The Best American Short Stories 2017 celebrates all that is our country: crowded and lonely, funny and sad, fame-obsessed and fame wary. Here are immigrants, a cabdriver, a person with a boyfriend and a girlfriend, a bartender, a racecar driver, sex workers, a human resources manager, a Ukrainian packaging specialist, a bridesmaid, a Cuban writer. Here are trapped naval officers, a contestant on America’s Funniest Home Videos, a gay man desperate to be a father.
I love these stories. I feel irrationally proud and protective of these characters, these Americans in their fragility and grace, their division and desire…”~~ BASS 2017 Foreword, Heidi Pitlor, Series Editor
Reading, as I keep insisting, is always done in a context, and the experience of a story varies depending on the context. This year has had one hell of a context. As Heidi (may I call her Heidi? She’s been my companion for about a decade now) says in her foreword: “How did one even read short stories now?”
Let me again quote philosopher Glenn Albrecht’s definition of solastalgia, a word I discovered when I closed out Pushcart XLI a few months ago: “the pain experienced when the place one lives and where one resides is under assault.” This was intended to mean environmental change, but it feels appropriate in this time. Would these stories have read differently three years ago? Will they read differently three years from now? I believe so, but I can say for sure that I greatly enjoyed this volume at this time, breaking my decade-long pattern of preferring even yeared BASSes to those from odd years.
A lot came up for me during the ten weeks I spent on BASS 2017; I want to deal with some of that before delving into my favorites from this edition. Such as this LitHub article by Brandon Taylor, about the value of slow reading:
Maybe that’s why I take exception to the idea of a short story as a kind of quick read. I read books of stories slowly, because each story requires a different negotiation. You can’t get all of a story on a single pass. If you think you have, then I’d encourage you to go back and read it again and linger on the things you’ve missed….
Sometimes, you read a story, and its meaning comes slowly, like the weather in certain parts of the world. The gradual accumulation of clouds and the carrying scent of moisture in the air. And then, suddenly, a bolt from the clear blue—the ringing in your ears. When you’ve understood a story, you know it, because it changes your very relationship to the world…. A story isn’t quick. It takes time.Brandon Taylor, “Against the Attention Economy: Short Stories Are Not Quick Literary Fixes”
I have always resented the intrusion of the numbers game – gauging importance by the number of followers – into reading, via Goodreads, blogs, and general bragging about having read x books this year. Last week CNN was agog over a 4-year-old who read 100 books in one day – streamed live on Facebook (shades of Fiona Maazel’s story, “Let’s Go to the Videotape”). It feels churlish to not celebrate something like that: lord knows, I’m all for kids reading, and I’m all for showing the beautiful side of Chicago. But… there’s something that bothers me about treating books like points in a video game, whether it’s adorable kids, or Goodreads members.
I freak people out when I tell them I read two books a year, or that it takes me eight to ten months to read Pushcart. Those aren’t really true statements, of course, since I read a great deal for the moocs I take, and I sneak in a number of extras along the way. But my core reading is, indeed, two books a year.
I don’t treat short stories like M&Ms, to be gobbled down one after the other until the bag is gone. I read a story, and consider my first reactions. I put it aside, come back to it later – maybe later that day, maybe the next day, maybe when I’m falling asleep. Maybe it takes ne day; maybe three. Sometimes I let a story sit a while, either because I have so much to say about it, or because I come up empty and want to let it percolate a little longer. And later, after I’ve put up a post and read other’s comments, I might return to it again when considering another story, or when some event brings it back to mind. A short story can last a long, long time, changing and growing in response to new experiences. Count me among the slow reader fans.
Some tweets from Heidi also tweaked my radar.
I have been asked if the book truly represents all of our country.
My response: BASS2017 represents great writing, whether that’s from someone who is POC, white, LGBTQIA, poor, disabled, etc.
Make of that what you will.Heidi Pitlor via twitter
On the surface, I agree with this. Writers, and characters, of varying races, backgrounds, ethnicities, gender identifications, and religions appear in these pages, and I applaud that; it’s a big part of what I appreciate about BASS. Different people have different takes on even ordinary events, consider different things more or less important, explore different facets.
But I’m still a little uncertain about the notion of writing “representing all of America.” Does that mean writers of differing demographics? Does it mean writing itself? Let’s face it, the same litmags appear again and again, year after year: TNY, Harper’s, Atlantic. Granta. I understand those tend to be where the “best” authors go, where the “best” stories are, but aren’t there great stories in other, more obscure litmags? Once in a while, something sneaks in (I still remember the Hobart entry from 2012) but it’s mostly the elite mags, and getting through the slush pile into one of those is not something that happens every day. No one, not even Heidi Pitlor, can read everything, but maybe it’s worth keeping it in mind. (In retrospect, I may have been a little rash here. True, a great many stories are from more widely read magazines featuring more established writers, but there are several more accessible entries as well.)
And what about the “other side”? Let’s face it, most fiction writers are pretty liberal, or at least left-leaning centrists (a phrase that now rolls off my fingertips so easily, it scares me). The views of the characters in BASS tend to be views I agree with; characters I would disagree with tend to be set up to trip over their convictions, or are pitted against “good guys”. I’m not sure it’s possible to write a story with a sympathetic white supremacist (unless change is the focus), but is it possible to write one with a sympathetic gun rights advocate who’s tender and caring and distraught by all the mayhem (does such a person exist? I’d like to know about them), or a supply sider who tutors underserved kids and works for a better world (same caveat)? I’m just talking out of my hat at this point, but I wonder if we’re all reading as diversely as we think we are. The closest we came to such a thing in this volume was the Kevin Canty story; is there perhaps more where that came from?
And for my final rant, I turn to Jake Weber. I’m so grateful to Jake for joining me in these reads over the past couple of years, sometimes here, sometimes on his blog, even while he was in the throes of seeing his own first story collection published; it’s great to have someone else to bounce things off of, to fill in some gaps, to sometimes disagree with, and to see what another mind reacts to. He raised this question in one of his comments:
I know this is the eleven millionth time I’ve made this complaint, but how is it possible that America’s literary community is so anemic that not one single professional critic has posted something about this story or the majority of stories in BASS? The third result on Google for “Amy Hempel The Chicane” is you. I love your blog, but surely, there is someone out there better at parsing stories than us.~ Jake Weber
After I dusted off my ego (which I keep insisting I don’t have), I joined Jake in wondering why nobody else blogs BASS. Trevor Berrett has a robust community focusing on TNY stories (and various other works) at The Mookse and the Gripes, but no one seems interested in a leisurely, sustained reading of BASS (or Pushcart or PEN, for that matter). Some readers make isolated, brief comments on Goodreads, but that’s about it.
I’ve assumed that I’m the problem. I tend to react to, rather than analyze, stories; although I think I’ve amped up my game over the past seven years of blogging, I just don’t know how to review. For some stories, my approach means telling my own story in reply to a perceived theme; for others, it means a focus on craft issues, figuring out what worked and how. And when I don’t connect to a story, it means wondering why (and coming up with trivia to pad it out). I suppose that isn’t exactly what draws in active participants.
In a comment on the previous story, Avataram discussed a review of Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist that mentioned how the two characters’ names were not accidental and had thematic significance. That’s the kind of thing I keep looking for in BASS stories. I’d love to discuss more in-depth literary points: the glass is a symbol of ego, the language does this with rhythm and pace to show where the protagonist is trying to avoid, or basking in, something, it’s a rewrite of Paradise Lost or Gilgamesh. Maybe I’m just not educated enough? Maybe I’m asking too much of BASS? Of short stories?
Right now, most of my blog traffic is generated by students. In the summer (and over holidays), my hits drop precipitously, but in September and January, short stories spike. I’ve even shown up on a few course syllabi, which is kind of a kick (and a little scary). And once in a while a follower besides Jake will comment, which makes me very happy. Once in a while an author finds her way here, but it’s my understanding it’s rude to ask an author to explain her work (anyway, that’s what contributor notes, another favorite feature of BASS, are for). Questions, I can do; maybe I’m looking for An Answer.
Jake’s central question remains: why is there so little reader interest in delving into these stories?
I guess my dream of a reading community large enough to allow intermittent participation yet still maintain variety and active discussion isn’t going to happen, but I keep blogging each story because it helps me read, forces me to read slow. And it’s not unusual for me to find, when I’m looking for a good quote or checking for a character’s name, an answer, a new direction, or a thought that had eluded me.
“How did one even read short stories now?” asked Heidi Pitlor in her Foreword. On some levels, it works the same as it always did: I let myself connect to strangers, slow down where it hurts or makes me laugh, figure out why. But in this time of solastalgia, I think there’s more community in reading than ever. There are writers – and readers – out there who know about feeling out of place, about reaching across divides, about hiding the essence of who one is in order to survive, about learning what beauty is and isn’t, about living with loss and regret and joy and the compromises a loving relationship requires. We meet here, in these pages. And it gives us power to do the work we all need to be doing right now.
Favorites in no particular order:
Amy Hempel’s “The Chicane”
Eric Puchner’s “Last Day on Earth”
Sonya Larson’s “Gabe Dove”
Emma Cline’s “Arcadia”
Mary Gordon’s “Ugly”
Danielle Evans’ “Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain”
Chad Anderson’s “Maidencane”