Last month, Suzanne McConnell at Slate.com ran a reprint of a term paper assignment Kurt Vonnegut gave her “Form of Fiction” class at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, in the form of a letter, as were most of his assignments to her class (the entire letter appears in Slate, and in Kurt Vonnegut: Letters by Kurt Vonnegut, Edited by Dan Wakefield, published October 2012):
….I invite you to read the fifteen tales in Masters of the Modern Short Story… Read them for pleasure and satisfaction, beginning each as though, only seven minutes before, you had swallowed two ounces of very good booze. “Except ye be as little children …”
Then reproduce on a single sheet of clean, white paper the table of contents of the book, omitting the page numbers, and substituting for each number a grade from A to F. The grades should be childishly selfish and impudent measures of your own joy or lack of it. I don’t care what grades you give. I do insist that you like some stories better than others.
Proceed next to the hallucination that you are a minor but useful editor on a good literary magazine not connected with a university. Take three stories that please you most and three that please you least, six in all, and pretend that they have been offered for publication. Write a report on each to be submitted to a wise, respected, witty and world-weary superior.
Do not do so as an academic critic, nor as a person drunk on art, nor as a barbarian in the literary market place. Do so as a sensitive person who has a few practical hunches about how stories can succeed or fail. Praise or damn as you please, but do so rather flatly, pragmatically, with cunning attention to annoying or gratifying details. Be yourself. Be unique. Be a good editor. The Universe needs more good editors, God knows….
— Kurt Vonnegut
Wow. I’ve been doing Kurt Vonnegut’s assignment on BASS, PEN/O.Henry, and Pushcart for the past two years. Whatever hubris I may have feared enacting at complaining about these prize-winning stories from some of the best literary magazines in the country has vanished, now that Kurt Vonnegut himself has given me permission to say, “I didn’t like this story because…”
It’s the “because” that matters, you see.
Before I started blogging stories, I’d often only half-read them. I had vague impressions that something was weak, something was good, something worked, but it wasn’t until I committed to publicly (or as publicly as this obscure corner of the internet can be considered) evaluating, and defending my judgment, that I really started reading carefully. Scouring the web for other opinions, interviews, whatever, helped as well, sometimes to show me something I’d missed, sometimes to confirm and shape an impression, sometimes to just show me how different opinions can be when we’re talking about what works and what doesn’t in a story.
And sometimes I still miss something. But the story is still there, waiting for me, if I just keep reading and learning.
So a belated thank you to Mr. Vonnegut (and a prompt thank you to McConnell, and Slate, for the article). But I’m grateful I didn’t know about his assignment until a few weeks ago, because to have completed an assignment from such an august person in such an elite setting would’ve intimidated me into total silence, like the Cowardly Lion before the Great and Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It’s better that I thought it was my own idea, however foolish, when I started.
This was my favorite BASS volume of those I’ve blogged, and maybe of those I’ve read through. I’ll only give the “grades” here; individual reports of the highs and lows in each can be found in the individual posts for each story.
My off-the-scale favorites (the A+):
The A list:
The Bs: I might have some reservations, but they grew on me:
My least favorites:
For past BASS collections, I’ve had two or three favorites, two or three failures, and everything else would fall into a middle category of “good to ok.” Not this year.
Was 2011 truly an extraordinary year for short stories? Could be. Is Tom Perotta someone more on my wavelength, does he look more closely at less obvious sources (like Hobart and Fifth Wednesday)? Maybe. But I don’t think so.
When I look at the “Other Distinguished Stories” list, I see several I’ve read and loved: “The Ether of Space” by Andrea Barrett, “A Good Deuce” by Jodi Angel, Kenneth Calhoun’s “Then” (all from Tin House), “Girls Only” by Karen Shepard and Benjamin Solomon’s “Who Cycles Into Our Valley” from One Story.
And I see some TNY entries I’m just as happy weren’t included in the final volume. One story from a “less obvious” source was on my A-list, one on my not-so-much list. I’m not sure there’s a pattern.
Maybe I’m just learning how to read? Hope so.
We’ll see how it goes next year.