They are stories that engage with the world and reflect the diversity of the world. They are stories that offer fascinating insights into the human condition and the terrible ways people can treat one another and how beautifully people can love. These writers accomplished great feats of imagination and wrote stories that surprised me in the most unexpected ways. These stories challenged me and reminded me of how vibrant the short story form can be.Roxane Gay, Introduction
What is it like to grow up? To grow old? To grow away from, or return to, one’s family? To repent? What does it look like to feel intense rage, powerful love, overwhelming fear? And since we all have handy the answers to these questions – is it possible someone else might have different answers? Are those different answers necessarily wrong?
In my wrap-up post for last year’s volume (which I also greatly enjoyed), I voiced a couple of concerns amid my praise for the stories. First, a lot of them came from the top tier of literary magazines – The New Yorker, Granta, Atlantic, Harper’s; while those stories are terrific, what about terrific stories found in the smaller, less prestigious magazines, those where the slush pile is seriously read, where writers without agents or MFA professors to recommend them might stand a chance? I later modified that a bit, since smaller venues have been showing up more frequently recently, including last year. And this year, that trend continues, with stories from Emrys, Tough, Passages North, and Grain, in addition to the more well-known journals. In her Introduction, Roxane Gay tells us this was not by coincidence; she actively sought out less famous sources, while series editor Heidi Pitlor tweeted out an invitation.
Writers are divided on whether or not it is their responsibility to address the contretemps in their work. Some writers stubbornly cling to the idea that writing should not be sullied by politics. They labor under the impression that they can write fiction that isn’t political, or influenced in some way by politics, which is, whether they realize it or not, a political stance in and of itself. Other writers believe it has an inherent part of their craft to engage with the political. And then there are those writers, such as myself, who believe that the very act of writing from their subject position is political, regardless of what they write.Roxane Gay, Introduction
Second, I wondered if, because literary fiction writers and editors often tend towards the liberal side of politics, there were other viewpoints not seen? Was it possible to find empathy and compassion for someone who might be on the other side of the street at a protest/counterprotest? This story gave two examples that, not only is it possible, it can be glorious to meet the most sympathetic gun enthusiast ever, and a woman who, unable to stand up to her boyfriend when he puts her in a Confederate flag bikini and posts a picture to Facebook, stands up to everyone else who would co-opt her for their cause. Again, the editors have done a great job of enlarging the tent.
Another reason this year was extra-special was the parallel read by Jake Weber on his blog
Workshop Heretic. Jake and I have traded opinions for several years now, but this was the first time he went full-on BASS blog. While I look at stories as a reader, addressing whatever strikes me, Jake is a published author and MFA who took a more technical and academic look at how the stories worked. Often we agreed; sometimes we didn’t; sometimes we went in completely different directions. His post titles alone are worth the click, even if his son declared them “lame” (“Hello Muddah, hello Faddah, here I am getting crushed by the patriarchy”; “This is all your fault. This is not your fault at all”; “I attempt to review Yoon Choi’s “The Art of Losing” without coming off as an insufferable, pompous ass who wants the whole world to know I speak Korean”). I found his analysis invaluable in this process called reading, which, for me, continues long after I close the book and put it back on the shelf for someday soon.
Can I even tease out favorites in a year of such bounty? Start with the other side: Two stories didn’t do much for me (no, I’m not going to name them); another initially fell flat but after reading Jake’s comments (it was one of his favorites) I want to give it more thought.
My choices for best-of-best: Danielle Evans’ “Boys Go To Jupiter” challenged me to live up to it: some conflicts would never arise if we dealt with each other as people, instead of pieces on a game board of Ideology. I’ve never thought of myself as particularly interested in stories about young teens, but I loved the protagonists of “Come On, Silver” by Ann Glaviano and Kristen Iskandrian’s “Good with Boys”. Téa Obreht’s “Items Awaiting Protective Enclosure”, told from a near-future dystopia that doesn’t seem far away at all, turned what could have been a routine romance into a metaphysical rumination on time as well as an examination of what happens to emotions we try to forget. Yoon Choi’s “The Art of Losing” steered away from emotional manipulation by including layers of loss beyond the obvious. “Suburbia!” by Amy Silverberg surprised the hell out of me, and left me smiling so hard my face hurt. And “Whose Heart I Long to Stop…” by Rivers Solomon, like the Evans story, made me face myself with the same level of honesty shown by the characters.
In times of great personal or public upheaval, I turn to reading. I turn to fiction and how writers imagine the world as it is, was, or could be. I am not avoiding reality when I read fiction; I am strengthening my ability to cope with reality. I am allowing myself a much-needed buffer, a place of stillness and quiet. I read fiction to step away from the cacophony of the news and social media and the opinions of others. The reprieve fiction provides is a necessary grace.Roxane Gay, Introduction
“Does fiction even matter now?” I’ve seen this question asked so many times over the last couple of years. Hasn’t it always? Don’t you think the world might be poorer if we had no literature to draw on, if we couldn’t see other people in unexpected ways so that when we encounter them in reality, we think, “This reminds me of that story” and maybe we show a little more compassion instead of flying into a rage. Stories can also be a blanket you wrap around yourself so you’re warmed up and ready to go another round. Before the midterm elections last month, I truly did not think I could go on should things go wrong. As one Twitter wag put it, “Tuesday is going to be a fun day because it’s either going to end with me drinking bleach or feeling the mildest sense of relief imaginable.” BASS was my blanket. Going forward, it will, along with all the other stories from the Iliad to now, be my guidebook.
Fiction matters, in all sorts of ways. Especially now. May whatever God they believe in bless all the writers, editors, and publishers who provide blankets, and guidebooks, for us all.