried kid. Then I jumped into some back story on the dog (nice farm girl, mean farmer, a misunderstanding involving chickens) and I described how the dog smells all that chocolate through six feet of snow and digs out the boy and they eat frozen Twix bars and the boy never studies trigonometry again.

Boy, do I want to read that story (hey, that would be an interesting anthology: established authors rewrite their earliest stories, from the vantage point of experience)! But the young Doerr came upon a “how to write stories” book, and realized he’d broken all the rules enshrined within: subplots, secondary characters, multiple povs. So he wrote a different story, followed all the rules – and someone else the contest, of course.

He did, as we know, go on to learn the rules, and, most importantly, when and how to break them –

Indeed, whenever I came across a list of rules like the ones above, what I really wanted to do was write a story that was all backstory, in which multiple protagonists, none of which are exactly likable, wake up, tell lots of different stories inside the story, argue significant moral points, then wake up a second time and realize the whole thing was a dream.

– and, as the guest editor of this anthology, when to allow other writers to break rules. He abandoned his spreadsheet for a more gestalt approach: “I wanted sentences that pulled me in multiple directions at once, structures that unsettled pre-existing patterns, and techniques that took some previously ratified rule and poked it.”

Although I’ve always considered myself to be more about introspection and ideas than story – a preference I just re-remembered during my Summer Read II of fiction and nonfiction – and though I have been increasingly anxious and depressed about current events over the past several years (reaching bottoms previously considered unreachable), I found this introduction to be the most uplifting in years. Maybe because it countered, rather than echoed, my despair, maybe because it was just so much fun to read. I’ve enjoyed all of the Doerr stories and essays I’ve read, but I never thought of him as light-hearted and fun. It’s wonderful to make this discovery, that he – and, more selfishly but importantly, I – can laugh. Yet he is not out of touch with the present reality:

These stories push back against tradition even as they simultaneously embrace it, and help us remember that in art, so long as we humans manage to keep having children, and our children keep growing up and looking around at the stories their forebears have told and deciding they can tell them better (which is to say faster, or slower, or greener, or longer, or with more monsters, or fewer verbs, or more stolen vans full of chocolate bars), the resistance is always happening.

But… did it have to be orange?

I have a longstanding aversion to the color orange. I like oranges well enough – I eat clementines regularly – and I quite like shades of peach, burnt siennas, dusty ochres, and the like. But in clothing, walls, and, yes, book covers, orange-orange grates on me. Not since the Great Chartreuse Horror of 2011 have I had such a negative reaction to the look of BASS. But then, when I hold it, I notice it has that velvety matte finish I love so much… maybe I just needed to shut my eyes until I open the cover.

I see in the Table of Contents the usual combination of Famous Names (Ursula Le Guin, Jeffrey Eugenides, Wendell Berry), BASS repeats, and writers I’m unfamiliar with. I’ll be doing my usual “reacting to stories” rather than reviewing or critiquing, because I have no training in the latter skills. Fortunately, Jake Weber will be working in parallel on his blog, offering a more writerly analysis of each story (and as usual, he’s a step ahead of me already). And, if we’re lucky, we may have another writer joining us in some capacity. Everyone is welcome to comment, offer differing opinions, and point out what I’ve missed.

I’m nervous about this particular volume for another reason: last year’s was extraordinary. For that matter, to me BASS has been crescendoing for about three years now. How do you follow that? How do I tame my own recollections, my expectations? Not to mention my angst?

Both Doerr and Pitlor acknowledge the impossibility of living up to the title “Best”:

Here’s a secret: every year, in some way, I find myself telling the guest editor that there are not twenty perfect stories. There is not even one perfect story. There is, to my knowledge, no such thing to all people. What one person sees as implausible, another sees as imaginative. ….You learn to keep your gaze on something bigger and broader, the horizon of a story, say, rather than the potholes. The horizon – the place where voice, mood, plot, characterization, language, and perspective coalesce and expand – the horizon is where you’ll find, as Anthony calls it in his introduction, the “magic.”

Heidi Pitlor, Foreword

Maybe that’s a step. Stop worrying about last year, about the orange cover – or whatever’s breaking on Twitter – and read.

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