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Best American

2015 January 29

bass collection

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?


10 Responses Post a comment
  1. January 29, 2015

    I was sorry to miss this gathering. I’m in the Grub Street Masters class this winter, and last week we were assigned At The Round Earth’s Imagined Corners by Lauren Groff, which, I believe is in this collection. I thought the comment about diversity was really interesting. Recently I was researching placement for a story and realized there are some fiction editors who probably would not consider my work. For instance, Junot Diaz, editing fiction for Boston Review. He writes, “In the end what I’m looking for, which I think is what everyone looks for, is something that sings. More technically, something that is aesthetically beautiful and that challenges people’s sense of the form, and of the world that they live in. We all want to be arrested, to walk away turning over a good piece of fiction in our head. That’s my guide.” Hmm. Okay. I can make words sing. But then elsewhere he explains further, “I’m looking for fiction that resembles the Thirty-Mile Woman from Toni Morrison’s Beloved: ‘She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.’ Or as Takashi Murakami puts it: ‘We want to see the newest things. That is because we want to see the future, even if only momentarily. It is the moment in which, even if we don’t completely understand what we have glimpsed, we are nonetheless touched by it. This is what we have come to call art.’ I’m looking for fiction in which a heart struggles against itself, in which the messy unmanageable complexity of the world is revealed. Sentences that are so sharp they cut the eye.” Writing like Toni Morrison feels like a tall order. I like to think that Junot Diaz at MIT, Kiese Laymon at Vassar and others are now training writers who will surely contribute to Best American Short Stories in the future, creating greater diversity.

    • Jill permalink
      February 2, 2015

      Good luck in the master class! It’s great–very helpful.

      Yes, writing like Toni Morrison is certainly a tall order. I get intimidated by those editorial guidelines all the time–it’s probably part of the reason why I almost never actually submit my writing. But ultimately, I think all we can do is trust that we’re writing things that make our own voices heard, and whether Junot Diaz or any other editor likes that voice is completely subjective. That’s what I tell myself anyways.

  2. January 29, 2015

    You know, I read this and was very underwhelmed by it. I usually read Best American Short Stories every year, and this is the one I’ve liked the least. There are only a couple of stories I can remember off the top of my head, which says something. I just found most of them bland and unmemorable.

    • Jill permalink
      February 2, 2015

      I agree, Katie. I think that was my main problem–it wasn’t showing us anything overly new or innovative, though sure, there was some lovely writing. But “best” sometimes can mean more than just technical skill.

  3. January 29, 2015

    I love this idea!! This sounds like a very fun way to host a dinner party to make it about books and discussion, but with less pressure to have a thorough analysis or say the right thing. One day when I have a huge house with big fireplaces, I’d like to steal this idea.

    I didn’t read the collection. I really don’t read as many short story collections as I’d like to, and when I do it’s usually one-off stories, rather than complete collections or anthologies. Somehow, because each story is a conclusion in itself, it feels to tempting to put a book of short stories down and pick something else up.

    • Jill permalink
      February 2, 2015

      Please have a dinner party where we talk about stories soon please. No fireplace required!

  4. Jess permalink
    January 30, 2015

    I agree that the stories kind of melded together in style, and I wonder if it is just that I am better read than when I first started reading bass a few years ago. The first story I read by Charles Baxter I completely fell in love with, but by the tenth story I am also looking at how it compares to his other stories. It is a fun task in any case!

  5. Alicia permalink
    February 2, 2015

    It’s interesting that you identify “MFA workshop” stories as the source of too much whiteness, since most MFA writing is so self-consciously ethnically diverse and politically correct as to be laughable. Also, isn’t disliking stories on the basis of the the writers’ race a political rather than literary reason?

    • Jill permalink
      February 2, 2015

      “MFA workshop” stories was actually a term my friend coined, but I think it was a catch-all phrase to refer to not only whiteness, but certain elements that a lot of contemporary fiction has in common–loneliness, a kind of existential sadness, a certain kind of privilege that it’s difficult to describe.

      I do think that disliking stories based on their authors’ race is political–but that isn’t my intention here. I didn’t dislike the stories so much as feel that the collection could have been more diverse, both content-wise and race-wise. I liked some of the stories, and disliked others, irregardless of the author’s race, gender, or sexuality. The point of the exercise was to read the stories purely for enjoyment, but sometimes it’s difficult to ignore a sense of homogeneity when you’re reading a collection.

  6. Erikka permalink
    February 6, 2015

    Wow. A salon. That is like my dream come true. Do I not know (live by! ha!) the right kind of peeps?
    This sounds fabulous. Great way to spend time, develop as a reader and a writer.

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