The Puppy Chews Its Paws

Discussion of the Best American anthologies has been all over our blog recently, and my guess is that it has appeared on many other sites, too. Sometimes it gets ripped for being generally terrible, such as Adam Gopnik’s selections for Best American Essays 2008, and other times the collection is generally considered solid. Rarely does anyone come flat out and say the collection is brilliant and breathtaking and all inclusive. How could it? Even when limited by the series editor, the guest editor has his or her own preferences for what constitutes good fiction (or poems or essays). Perhaps this is a tad unfair, but his name is on the cover and spine, in clear and large font, so the selections in this year’s Best American Stories are the Best American Stories According to Richard Russo.

What we know about any guest editor’s criteria comes from not only the writer’s work, but also from what the writer states in the anthology’s introduction. As I said two weeks ago, I was looking forward to reading Richard Russo’s introduction. I don’t know Richard Russo, but I like “him” as I perceive him from his essays, stories, and novels: a guy quick with laughter who is unpretentious and thoughtful. This might be a construct, of course, and if we learned anything over the last decade or so, public figures and celebrities construct a careful persona through a range of media outlets and services to make us believe they are Just Like Us. Naturally this tends not to be true.

So despite my personal groundless feelings on Richard Russo as a writer and all around good guy, I found his introduction to the Best American Short Stories 2010 to be lazy and frustrating. The introduction is built upon an anecdote of Isaac Bashevis Singer visiting Southern Illinois University in the early 1980’s. Meeting with students and faculty, Singer is asked “What is the purpose of literature?” and he says “To entertain and instruct.” Russo tells this story with more humor and skill then I’m bringing to it right now, but the core concept—to entertain and instruct—is the foundation for his introduction and, presumably, his selections for this anthology.

Russo writes:

“I’ll leave the defining of those two crucial terms to others”

Um—why? Aren’t you the guest editor who selected these stories? Wouldn’t this be interesting to discuss? Leaving this to others could be, I suppose, sly and funny, in the way that Singer’s pronouncement is sly and funny. It also seems reductive and simplistic. Compare this to the second paragraph of David Foster Wallace’s introduction to Best American Essays 2007:

“The truth is that just about every important word on the cover of The Best American Essays 2007’s front cover turns out to be vague, debatable, slippery, disingenuous, or else ‘true’ only in certain contexts that are themselves slippery and hard to sort out or make sense of—and that in general the whole project of an anthology like this requires a degree of credulity and submission on the part of the reader that might appear, at first, to be almost un-American.”

Now, that’s an introduction. Not just filler for the front of the book, but an essay worth reading for its own merits, one that forces the “others” to think.

The word that Russo uses that troubles me is “entertain.” Why does this word bother me? Because words aren’t static, and meanings and usage change with time; in the here and now, entertain is a word that strikes me as passive and submissive, a word for people wearing 3-D glasses, arms folded across their chest, waiting for It to appear and be … well, funny like a clown. One definition of entertain is “to keep and hold in the mind” but another definition (yes, definitions depend on the dictionary you use—see how word choice matters?) gives us this: to hold the attention of with something amusing or diverting.

Hmmm. Well, puppies are amusing.

Entertaining me with your writing often leads to the things that have troubled me, thus far, in BASS 2010: stories that aren’t so much wrecked by their endings, but take narrative turns that are both expected and perfectly average. There is a revelation at the end that feels cinematic. To be fair, I’ve only read a portion of the stories in BASS, and none of them are bad. None of them are great or “best” either, though Charles Baxter’s “The Cousins” is pretty friggin’ awesome. It also is the only story, so far, that has avoided this movie-reel moment at the end of the story.

What does Baxter’s story do? It engages. He is “occupying the attention and efforts” of the reader. The story is challenging, surprising, non-linear, beautiful, and strange. This effort to engage the reader, to make the reading a pleasing effort, is what makes the story moving and memorable: one is challenged to keep up and understand what has happened both physically and emotionally in the narrative. It is not neat and it is not easy. This is a reading experience that doesn’t allow the reader to sit back and wait for the puppy to chew its tail and flop around on its oversized paws.

I suppose there is nothing wrong with entertaining stories. I suppose there is nothing wrong with the growing defense of Stephen King and Elmore Leonard and the genre of pulp fictions that are getting more and more cache from other writers and academia, and that we can make “good writing” about vampires or werewolves or zombies, because those are fun, even for us literary dorks. I suppose that it’s okay that we are reading rather than watching television. I suppose.

But that feels like an awfully low standard for what is christened Best in any given year (or decade or century or whatnot). Perhaps it’s easier to just say that the Best American series is consumerist and designed to sell, as indicated in part by the name recognition of the recent guest editor, and just go ahead and accept that the stories they select are “entertaining” and leave it at that.

Or we can hope for more. Take for example the prize winner from the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2009 anthology, “An Ordinary Soldier of the Queen,” by Graham Joyce. Unequivocally, this is one of the best stories I have read in years. To say that it’s about a British soldier’s experiences in Iraq during the first Gulf War doesn’t tell you much, but I would fail miserably if I tried to sum up Joyce’s brilliant and – here it is – engaging story. It’s a story that you can’t quite unwrap: you have to reread it and even then I’m not sure you can fully say exactly what it is that lingers. It’s the kind of story that occupies your attention and efforts for days, which is what the truly best short stories will always achieve.

Michael Nye is the managing editor of The Missouri Review