I am always looking out for the best. For example, there are anthologies of what are called “the best” short stories. In fact, there are many of these anthologies. “The best” means “better than all others,” so, if you live a life of reason, why not cut to the chase and just read these anthologies instead of sifting through the less-than-best? The Best American Short Stories (of whatever year) was an anthology I sought out when I was younger in order to have in my hands some of this “best” stuff we’re talking about here. Every year, a new edition of this series introduced to me the idea of what short fiction should be, what it must at least strive to be, and where it should be found. I sought these magazines out and I read examples of what defined the short story. Admittedly, I haven’t purchased any of these collections for some years now, but last week I bought the 2010 version of The Best American Short Stories. The series editor, Heidi Pitlor, and this year’s guest editor, Richard Russo know what makes a short story “the best” because Richard Russo is a Pulitzer Prize winner and Heidi Pitlor is the editor of this highly-esteemed anthology. I am overjoyed that these anthologies exist and that they have only the best short fiction published in literary magazines that year.
Obviously, the best stories come from the most famous and best literary magazines. I mean, why bother with the less known, less money-backed lit mags? There are just too many to mention, and all they produce is mumblejunk. If these smaller magazines were any good, they would be widely known, and they would have more money, and everyone would have subscriptions to them because all good things--all “best” things--succeed. Just because the smaller mags have little to no funding does not mean that their editors are more passionate about their endeavors, or about what stories they publish. Just because they are mostly all going bankrupt to get these stories out there, doesn’t mean the stories they publish are any good. If the stories found in the smaller mags were worth anything, they would be in the big mags. It’s that easy. That obvious.
I love that these anthologies use the phrase “the best” in their titles because this clarifies for the reader the fact that these are the judges and the voices and the authorities we should listen to. The stories they select for the best of the year are basically the Platonic ideas writing. It’s your duty, as a possibly blooming writer, to copy these great stories and try your best to be like them and sound like them. They show you how to do it, show you how to write something that may one day be included among “the best.” If you don’t write stories like the stories in these anthologies, then you are doing it wrong. Don’t go pushing envelopes. We’ve experimented enough with literature already. Experimenting ended with Joyce. There is nothing you can do to take the form of short fiction to greater heights. You aren’t good enough. Not until you can write something that these editors would consider the best, can you even attempt to take the form of fiction down your own, individual path. Do not look inside of yourself for what you want to say. Look outside and look away at what others say is the best. Let yourself be guided by them, blindly if possible.
But, you may wonder, are these stories really the best? Shouldn’t the title of this year’s anthology be The Best American Short Stories According to Richard Russo? It would be absurd to say that these judges are out of touch with what was being written and published this past year. I’m sure they know all about magazines such as "No Colony," "Pank," "Gigantic," or "Hobart." But if they published a story from one of these many mags, we wouldn’t be able to take them seriously and consider them “the best” anymore. Certainly, these editors have heard of Blake Butler, Brian Evenson, Roxane Gay, Tao Lin, Matt Bell, Amber Sparks, and Sean Kilpatrick. But these writers obviously didn’t write any of the best stories last year. What they write (if you can even call it writing) is clearly not material to be included among the best. Otherwise, pieces from these less-than-best writers would be included in these anthologies.
The Best American Nonrequired Readin_g, an off-shoot anthology series, is a more hip and edgy version of the original. It’s kind of like a "McSweeney’s Two." This year’s edition had a loose and democratic process for deciding the content of what is best for _The Nonrequired. By nonrequired, they mean that these are the pieces of writing that are not to be found on your summer reading list if you are still in high school. Or they mean that these are things that no one can make you read for any reason (no one can require you to read them, get it?), and, in fact, if you don’t read them, it’s no big deal at all. Not to you, not to the editors, and not to the sales team of the publishing house. In fact, the title makes it clear that you’ll be neither better, nor worse off for ignoring this book entirely. If they had named the series Required rather than Nonrequired, that would be too authoritative and assholish. There are obviously no short stories in the history of the world important enough to be forced upon anyone. You can tell by the friendly title of the series that they want you, the reader, to just take it easy, to come to their book if you want, but they will not force it upon you.
The editor of this series has a committee for selecting the pieces to be included, and ALL ART SHOULD BE JUDGED AND DECIDED UPON BY COMMITTEE. This way, you can see what most readers will like, and what most readers will buy. You can produce the most palatable, marketable, and approachable reading for the highest number of people (and sell books in order to survive as an anthology). A committee is much like a focus group. Don’t you want your literature to go through a focus group before you take time out of your life to read it? I know I do. The students from the 826 programs in San Francisco and Michigan are the focus group for The Nonrequired Reading series of 2010. Their bios are in the back of the book and the group is made up of an ethnically diverse bunch of mostly high school students and college freshman. Their pictures are included beside their bios so you can see how black and brown and Asian and female they are. This is fair and equal and socially conscious and it is also politically correct (that is what writing is all about, after all!).
This committee has a revolutionary way of deciding which pieces to not force upon you. They have YES and NO boxes. Once the YES box is full, they lay them out on one side of a ping-pong table. Then the real YES pieces are…hold your dick and wait for it… moved over the net to the other side of the ping pong table. This imagery, this process, is basically an art itself. Can’t you just see this committee moving stories from one side of a ping-pong table to the other side of a ping-pong table? Can’t you just see the stories going over the little green net? So much metaphor. Such sport! Okay, perhaps they don’t move the YES papers directly over the ping-pong net. Maybe they just walk them down the side of the ping-pong table, less enthusiastically, and just set them down on the other side of the net like no big whoop.
In this year’s edition, there is a special introduction by David Sedaris, the authority on good writing if there ever was one. He is the highly gifted and best-selling force-to-be-reckoned-with in today’s literary world. He is, like, a giant. His introduction, surprisingly, is about himself (a forte of his, subject matter wise), his childhood memories (another forte), and how he learned to love poetry (something he just made his forte in this particular introduction). Sedaris’ piece, however, seems like a piece that just should have been included in with the rest since it has nothing whatsoever to do with the content that follows.
But, let’s face it, it’s David fucking Sedaris. He’s basically God. And if you get God, or David Sedaris, to agree to do an introduction for your anthology, you publish what he gives you (even if it’s his grocery list) or else you’re just being disrespectful. You’re being rude to a literary heavyweight! To God! I mean who ever tires of Sedaris talking about France and his childhood and his lover Hugh? No one in the entire fucking world, that’s who. His stories are always fascinating, always riveting. His words are never not pure poetry, and, basically, he only writes the most totally cutting-edge avant garde prose out there. Here is an excerpt from his introduction: I don’t know what drove my mother to hang on to those poems. Perhaps she saw them as evidence of a change, seeds of the person I would become. Did you fucking hear that? Seeds of the person. I am just going to give you a minute and let that one soak in, let it strike you like a hatchet. Probably no one before Sedaris has ever considered their youth as seed-related. You can tell it’s original and pure and that it purely originated inside of David Sedaris and that he died a little bringing it up from the depths of his deep, deep soul.
Also, if you are given the job as editor for an anthology, you should most definitely include your politics in it if you want it to be at all decent. (Fiction and all writing must always include politics.) There are two sections to the Nonrequired anthology. The second part is made up of longer pieces (all of them are perfect, all beautiful, real original shit with not a flaw to be found in any of them). The first part, however, is made up of lists, because lists are so much fun. Here are a few of the lists’ titles and the politics I’ve uncovered behind each one:
Best American Woman Comedy Piece Written by a Woman (politic: We must publish more women, even if a man’s piece is better, because half boy/half girl should be applied to each and every aspect of life and art.)
Best American Sentences on Page 50 of Books Published in 2009 (politic: There aren’t any great sentences on page 50 of books published in 2009. Also, the number 50 has some cool esoteric meaning that the editor won’t tell us about.)
Best American Magazine Letters Section (politic: These are all by Stephen Colbert.)
Best American Fast-Food-Related Crimes (politic: Fast-food not only will give you cancer but will also subject you to crime.)
Best American Gun Magazine Headlines (politic: People who are into guns are stupid. Let’s laugh at them.)
Best American Six-Word Memoirs on Love and Heartbreak (politic: There are no Best American Six-Word Memoirs on Love and Heartbreak.)
Best American Tweets (politic: 11 tweets from @chewbacca and 2 tweets from @hodgman were the best tweets of the year.)
Best American Fictional Character Names (politic: Name your characters by thinking up the most improbable names you can think of. This is fun and silly and an imperative part of making writing good.)
Best American 350-Word Story (politic: 350 parts per million is what many scientists, climate experts, and progressive national governments are now saying is the safe upper limit for CO2 in our atmosphere, so I’m guessing that writing 350-Word stories totally has something very important to do with the environment.)
Best American First Lines of Poems Published in 2009 (politic: There was not one single Best American First Line of any Poem Published in 2009.)
Best American Poems Written in the Last Decade or So by People Living or Fighting in Iraq (politic: There aren’t very many good poems written by these people because we had to collect from an entire decade of poems rather than just this past year like we did with every other list in here. Also, war is bad.)
See? See all the politics? Seem liberal? Does it seem liberal to you? Any curation of writing must be liberal in its politics. Hold on. Wait. I don’t know if I believe all of this. I think I just changed my mind. Yes, I have just changed my mind. These books should instead be called The Best Bullshit Anthologies. The should be used as fucking kindling or for holding up a chair leg rather than reading material because they do nothing but perpetuate the idea that writers should write the same shit over and over and over and that they should try to sound like all of the homogenized crap found in almost every single anthology ever printed in the history of the world: Formulaic and bland and cheeky gutless prose. Absolute horseshit. I cannot for the life of me distinguish a single original voice in either of these terrible, terrible books.
The pieces in both of these anthologies are all the exact same cookie-cutter Fisher-Price piles of total shit that have always filled anthologies. If what is contained in them is to represent “the best” of the last year, then I say let’s blow last year out of the goddamn water, strangle the fucker, bury it, and then burn a mile-wide circle on the land above so no one in the future ever sees how absolutely fucked our tastes were, or as our tastes were being perpetrated by the publishers of these atrocities. They don’t know what “the best” is. Fuck what Richard Russo thinks the best is. Fuck what any of the past editors of the series thought what the best is. You should never buy an album called The Best of Bob Dylan and you shouldn’t by The Best of anything else either. It’s not a race, or at least not a race against anyone else. All trophies are bullshit. All prizes are bullshit. And competition is the biggest bullshit of all. What? Do you believe in pride, too? If you think what you have is better than what others have then you’re fucked because you still believe in words that you’ve already been told were dead. Words die. Learn this. Your ego must be annihilated before anything true will surface from inside of you. Only egos (and money) can make you say, “This is the best.”