For better or worse, we read fiction in the context of our ongoing lives. It is difficult to write about this moment – even this moment in the American short story – without mentioning the altered and frankly scary state of the world right now.
Heidi Pitlor, Foreword
I’m normally pretty quick out of the gate on BASS, but these aren’t normal times. Instead of asking my local bookstore put a copy aside for me so I can run over and grab it on release day, I ordered by mail. While PortlandME mail delivery has been superb even in these times of sabotage, it’s not instantaneous; the book arrived on Friday. I planned to write this post on Saturday, but then Saturday happened, and it was difficult to get anything done. My apartment overlooks the street that serves as Portland’s main drag, and from noon until about 9pm, there was honking and cheering and shouting and celebratory music. It was wonderful, and I couldn’t tear myself away from it to get work done. Until the Four Seasons thing, which added a badly needed note of goofy hilarity to 2020. So I figured, Sunday would do, except that was the day Alex Trebek left us. It’s ridiculous to feel so attached to someone I really don’t know, but Alex has been part of my life for a half hour a day, five days a week, for decades, and his public acknowledgment of his experience with cancer has touched many of us. This Monday has been quiet so far, but 2020 has been full of surprises, so I’d better get this done while I can focus.
In her Foreword, Pitlor refers to Rebecca Makkai’s 2018 Electric Literature essay “The World’s On Fire. Can We Still Talk About Books?” as a way of defending a discourse some might call frivolous when life, death, and democracy are in the balance. It’s a wonderful article – “Art is a radical act. Joy is a radical act. This is how we keep fighting. This is how we survive” – and even more pertinent now that COVID-19 is cancelling book tours and bookshop readings and closing music and theater venues all over. Look at all that has blossomed in the past few months: unique performances on social media, innovative ways to perform without venues. Buying books, reading books, talking about them, getting others excited about them, creating new readers: these are not just aesthetic choices, but are defenses against despair, and can even be defended from the economic point of view. So many joys had to be bypassed this year; reading doesn’t have to be one of them.
Last year, I proclaimed Anthony Doerr’s Introduction to be the most charmingly engaging since 2010. Now Curtis Sittenfeld comes along with an Intro that’s completely different in style – more real-talk straightforward – but is every bit as personal and delightful as it outlines her experience reading for this edition of BASS and why she chose the stories she did. She makes the all-important point that there is a difference between “Your writing is not at all to my taste” and “This is garbage.”
Since 1992, I’ve dipped in and out of reading The Best American Short Stories; during various years I’ve read all of the stories, none of them, and some of them. In some years I thought a high proportion of the stories were outstanding. In other years I thought, I guess not that many good stories were published this year. At the time I assumed that, as with grapes made into wine, certain crops of stories were better or worse than others, but I now suspect this isn’t accurate. Instead it’s probably that the idiosyncratic taste of a guest editor is sometimes more and sometimes less aligned with my own idiosyncratic taste as a reader.
Curtis Sittenfeld, Introduction
I think I’ve become considerably better at recognizing when a story is perfectly fine, but not my thing (Westerns and slacker stories, for example). I’ve been less successful at distinguishing between a story that I love because it fits me perfectly, and a good story; I’m probably overly fond of some borderline stuff, but so what. Let’s face it, the stories in BASS have been selected three times: once by the original publication, once by Pitlor, and once by the guest editor. I’m sure there are a few that benefit from name recognition or because they were part of a hot collection; this seemed particularly evident to me last year. But they’re still good stories; maybe not the best that author has written, maybe not the best in that popular collection, but still worth reading, even if they aren’t my particular taste. And, as Sittenfeld goes on to say of herself, I’ve found that I can truly enjoy certain Westerns and slackers stories, in spite of myself.
Stylistically, I particularly like that Sittenfeld has clearly delineated, via individual short paragraphs, a brief account of her reason for choosing each story. Every guest editors’ introduction gives some kind of hat tip to individual stories, but they’re often scattered through several paragraphs and, as someone who looks at these comments after I read the story, I often have trouble finding the comment on a particular story. This is so much better.
Browsing through the table of contents, I find the usual mix of familiar names (Boyle, Cline, Gaitskill) and those new to me. I also find a story I’ve already read, the title story from Jason Brown’s collection A Faithful But Melancholy Account of Several Barbarities Lately Committed. I’m interested to see what T. C. Boyle is up to, sometimes I get him, sometimes not; I’m a little worried about Gaitskill, she is one of those different-taste writers, but maybe she’ll surprise me; I’m intrigued by the title of Jane Pek’s story, “The Nine-Tailed Fox Explains.” Hey, I’m intrigued by all of them.
Jake Weber has already started his series of blog posts about these stories; as usual, he’s a little quicker on the draw than I am. I’m glad to see Jim Harris will also be sharing his thoughts via his blog AuxiliaryMemory.com; last year he did a single post summarizing the stories he’d read, I’m eager to see what he comes up with this year. And Ben Walpole of ShortStoryMagicTricks.com has told me he also plans to work on these stories when his schedule permits. He’s been blogging short stories, new and old, for years, and has the unique approach of selecting one “magic trick” a writer uses that makes a story work. I’m looking forward to his comments. [Addendum: I apologize for omitting Andrew Stancek, who has joined in via commenting on posts Jake and I have made in the past. On at least two occasions, those comments changed my read of the story, so they’re well worth reading. [Another addendum: Anna Amundson of Ink Stains on a Reader’s Blog is also joining us, blogging about one story a month since she has other commitments.]
It’s time to get reading, that radical, joyful act.