And so over the years, with the help of these writers and thousands of others, literary publishing has changed for the better. The point: do not despair about the present situation where truth is denigrated, facts depend on whatever power brokers say they are, and hype and celebrity seemed to rule the national mind. Our struggle is worth it. We are not back in the era when non-commercial writers wrote for their desk drawers only. This is a true, quiet revolution. Let’s keep it.Introduction, Bill Henderson
I have no idea how the actual business of writing works, but I would imagine that appearing in a Pushcart volume is a big boost to the career of the so-called emerging writer, someone who’s produced some work of quality but hasn’t yet convinced agents or publishers that she’s good for the long haul. If you read the interviews and contributor notes for stories and poems, you notice that a page of poetry, or fifteen pages of prose, can take years to perfect. It’s no small accomplishment to make it past the slush pile and into publication in the first place, then to get through a second round to be chosen for Pushcart. It’s a big deal.
That said: this is the first time in nine years that Pushcart has disappointed me.
Now, I admit I’m not a writer, nor am I a trained critic or reviewer. I’m just a reader, with my own preferences, blind spots, and educational deficiencies. And I’ve been in a terrible funk over the state of the country, the state of the world, for a couple of years now, increasing as justice becomes more and more something for the rich and powerful to use to keep their status. So it’s quite possible this volume will read differently at another time (if there is another time; I fear, truly fear, we are stuck in this one for the forseeable future). Maybe I’ll come to see it more as Jake Weber does; his summary post sees “Unjustified optimism, necessary optimism: American Attitudes about the Future in the Pushcart 2019 anthology”. It’s an excellent summary post; I highly recommend it, as I do his posts on individual stories.
It’s not that I think the stories are bad; with a couple of exceptions, they’re pretty good. In a way, it’s my past experience with Pushcart (and perhaps my recent read of BASS 2018, which I found extraordinarily wonderful) that makes this one seem underwhelming. I’ve come to expect surprise, imaginative craft, things I’ve never seen before, an emotional experience, from the Pushcart material. I felt little of that this time. I could recognize, ok, here’s the part that’s heartbreaking, but, with a couple of exceptions, my heart remained stubbornly whole. Yes, the problem may be my heart, or my reading. But while I saw some interesting stories, I saw nothing that made me want to grab someone and shove the book in their hands and say, You’ve got to read this!
A noticeable chunk of the volume felt downright elegiac, the literary equivalent of the In Memoriam segment of an award show. I’m probably going to get in trouble for this paragraph; the literary community, those who really know what they’re doing, the ones for whom this volume is actually published, probably treasure those pieces. Most years contain pieces by deceased writers, either accidentally or on purpose, but this year included several such pieces, as well as memoirs. I suppose this is a good place to do that – it lends a nice continuity, seeing brand-new writers next to those who’ve shaped their genres over decades – but it started to feel a bit forced. And, next to so many stories about death (not an uncommon feature of literary fiction), the volume started to feel funereal.
My own illness, resulting in an absence of several weeks right in the middle of the book, didn’t help. Oddly, when I got back to work, I felt more confused but less depressed by the pieces, perhaps because I started working at a much quicker pace, batting out five or six posts a week instead of my usual two or three. I probably spent the same amount of time on each post, several hours each morning and additional time as needed in the insomnia hours, but left out a lot of “sleep on it and mull it over” time. That might be the key: I was more in-the-moment. An interesting observation, to be sure. I won’t know for sure if I missed a lot, or just avoided some dreading, until I have some distance.
To get specific:
Things started out with promise. Pam Houston’s opening essay on the down side of irony gave me a lot to bounce off of: I summed it up as “ while I basically agree with the overall theme – caring is better than not-caring, and we can’t afford to be sealing ourselves behind a wall of cynicism and irony – I somehow have a lot of issues with the how she gets there.” Karen Russell’s “Tornado Auction” got a little overcomplicated, but ultimately delivered. “Into the Mystery”, Tony Hoagland’s poem, spoke to me, and even gave me some structure to work with; I’ve noticed my enjoyment of a poem tends to increase when I find something I understand about how it’s written. In a nice piece of editing, “The Whitest Girl” and “The Hunter”, a back-to-back pair of prose pieces, one fiction, one essay, provided interesting perspectives on Latinx-Anglo cultural relations.
My favorite fiction was David Naimon’s “Acceptance Speech”. It combined an unusual narrative approach – a speech at an awards dinner – with a truly interesting relationship dynamic; the title added a little linguistic flair. This was what I came for. Another favorite story was Sarah Resnick’s short story, “Kylie Wears Balmain,” a swipe at the contemporary predominance of entertainment over art and thought captured within a clever structure. It bemoaned exactly Henderson’s point from his introduction: the money is behind celebrity gossip, not a debate of ideas.
Lisa Taddeo’s “A Suburban Weekend” was a learning experience: I eventually realized the story I hated masked a touching emotional piece. It’s a story I can’t say I loved, but I greatly appreciate the craft. It’s quite a task for a writer, like one of those science fiction stories where the received frequency is a carrier for a subfrequency (Sagan’s Contact made major use of this, as did several episodes of ST:TNG; I don’t quite understand the science, but get the concept).
While I enjoyed cross-discussions on the fiction pieces with Jake, I had some similar back-and-forth with my Vermont Poet friend, Patrick Gillespie, on the poetry. I have a lot of problems with poetry: I keep changing my mind about whether the poet’s vision, or the reader’s interpretation, is paramount; whether there is a “right” reading for a poem or whether it’s a free-for-all; if aesthetic experience equals meaning. Can I love a poem and have no idea what it means? What is it that I love, then? Is that the meaning? The question before me as I read this volume was: Why is the poem written in this way, this form, with this language? How does it contribute to meaning / aesthetic experience? I only occasionally had answers. I’m planning to take the Yale OCW on Modern Poetry, but I doubt that will help much. Courses tend to help me with the poems they cover, but not with techniques or approaches for my future reading. I may need to eventually accept that I’m just poetry-stupid, but I do enjoy these annual forays.
In addition to Houston’s opening essay, I found two of the nonfiction pieces particularly interesting. One was Molly Cooney’s “Transition”, which took the transgender journey out of the political realm and made it much more personal. I also found “Powder House,” the closing essay by Molly Gallantine, intriguing reading. I learned a few things, and nothing makes me happier than encountering something I didn’t know, in an interesting and memorable way.
Maybe I was just the wrong reader at the wrong time; maybe Pushcart tried something a little different this time; maybe they accidentally used the “honorable mention” list instead of the award list; maybe they’re feeling as distraught about current events as I am. The Introduction bears that out, though it also includes some of that optimism Jake sees:
For many of us, we too live now in an alien world dedicated to power and lies. It is hard to laugh and smile. This is not the world we cherish. It is tempting to just retreat into tribal clusters, or surrender it all to a drugged wasteland.
But of course we cannot and will not retreat.
So do not despair about our contemporary blasts of power and lies. Stay calm and carry on writing. Eventually the power-obsesssed will destroy themselves.Introduction, Bill Henderson
I’m not so sure there will be much left if that does eventually happen. But here’s to Pushcart, for keeping the faith.