BASS 2020: Of Mythologies and Misbehaving Men, Among Other Things

Gretchen Warsen: “Please Tell Me More of Your Story”
These twenty stories make me hopeful for the state of American short fiction. Here are writers digging deep and reckoning with the implications of the #MeToo movement, a future of population control, childhood, adolescent bullying, long-term love, infidelity, mythology, and art. These stories span the globe, touching down in France, Maine, Yonkers, The American midwest, Tennessee, Madagascar, Alaska, China, Venezuela, California. I was glad to see story writers play with genre: here are pieces that feature elements of magical realism, dystopic fiction, realism, historic fiction, mythology, comedy, and tragedy.

Heidi Pitlor, BASS Series Editor

Given how miserable 2020 was, I don’t think I could’ve handled it if this volume had been mediocre. Thankfully, I didn’t have to find out: it was a fine edition. And, I think, a special one.

As I was reading, I kept referring to prior stories. In my post about Scott Nadelson’s story “Liberté,” I wrote, “I seldom see patterns in the stories included in BASS volumes, but this year, as I am just about two-thirds finished, I see two threads: first, stories built around real people, and second, women who find themselves attracted to assholes. Interesting, even brilliant assholes, but assholes nonetheless.” I later added mythology to the list, when Jane Pek joined Elizabeth McCracken in basing a story on mythology; the final story used the Hero’s Journey to connect to the theme. And through many of the stories ran questions of identity: how does one accept and affirm one’s race and/or sexuality – or even one’s status as an AI being?

Granted, these aren’t arcane themes and motifs; they show up all over in any collection. But given the diversity inherent in BASS – as outlined by Heidi Pitlor in her foreword quoted above – I still felt like there was something going on, a weaving of these themes that held the individual stories together more strongly than usual.

Then, in his post about the last story, blogging buddy Jake Weber wrote something that brought it into focus:

Every year, when I read through Best American Short Stories, there are at least a few coincidences that make me think the order of stories was chosen on purpose, even though I know that the stories are put in the sequence they’re in based solely on the alphabetical order of last names of authors. This year’s collection has probably set a record for the number of times I’ve felt like the stories are doing a call-and-answer with one another, and the final story in the collection, “The Special World” by Tiphanie Yanique, does it more than any other story. Not only is it a story about a black character struggling with trying to understand what authentic blackness is when surrounded by white norms, making it a perfect bookend to “Godmother Tea,” the opening story in the collection, it also contains a reference to a Mahalia Jackson song, like Carolyn Ferrell’s “Something Street,” and it plays with the notion of invisibility, much like Kevin Wilson’s “Kennedy,” the story just before “The Special World.” If guest editor Curtis Sittenfeld intended to pick not just twenty stories she liked, but twenty stories that somehow actually worked well together in spite of not having been written with the collection in mind, she succeeded mightily.

Jake Weber, Workshop Heretic

I hadn’t seen the connection between the first story and the final one until he pointed it out, but he’s right, and given the restriction of alphabetical ordering of the stories, it’s curious. Coincidence? Maybe. I see four stories that would have come before “Anderson” in the Other Distinguished Stories list, were they just unlucky enough to miss their shot because “Godmother Tea” fit so symmetrically with “The Special World”?

In any case, this created an anthology, diverse in so many ways, that nonetheless read like a carefully curated collection, with those four common themes – Misbehaving Men, Mythology, Biography, and Identity – appearing in various clusters of two or three in each story. The combinations kept it from being a “theme edition” – something I wouldn’t particularly want to see in BASS – yet made it more cohesive than twenty unrelated stories would normally be.

This year, I tried once again to increase the BASS club to more than two. Instead of inviting writers, who are already busy writing and, I’m guessing, don’t really want to put themselves in a position of saying anything negative about another writer, I invited some people who were already blogging short stories. While Jake and I still make up the core, we’ve had some great contributions (such as Jim’s, and Anna’s, as well as our old friend Andrew via comments on both our blogs) that added different points of view, which is exactly what I’d hoped for. As Jake keeps pointing out, this is a time-consuming project, so it’s not easy to entice people to run the whole book, and blogging has long faded into obscurity in favor of podcasts, Instagram, and TikTok. Hey, maybe someone reading here (though these wrap-up posts seldom get any attention) would like to jump in. Better late than never! Or plan for next year.

I wish I had done a better job on many of the stories. Part of the problem was the general distraction of 2020, which, in November, included another COVID surge and a crucial election. Then I got bogged down in a Chemistry MOOC that, while excellent, was – and still is – a huge time sink. As a special wrench in the works, the volume was released a month later than usual for COVID reasons, and it was a week after that before I finally got started. I have a self-imposed deadline of January 1, which is when I like to start reading and blogging Pushcart, so I found myself in a time crunch. Instead of spending a day between reading and notation, between research and first draft, and before finally posting, I often read, wrote, and posted within 24 to 48 hours. This resulted in posts that were often less organized than I would have wanted, and were less comprehensive than they should have been. In retrospect, I should have let the deadline slide.

Here’s hoping our idiosyncrasies, yours and mine, align this year. If not, here’s hoping there are more years, more idiosyncrasies, and more stories for all of us.

Curtis Sittenfeld, BASS 2020 Guest Editor

I was surprised at how well our idiosyncrasies did align. I never would have thought a story about high school bullying would be so readable. I was charmed by the Spirit of the Nine-Tailed Fox. I learned to be less afraid of Mary Gaitskill. Seeing a thinly-disguised real-life drama from the eyes of the wife of a Misbehaving Man, combined with Jake’s insight about the cultural background, felt like an entire course in Black History. I felt a certain kinship with an aging Alaskan woman preparing to leave behind a house full of memories, and a young artist who can’t quite pull it together. I loved the meta-story blended into the middle of a recollection of childhood friendships. I wished I could conjure up a Godmother who would make me tea and give me good advice to get me out of my own way. And the first 90% one story was so enjoyable to read, I could almost forgive the let-down ending (no, not really, but I could understand it).

I’m grateful this edition served as a project at a time I very much needed something to focus on. Good work, all.

2 responses to “BASS 2020: Of Mythologies and Misbehaving Men, Among Other Things

  1. Great stuff here, Karen. You bring up the topic of luck in writing…how maybe some people were just unlucky their work didn’t “fit” this year. This is a truth I face more and more. So many great stories, so few readers, so few open spots for stories. A lot really does come down to luck. I’m really glad we do this. Those lucky enough to get this far deserve to be read in good faith, and that’s what we try to do.

    • I’ve come to believe that luck – or serendipity, or happenstance, whatever you call it – plays a bigger role than we realize in our lives. Five people are generally equally qualified for a job, or a spot in a top college, who gets it? Maybe one happened to look like the interviewer’s ex, so got ruled out. Or one wore a suit of the interviewer’s favorite color. Or used a word the interviewer hates. Or drank a lot of coffee and talked just a hair too fast. None of that played into the conscious decision, but then you read Kahneman, and you see how System 1 makes decisions while System 2 figures out how to justify it.
      that isn’t to downplay the need for training, work, practice, skill, all those things that got you to the top-5 spot in the first place (which is a Big Deal, and why the Other Distinguished Stories shouldn’t be ignored). But in the end, in some cases it’s a crap shoot.

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