But the amazing and beautiful thing about the short story is the elasticity of the form. As soon as you complete a description of what a good story must be, the new example flutters through an open window, lands on your sleeve, and proves your description wrong. With every new artist, we simultaneously refine and expand our understanding of what the form can be.Anthony Doerr, Introduction
We started and ended with something like a game of Mean Tweets. First, blogging buddy Jake Weber interpreted my “time for another round” as referring to chemotherapy, to Heidi Pitlor’s horror (I was thinking more about a drinking game; Jake was thinking of the time sink). And last, Pitlor highlighted a particularly clever negative Amazon review.
And in between were the stories. We read them, found different ways of thinking about them, related them to our lives and to the current moment, and wrote about them.
When I wrote my opening post for this year’s volume, I admitted I was worried since the bar was set so high by last year’s edition. And yes, this year felt like a bit of a letdown. In terms of expectations, maybe it was something like a stock market correction, which is what they call slumps these days. There’s something to find in all these stories, even though none of them blew my socks off.
What’s interesting is that, while I was a bit meh about many of them while reading, some of them grew on me over time: Alexis Schaitkin’s “Natural Disasters”, Jamel Brinkley’s “No More than a Bubble,” and Kathleen Alcott’s “Natural Light” in particular. Mona Simpson’s “Wrong Object” with its unsolvable problem haunted me for a while. I think Weiki Wang’s “Omakase” might be another, but it’s too soon to say. I’m not sure why that is; maybe some connection finally snapped into place, or maybe I just acclimated to a lower level of stimulation.
The two stories I liked most while first-time reading both use humor. One was Wendell Berry’s “The Great Interruption,” a pleasant surprise since I’ve had a lot of trouble with his stories in the past. Then there was the hilarious satire “Letter of Apology” by Maria Reva. Oddly, I’ve barely thought about these stories since reading them, but now I recall them with a smile.
Reva’s story had me find a little Russian film, an animation about a hedgehog who gets lost in the fog on his way to tea with his bear friend. It was the second foreign film I found in this volume, the first being Taste of Cherry in Nicole Krauss’ “Seeing Ershadi”. I also found a connection between my current long-term project/obsession, Don Quixote, and several of the stories, Karen Russell’s “Black Corfu” and, more subtly, “Natural Disasters”.
What I was looking for were fictions that walked the tightrope between control and exuberance, that exhibited not so much the flawless consonance that Rust Hills (and Poe before him) admired as, to borrow a phrase from Edmond White’s The Beautiful Room is Empty, a “cat’s cradle of tensions.” I wanted sentences that pulled me in multiple directions at once, structures that unsettled pre-existing patterns, and techniques that took some previously ratified rule and poked it.Anthony Doerr, Introduction
It’s interesting that Doerr’s Introduction – which I still say is the most charming in years – focuses on rule-breaking. He lists these individually in many cases: multiple protagonists, unlikeable characters, overly-long exposition, first-person-plural narration. None of these stories, or the broken rules, struck me as particularly innovative or unusual. I don’t expect every story to be a new experience – that would be silly – but I did miss that moment of “oh, wow, look what she did here” that BASS often contains. Maybe I’ll see it differently in time.
I realized, after I’d written my introductory post for this year’s edition, that this is my tenth time blogging BASS. On October 17, 2010, I started BASS 2010, guest edited by Richard Russo. I’m embarrassed by those posts; I had no idea what I was doing, no idea what I wanted to be doing, but it was a start, and I think I’ve matured a bit since. I could delete the old posts, but I keep them to remind me that, in ten years, this post will embarrass me – I hope, since the idea is to keep growing.
By the way, I also have BASS 2008 and 2009 on my bookshelves though that was before I started blogging; I recognize a couple of stories in each, but barely remember any detail. If nothing else, blogging helps me go beyond “I liked this” and retain more by putting plots, characters, and my reactions in a network with other memories so they are more accessible. I may re-read those volumes at some point, not to blog them in detail, but to recapture something I may have lost when I had less of a network to fit them into.
Regarding the dissatisfied customer’s rather eloquent review: in every volume, either Pitlor or the guest editor mentions the pitfalls of calling something “Best.” What I like most about these anthologies is the deliberate variety, not just the diversity of authors but a difference in style, focus, setting, character, purpose. Variety is a double-edged sword: there’s always one chocolate in the Whitman Sampler that you can’t stand (for me, it’s the one with the jelly-like stuff in it). But I confess, cover cardboard with enough chocolate and I’ll eat it; likewise, even a story I don’t like becomes an adventure when I have to articulate why I don’t like it in a blog post. And sometimes, I end up liking it after all.
Teaming up with Jake Weber has also helped; he often helps me see things a different way. I’m still mulling over a story from last year – Emma Cline’s “Los Angeles” – which he liked a great deal more than I. We’ve also had a lot of fun (at least, I have) comparing which stories from last year get the most page hits, and speculating as to why that might be.
I confess that in the past few years, I have found my own attention span fractured. We are now, many of us, moving so quickly from task to task, from texting to life to work to social media, it has grown a little difficult to engage in something that requires our minds to slow down for an extended period of time.
….A good narrative can slow a mind that’s moving too quickly. A great story is its own kind of meditation, and at the risk of sounding even more woo-woo, its own kind of out-of-body experience. A ceding of one’s heartbeat and focus to another place and time. What a gift this is, especially now.Heidi Pitlor, Foreword
I find reading has been turned into a competitive sport, with people posting how many books they’ve read as if it’s a race. My process of spending three months with 250 pages of short stories doesn’t impress anyone, but I get so much more out of a story when I let it sit after reading, even for just a day or two, then look at it again. Another day or two to get my thoughts in order for a blog post is nearly essential.
But we’ve accelerated life in general, haven’t we. A few years ago, I read something about an overstimulated generation: kids who were not only shuttled from one scheduled activity to the next, but had video games and cell phones and tablets to keep them occupied in between; adults who learned to multitask so three minutes on the toilet could be used to answer an email. Just sitting and thinking seemed wasteful; a train commute spent gazing out the window was anathema. I recently added Jenny Odell’s book, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, on my reading list, because I feel like such a lazy slob sometimes.
The book title caught my eye, but also Odell’s name, since a quote of hers on the value of art as a political act featured prominently in my Pushcart XLI opening post: “By caring about art, you are taking a stand for everything in this world that is *not* obvious, that is nuanced, that is poetic, that is not ‘productive’ in the sad, mechanistic way we now think about productivity, that imagines something different. You are holding open a space that is always under threat of being shut down.” I’ve re-used that quote many times since December 2016, a kind of prayer for these times, when even reading and writing about reading can create pressure. It’s worth repeating again now.
So it’s time to pause before I move on. I’ll be back in January with Pushcart (I’ve made an executive decision about my approach, stay tuned). I may have a few tidbits to post between now and then: a book history mooc, a math book that blends poetry and calculus, and maybe I’ll even finish Don Quixote. Mostly, it’s time for a break, to enjoy the fun part of winter (after New Year’s it just gets old fast), to hope the world holds itself together long enough for something to heal.