Sunday night, before the snows came, I spent the evening sitting around a fireplace in a rambling old mansion talking about literature with a group of smart women writers. It wasn’t for class or book club or any kind of writing project. We’d come together just to talk about stories–specifically, the stories from the 2014 Best American Short Stories.
A friend from the Grub Street fiction class I took last spring graciously invited a bunch of writers into her home, with the sole intention of dissecting stories (and drinking wine). Though I belong to a book club, this was different–we didn’t really know one another or have any agenda. We did, however, have an assignment–we were to read the collection with Kurt Vonnegut’s famous term paper assignment in mind.
The assignment, in short, asks students to do the following:
Read them for pleasure and satisfaction, beginning each as though, only seven minutes before, you had swallowed two ounces of very good booze. “Except ye be as little children …”
Then reproduce on a single sheet of clean, white paper the table of contents of the book, omitting the page numbers, and substituting for each number a grade from A to F. The grades should be childishly selfish and impudent measures of your own joy or lack of it. I don’t care what grades you give. I do insist that you like some stories better than others.
Reading with an assignment in mind produces a wholly different experience from simply reading a collection of short stories. For me, when I read, especially a collection of stories or essays, I tend to bounce from one to the next without paying much attention to what came before or really processing what it was I just read. With the assignment in mind, I paid attention to what I was reading–not just for technique or good lines or plot devices, but to whether or not I was enjoying it. And that made a huge difference. Reading like a writer often means thinking in terms of the writing style, what we could or couldn’t pull off in our own writing, which tricks we might want to try for ourselves, etc. But reading for pure enjoyment? That’s something totally different.
At this ad hoc literary salon, we assigned our letter grades from each story to tiny post-it flags with our initials, then stuck them onto giant neon-pink posters hanging around the dining room of my friend’s house. She’d made a poster for each story, with just the title and author. After we were done touring the house (a seriously gorgeous house from 1846 with original art, secret passageways, multiple grandfather clocks, sleeping porches, a “gentleman’s shaving chamber,” and a tuxedo kitten named Burrito) and having some snacks, we walked around and assigned our post-it grades, chatting along the way. When we finished, we collected the pink posters and gathered around the fireplace in the library–a dream room full of antique books, TWO grand pianos, and lots of busts (“this house came with a lot of heads,” my friend explained)–and got to work.
We went through each story in no particular order and talked about why we enjoyed them, why we gave them the grades we did. The results were really interesting–there was some consensus, but for the most part, we enjoyed very different stories. Some stories I loved, others loathed. And it was okay, because enjoyment is a very particular and personal and subjective thing. There didn’t have to be an explanation. You could simply say, “I didn’t like it,” and that was enough.
Overall, I thought the collection was okay. I enjoyed reading it, but I think mostly because I read it with this gathering and assignment in mind. If I’d read it on my own, I don’t think it would have struck me as a standout, stellar collection. In fact, I’d already read most of my favorite stories, since they’d appeared in The New Yorker. The biggest problem, which we discussed a bit, was the lack of diversity. The vast majority of the stories spoke to a completely contemporary, white, American, experience. “MFA Workshop” stories as my friend called them. And while that happens to be writing I sometimes enjoy (I’m pretty traditionalist when it comes to short stories), I have to wonder if that’s really the “best” of what America has to offer. I highly doubt it. There are so many great writers of color out there, and so many writers who are doing interesting things with form and subject matter. I have to wonder where they were during the selection process. I’ve read Joyce Carol Oates. I’ve read Charles Baxter. I’ve read Karen Russell and Ann Beattie and T.C. Boyle. Sure, they’re amazing writers. But isn’t there space for new talent as well?
I have a lot more to say about the collection and about stories and about talking about writing, but it’s Thursday morning and I need to get to work.
Have you read the collection this year? What were your thoughts? Favorite stories? Have you ever done an experiment like this with a collection of stories?