BASS 2021:  Going In  

For a story to resonate with me, it had to feel urgent during a time when even going to the post office held real danger. A story had to ring loudly with some kind of deeply necessary truth or humor or wisdom.
….These stories gave me the chance to align my own anxious, isolated heart with others. More than once I could feel these stories in my body. My breath caught, my pulse sped. They bowled me over with their beauty, authenticity, imagination, and strength. I’m grateful to have been able to help gather these important voices in one place, especially during such a troubled time. And I’m thrilled to offer them to you.
Heidi Pitlor, Series Editor: Foreword

Today was my local public library’s biweekly meeting of the Blurb Club, a chance for the six or ten people who show up to talk about books they’ve read or are reading so that we can all get a look at reading beyond our usual input channels. I brought along, among other things, BASS 2021, and began my pitch with: “I know a lot of even the most voracious readers somehow hate short stories…” (cut to several friendly, smiling faces wrinkling their noses and nodding) “…and I’m here to put in a good word for them through this series.” I talked about the different versions, about the Contributor Notes that aren’t just bios but give a sense of where the stories came from, of the difference between one year and the next, of the variety and diversity within each volume. When I was done – and after I’d blurbed another book, a math book for Zeus’ sake, what, is she crazy, bringing a math book to a group of readers, but I made a case for it not being a math book – one of the nose-wrinklers said, “You’re a really good blurber, I don’t like short stories and I have no interest in math but I really want to read both of those.”  Hah, got another one!

I took a look back on the introductory post I wrote for last year’s BASS. COVID, The Post Office, the Presidential election, the death of Alex Trebek, social media as a performance (and book tour) venue, the hope for a vaccine, essays about reading through it all. And now, a year later, we’re all about… well, COVID antivaxxers seem to want to keep the pandemic going, the Post Office is still manufacturing delays, the Presidential election has spawned J6 hearings, recounts, and voter supression laws, and Jeopardy screwed up its search for a new host so badly, they’re trying again, less publicly this time.

It’s like Groundhog Year.

(What were the Introductions and Forewords about before the world went sideways? That might make an interesting project for my closing post later this year).

But the good thing about repetition is that BASS is out again, so it’s time to start blogging them, two or three a week. Here as well I’m facing an adjustment: after years of tandem posts, my blogging buddy Jake Weber will be concentrating on other things. So it looks like I’m on my own this year, supplemented as always by my writer friend Andrew, and whatever other readers might come along, adding comments to help me better understand these stories, to see other angles and find little delights I may have overlooked or misinterpreted.

The good news – the GREAT news – is that I just discovered an online group reading through BASS via Zoom.

A couple of weeks ago I noticed a referral from, and when I checked it out, found the Novel Lovers of Sonoma County had a subgroup dedicated to reading BASS 2020, one story every two weeks. Turns out they aren’t any more picky about Sonoma County than they are about novels, so I went to my first meeting last Sunday for the discussion of William Pei Shih’s “Enlightenment” from last year. It was a story that puzzled me; apparently it puzzled others as well. As one member said, “If the author had wanted to make it clearer, he would’ve written it that way,” which made me feel better. It’s a great group; the exchange of ideas about various aspects was terrific, and I feel far more appreciation for the story as a result. They’ll be finishing up BASS 2020 over the next month or so and then starting 2021; boy am I in!     

Throughout this terrible pandemic year, this year of low after low, we clung to story. Story sustained us, and we gripped the planks of narrative so that in the immersion into story, we might have togetherness and hope and drama and laughter and beauty, might revel in all that binds us together as human. This is what kept us afloat on the sea of grief.
Jesmyn Ward, Editor: Introduction

Each year, I start with the Foreword and Introduction, as a warm-up. This year’s Introduction by editor Jesmyn Ward not only has me excited about the stories that lie ahead, but has inspired me to change up my usual front-to-back reading pattern of the anthology. Ward has grouped the stories in categories, and I want to read the stories by category, keeping her descriptions in mind. I’ll be starting with the category I’ll call transformation of place:

…. I encountered stories that twisted the realities of the world’s the characters inhabited, that turned surreal and beautiful all at once; these stories drew me into difference…. In each of these stories a transformation of place occurs, and reality changes from familiar to menacing, from known to unknown. These changes mirrored the world I lived in during the past year, and while disorienting, these stories, these surreal transformations of world and circumstance at character, made me feel less lonely.
Jesmyn Ward, Editor: Introduction

By starting here, I start with the first story in the book, bouncing off my old tradition while changing it at the same time. I’m not familiar with any of these writers – Gabriel Bump, Jamil Jan Kochai, and Vanessa Cuti – so I will be interested to expand my own horizons.

Next, I’ll read the group of stories Ward sees as focusing on young people:

The young protagonists at the center of these stories are desperately grasping towards adulthood. Perhaps I chose these stories because this year, in many ways, made me feel unmoored in a way I hadn’t since I was a teenager….. The young people in these stories are compelling and unruly and imperfect, and perfectly heartbreaking.
Jesmyn Ward, Editor: Introduction

I’ve previously encountered three of the writers in this group – Kevin Wilson, Nicole Krauss, and Mahhuri Vijay – and will be discovering Jenzo duQue, C Pam Zhang, and Rita Chang-Eppig as well, as I read through this group next. BASS often includes several coming-of-age stories that occur at different ages, from children too soon becoming adults, to adolescents discovering responsibility, to adults recapturing their own childlike needs and assets, so I’m looking forward to how these stories investigate youth.

I’ll continue with another category I’ll call troublesome characters. Ward’s description:

Some characters were more opaque, less open, raw, and vulnerable than the younger characters I encountered; some were even downright unlikable, but they were still irresistibly compelling…. Each time these characters surprise us by exposing a flicker of vulnerability, they demand we look beyond their thorny outsides to their soft insides. These characters, like all the people I encountered in my grandmother’s stories, are deeply flawed and deeply conflicted but still empathetic at heart, still recognizable, and we as readers are able to see ourselves in their humanity and their inhumanity.
Jesmyn Ward, Editor: Introduction

I’ve been watching a popular television show with my friend Andrew, and one thing that keeps coming up is how flaws and contradictions make characters interesting. I don’t know the three writers Ward has gathered in this group – Yxta Maya Murray, Bryan Washington, and Stephanie Soileau – so again, I’ll be working with a rather blank slate, and acquiring new authors.

The next category I’ll tackle I’m referring to as tumult of time, a phrase direct from Ward’s intro:

[T]hese artful, beautifully constructed stories tell a tale of time, of how it is mutable, alive, mysterious, and real. How all we have in this strange and bewildering present are those we love, and how even when the times turn terrible, that love remains. In this pandemic year, this was a particularly valuable lesson to read and remember, lost as we all were in the tumult of time, the uncertainty of living through a moment that felt novel and familiar at once in its unpredictability, in its ugliness, in its loss.
Jesmyn Ward, Editor: Introduction

I happen to have read both of the authors in this category: Jane Pek, whose use of Chinese myth charmed me last year, and George Saunders who just taught me to read Russian literature.

 I’ll then turn to Ward’s immersion category:

This immersion in other people through short stories fed something in me; it sated a very human need to sink into another’s reality, to inhabit another’s experience, and in doing so to understand my own little world, my own wandering, bewildered self a bit better. In these stories I experienced companionship and communion in words. When I read their last lines, when I ascended out of their worlds, I could breathe a little easier in my own skin, my own life, because I knew friendship.
Jesmyn Ward, Editor: Introduction

I’m not precisely sure what this category entails – isn’t the point of all stories to immerse onesself in another’s reality? – but I understand that sense of loss, of “I miss you” when a story or novel ends and a character leaves my consciousness and returns to the page. Of these authors, I’m familiar with David Means, and look forward to meeting Tracey Rose Peyton and Christa Romanovsky.

The final category is  surprise – literarily speaking, in terms of language use, or in terms of story.

[S]ome stories enthralled me because they surprised me. Many of them surprised me in terms of language, language that was layered and textured and rich and took unexpected turns and played with rhythm and phrasing. Some of these same stories also surprised me in terms of endings, in how plot evolved in the world of the story….. In these tales, the surprise of the flowering of a human being, the evolution of character, reminds me that this too can be true of human beings in real life.
Jesmyn Ward, Editor: Introduction

I’m taking a mooc covering basic Stylistics right now (or I would be if I could get caught up in my other moocs and get back to it) and am interested to see if I can recognize the language surprises here. I’ve read brandon Hobson once before; Eloghosa Osunde and Shanteka Sigers will be new for me.

I’m excited about reading the stories this way. One method of adjusting to change is to root onesself in whatever stability remains, but another way is to mix everything up so that the change of concern is not as noticeable among the other changes (Can you tell I’ve done a lot of work on adjusting to change? It’s not my favorite thing, and over these past several years, it seems like there’s been a “new normal” every other week, with them now coming at an accelerated pace as we work our way thorough a pandemic, and a political crisis, that changes almost daily. Can chaos get so common as to become boring?).

Whatever the chaos, there’s still Best American Short Stories, my annual project for October through December since 2010. May that continue for as long as I can read and type.

6 responses to “BASS 2021:  Going In  

  1. Hi Karen,

    I am so glad to see you diving into another year of BASS blogging. But sad to hear that Jacob Webber will be sitting this one out. The two of you make a great team. You have both been required reading by my Intro to Literature students these past 2 years. And we’ve all learned so much from the two of you– insights on the stories themselves as well as insights on how to make meaning of literary texts. Many many thanks! This semester my students are writing their own literary blogs (using your and Webber’s work as models) instead of writing the stodgier Literary Analysis Paper.

    So I also found a virtual BASS discussion group this past year that let me join as an out-of-state interloper. The Charleston Public Library has been book-clubbing BASS for years and went virtual this year: . We read 2 stories a month, and also just discussed “Enlightenment” (as well as “Kennedy”)., We similarly landed on an understanding that with so much intentionally withheld from the reader (a near 50 year gap in the protagonist’s life), it is rather difficult to deduce with certainty much of anything about him (other than his profound loneliness).

    Anyway- I’m looking forward to reading your takes on these texts. And i do dig how you are sequencing your reading schedule based on Ward’s groupings. I believe I will follow your lead- though not your pace!


    • Hi Curt – Thanks so much for writing this. I see my stats zoom up every September (it’s hazier in Jan/Feb) when teachers start assigning BASS and Pushcart stories and students go hunting for something to say in class (I imagine some are a bit irritated that I don’t follow the typical “identify the protagonist, conflict, climax, theme, pov” protocol) but it’s rare to actually see how someone uses these ramblings in a class. I love the idea of assigning literary blogs – if anyone’s willing to share (keeping in mind privacy considerations) I’d love to see a sample of how it goes. And should they wish to share any of their insights on individual stories, of course my comments are open!

      As tragic and disruptive as the pandemic has been, there have been some small plusses, and online meetings of previously in-person local groups is one of them (so is the explosion of creativity via TikTok and other media – remember the Wellerman sea shanty phase?). I’ll keep an eye on the Charleston group; i did see a spike in “Enlightenment” and “Kennedy” hits this week, I wonder if that was them.

      Thanks again for dropping by, great to hear from you.

  2. Thank you for visiting our short story discussion group and for mentioning it here! We do love the intellectual challenge of discussing one short story for an hour. This group kept us sane during the 2020-2021 lockdown.

  3. Hi Karen!

    I’ve absolutely loved reading all your analyses for BASS 2020–Jacob’s too, so I’m sad he’s not joining in this time around, though it does seem like a lot of work!

    I am planning on jumping in with writing and blogging my own analyses this year. I’m working on improving my own short story writing and do need a push to even write notes on or reflect intentionally on the stories that I read, so I’m using a posting schedule as some accountability here, as I do find it very helpful for honing my own work.

    I think I’ll follow your reading order, so that I can follow along with your posts! Very much looking forward to it 🙂


    • Hi Rhiannon – yes, I’ve found that posting “I’m going to do this next” greatly increases the chances I’ll actually do it!
      Let me know where you’re blogging, I’ll follow and maybe we can trade notes.
      Thanks for stopping by. I write these things for my own benefit, but it’s always great to see someone who’s actually reading them.

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