The Best American Short Stories, 2017 (Selected from U.S. and Canadian Magazines by Meg Wolitzer with Heidi Pitlor), Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017, 303 pp.
Ten years ago the writer Elif Batuman wrote an article on two anthologies titled Best American Short Stories, for the years 2004 and 2005. Her amazing conclusion, well-reasoned and argued, was that many of the “best stories” in these collections were not very good stories. As she puts it, “Contemporary short stories contain virtually no reference to any interesting work being done in the field over the past twenty, fifty, or hundred years; instead, middle-class women keep struggling with kleptomania, deviant siblings keep going in and out of institutions, people continue to be upset by power outages and natural disasters, and rueful writerly types go on hesitating about things.” Domestic realism. Urggh.
That urggh added on there belongs to me, and I amplified upon it in a long jeremiad published on Dactyl Review: “The New Yorker Short Stories (“The Great Boondoggle of the American Short Story”). Anyone interested can read the whole thing, but I will sum up its main point here: the MFA racket and the creative writing swindle in American universities have cheapened the value of the American short story, so that what are supposed to be the best American literary journals now publish huge numbers of weak stories in the gruesome genre of “domestic literary fiction.”
With some trepidation (do I really want to do this?) I approached a reading of the latest anthology of Best American Short Stories. Would this year’s batch of prize-winning stories be any better? Would they be as bad as ever? Are we still mired in the same depressing boondoggle? Well, the answer is that we are. What I call “the standard MFA story” is still ascendant, all over the U.S.A., but at least I found a few good stories in the collection.
If you go to the “Contributors’ Notes” at the back of the book you will be struck by how successful the writers in this volume are. They have been widely published, often in the most prestigious of literary journals; they are praised abundantly, they are winners of vast numbers of literary prizes. So shouldn’t you assume that winners of prizes are good writers? Alas, no, since a reading of prize-winning stories in any journal often leaves you with mouth agape and jaw dangling: that story won a prize?
The saddest thing of all to report is that the majority of stories in this latest volume fit into the category of what I call “standard MFA.” That kind of story features usually middle-class or upper-middle class heroes or heroines. At its worst the story is written in a mostly bland style of literary realism and tends to meander. Again at its worst, the story is unconcerned with issues of structure, has apparently never heard of narrative arcs, doesn’t go anywhere. The characters are often—far too often—awash in angst, over their neurotic middle-class problems—see Batuman’s mention of struggles with kleptomania, deviant siblings, etc. Worst of all: there are no good sentences in the worst of the MFA stuff, and what is a story worth without good sentences? To have value as creative literary fiction a story must be WRITTEN.
To begin with the good news, there are a few stories in this anthology that are WRITTEN. And for this virtue we can forgive them even for being in the genre of the domestic American story. Take T.C. Boyle’s “Are We Not Men?” which features standard American middle-class characters but places them in a near future time when manipulation of genetics is a part of daily life. The story begins by presenting a “dog the color of a maraschino cherry.” Later described as “a cherry-red hairless freak with the armored skull and bulging musculature of a pit bull,” this canine turns out to be a genetically cloned “Cherry Pit.”
Boyle’s story also features a girl of eleven, six feet four with violet eyes, and a tragically murdered micropig, purchased originally from Recombicorp Corporation. Genetic engineering has made all things possible. The best thing about the story—written in the vein of the popular TV series “Black Mirror”—is how much sheer fun Boyle has in telling this tale of the near future. He takes the sad story of the pig’s murder by the Cherry Pit and envelops it in hilarity. The owner of the pig, Allison, is one of these persons who thinks all animals are exactly like humans. At a dinner party “Allison had kept the pig in her lap throughout the whole meal, feeding it from her plate, and afterward, while we sat around the living room cradling brandies and Benedictine, she propped the thing up at the piano, where it picked out, ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ with its modified hooves.”
Boyle greatly enjoys his characters, who, wallowing in this new world of semi-science fiction, are made to look foolish, but still sympathetic. Wit is something they don’t teach in creative writing courses. The worst of the MFA stories are dead serious, devoid of humor and stylistic panache. Here, in a story underpinned with much food for thought, we have light and frothy humor, similar to the writings of George Saunders—who is probably the best short story writer alive in the U.S. today.
I was shocked to read what Boyle says about his story in the back matter of the book. “In my long career and even longer life on this earth, I have come to one conclusion: things always get worse.” After bewailing the ascendancy of genetic engineering and the despoilment of nature—“the seas are rising and the polar bears paddling toward a distant horizon that will suck them down into the void of extinction any day now”—Boyle concludes by saying, “I am a satirist. I am a wise guy. I am a nudger and winker. In the face of the horror, what else is left to us but to laugh?”
A totally different person wrote those comments in the appendix from the person—the witty reveler and boisterous joker—who wrote the story. In “Are We Not Men?” the narrator is not a satirist. He is an ironist. What’s the difference? The satirist makes dire predictions, shouts out his rage; his laughs are loud and raucous, but not very funny. The satirist wants to make sure that the reader gets his point: things are bad and getting worse. The ironist has a lot of good light fun, titters gently, whispers in your ear. The ironist makes jokes about pet micropigs and crowparrots that flap about over your head, screech/cawing, “Fuck you.”
Boyle writes under two different names: sometimes, as in this collection, he is T.C. Boyle; sometimes, elsewhere, he is T. Coraghessan Boyle. Maybe one of these Boyles (the one who wrote the story) is the ironist, and the other one—the guy pissing and moaning the blues in the appendix—is the satirist. Anyway, after reading something with such a nice light ludic touch, I’m left figuring that the polar bears might have a chance after all.
Another not bad story in the MFA mode is “Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain,” by Danielle Evans. Here we have another writer with a good sense of humor, describing a wedding with the theme of Noah’s Ark and the rainbow that embodied God’s promise. The bridesmaids each dress in one of the colors of the rainbow. The groom ends up fleeing the whole business in the early morning hours before the ceremony. Then the bride, taking in tow one of her friends—the narrator, who she suspects has once slept with the groom—dashes off in mad pursuit of the groom. Much wacko fun is had, but the story also has some heft, and is written by someone who has a grip on her sentences.
Why the title? I don’t know. Am I supposed to be able to figure this out? Maybe it’s the title of a popular song, and I don’t get it because I last listened to pop music some time in the sixties? Or does the reader have to do research on Richard of York? . . . Aha, thank God for the internet! I just googled it and discovered that the phrase is a mnemonic aid for remembering the colors of the rainbow—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet—good title, great title, my bad, my bad! For the whole rest of my life I will never forget the colors of the rainbow. Thank you, Danielle Evans!
Other stories with problematic titles in this anthology are (1) “Tally,” in which the title appears to have been randomly picked out of a line in the second paragraph: “It was my job to pour and to tally, to feed a coin now and then into the jukebox”—huh?; and (2) “Gabe Dove,” a story whose main heroine is not named Gabe Dove, who is a secondary character, rather a pathetic sort, so why give him the title of the story? But then again, the heroine and narrator is even more pathetic.
Searching, largely in vain, for stories that break completely and totally the MFA mold, I come across “Telemachus,” by Jim Shepard, set on a British submarine during WWII. There is so much authentic detail in this story that I first imagined Mr. Shepard to have served on a submarine himself. But no, as he informs us in the appendix, he is much interested in British military history, but has done only desultory, “nerdy reading” on the subject of submarines. The details, by the way, while extensive, work always for the good of the narrative, rather than impeding, or overwhelming the action—as details sometimes do in a research-monger of a writer such as Annie Proulx.
“Telemachus” teems with lovely passages. Try this one: “Off Little Andaman Island we pass a jungle of chattering monkeys that cascades right down to the shore. For safety we stay close to the coast in the darkness, and the oily-looking water is filled with sea snakes and jellyfish, so that when we surface at nightfall horrid things get stuck in our conning tower gratings and crunch and slide underfoot.”
Or this: “After two weeks in the Bay of Bengal everyone is feeling lethargic and suffering from headaches. Some of the crew haven’t shaved during the entire patrol and resemble figures from another century. Running on the surface at night we slip past sleepy whales bobbing like waterlogged hulks.”
In its maritime lyricism the story sometimes recalls Melville’s great lyric poem, Moby-Dick. Here’s how it ends: “On a rough day near a reef in a breaking sea we found the spectacle of porpoises on our track above us, leaping through the avalanches of foam and froth six or seven at a time, maneuvering within our field of vision and then surging clean out of the water and reentering smoothly with trailing plumes of white bubbles, all of them flowing together, each a celebration of what the others could be, until finally it seemed as if hundreds had passed us, and in their kinship and coordination had then vanished into the impenetrable green beyond our reach.”
This final piece of poetry, by the way, is a valediction, not only to the story we read, but also to the submariners and their loved ones back home, and to life itself on earth and at sea, since in the paragraphs directly preceding this, the sub—in an act of sheer suicide—has launched torpedoes at a convoy and will now be hunted to the death by three sub-killer vessels that are part of that convoy.
A common thing in the world of American publishing today is the short story written in English by a writer from another culture. You would think such stories would have a certain verve in their very exotic nature, but alas, most of the ones I come across are written as if the author went through an MFA program in an American university. Sometimes she/he has. Such is a story set in Cuba, “Campoamor,” which begins like this: “Natasha is my girlfriend. Sometimes I love her. Sometimes I don’t think of her at all. When I met her she had a broken leg. I was visiting my friend Abel, who sells mobile phone minutes and lives down the hall from her in a building behind the Capitolio.”
Now, that beginning is what I call a big “UH-OH beginning.” Don’t know about anybody else, but those initial sentences are enough to convince me that I’m not interested in meeting Natasha, or the narrator, or Abel who deals in phone minutes. This story, furthermore, is written in the style of “MFA amble.” Meaning that it wanders around for quite a while, never really gets anywhere and then peters out. The narrator has another girlfriend, a married woman named Lily. Here is how they talk to each other.
“‘Lily,’ I tell her, ‘you are an amazing woman. Your husband is a lucky man.’
‘What about your Natasha? Do you fuck her the way you fuck me?’
‘She won’t let me’ [he lied].
But Lily never asks if I love Natasha. Not even tonight.”
So much for Cuba. No good sentences in that whole story, only creative writing program sentences. A story written by a writer from India, Jai Chakrabarti, “A Small Sacrifice for an Enormous Happiness,” does have a bit of exoticism. It begins like this: “From his balcony, Nikhil waited and watched the street as hyacinth braiders tied floral knots, rum sellers hauled bags of ice, and the row of elderly typists, who’d seemed elderly to him since he had been a boy, struck the last notes of their daily work.”
People who braid hyacinths for a living! Now that’s interesting. The small sacrifice of the title refers to Nikhil’s [odd name, Nikhil, very close to the Latin word for Nothing] willingness to impregnate the wife of his male lover Sharma—despite Nikhil’s repugnance at even the smell of a woman. But, so he tells Sharma, “I desire to have a child with you.”
The story is unusual, in that India is still a highly conservative culture, and being homosexual there can be dangerous. “They had learned about a schoolteacher and a postal clerk who had secretly made a life together. Unfashionably attired and chubby cheeked, they seemed too dull for the news. A few months ago locals threw acid on their faces.” While strictly MFA in style and plot, “A Small Sacrifice” has a lot of nice touches. I especially liked the description of the evening meal at Sharma’s place—with only he and his wife in attendance—a scene full of domestic “grace and precision,” all of this viewed from outside by jealous Nikhil, and all of it presaging not only no child for the two male lovers, but also probably the end of their days together.
A story dear to my heart is “Novostroika (Новостройка)” by Maria Reva, a native of Ukraine. Here is how it begins: “Daniil Ivanovich Blinov climbed the crumbling steps of the city council. The statue of Grandfather Lenin towered over the building, squinting into the smoggy distance. The winter’s first snowflakes settled on the statue’s shoulders like dandruff. Daniil avoided Grandfather’s iron gaze, but sensed it on the back of his head, burning through his fur-flap hat.”
There is a slight logistical problem here in the first paragraph. The Lenin statues next to or in front of government buildings in the Soviet Union always face forward, onto the city square, one arm raised, pointing into the glorious Socialist future awaiting all of humankind. This one does too, but Veliky Ilich (Lenin) must turn his head around as Blinov passes. Otherwise how could the character feel that gaze burning on the back of his fur cap?
By the way, there is another logistical problem in the beginning of the story “Famous Actor.” While standing with a group of people at a party, having a conversation, the title character is said to be casually “elbow-fucking” the narrator. He is facing in another direction, as this detail tells us: “he stopped elbow-fucking me and turned so that we were face to face.” But I don’t get it. Where exactly is he putting his elbow? To be doing this in the region of the anus or crotch he would have to bend way down, but the context implies that he is standing up having a conversation. Is he elbow-fucking the back of her neck? Her shoulder blades? Or is he only four feet tall? My problem here probably comes of never having elbow-fucked, and never having been elbow-fucked.
“Novostroika” is a Russian story, top to bottom and back to front, and I like it so much because I get all the inside jokes. Full disclosure: I taught Russian language and literature for thirty years in a university and have spent a lot of time in the country. The first joke is in the surname of the protagonist Blinov. It comes from the word блин (blin), which means pancake but also is, or at least used to be, the “like” word in Russian: “And he like (blin) goes, Whatever, and I like (blin) go, What about whatever? and he like (blin) goes, etc.”
Other things any Russian would relate to in this story: the girl singing the popular song, “May there always be sunshine”; the mention of vobla, the inedible, disgusting dried fish product so beloved of Russian beer drinkers; pensioners sitting out on benches, disparaging everything and everyone, while cracking sunflower seeds in their teeth; the way you gather up your life savings to buy a space heater—which in this story is miraculously available for sale. Most of the time the way it worked in the Soviet Union was you took your life savings to the store, and the bored girl behind the counter—with that ever-present expression of repugnance on her face—said, “What planet are you from to think we still have space heaters on sale?”
“Novostroika” is, of course, a tale very much in the tradition of Gogol, the age-old story of Mother Russia (including Ukraine): life is absurd, and we are all living in an ontology that has very shaky grounds. In the story the apartment building, where Blinov lives with his many relatives and their chickens, has not been registered at the city council, so it officially does not exist. A logical extension of this is that the residents themselves are equally nonexistent.
Despite the confusion over “elbow-fucking,” Jess Walter’s “Famous Actor” shows talent and is well written. The main character and female narrator is witty and charming, while quite mixed up. The actor—chain-smoking, perpetually picking a piece of tobacco off his tongue, or pretending to—is also confused in an entertaining, even sympathetic way. For some reason I see him in my mind’s eye as Owen Wilson. “Famous Actor” has some very good touches: “First sex is like being in a stranger’s kitchen, trying all the drawers, looking for a spoon. There was one point where he was over me, his eyes closed, head back, weight on his arms like he was doing a pushup, and it was kind of weird—like, Oh, hey, look, Terrific Todd is boning someone. Oh wait, it’s me.” The story is about acting, about how professional actors have acted so much that they have lost touch with what’s real and what’s acting. But, so the narrative implies, we’re all of us really actors like that.
Curtis Sittenfeld’s “Gender Studies” also has nice bits of humor and irony. Eric Puchner’s “Last Day on Earth” is well structured and touching. The best things here are the epiphany of the mother’s act—she shows her son how she can walk on her hands—and the dogs, Shorty and Ranger, apparently on Death Row—they are on their way to the dog pound and euthanasia—but still making the best of what life they have left, running and sniffing on the beach.
Of the stories I have not discussed in this review, the rest are all basically MFA mode, some better than others. Two or three—I will mercifully mention no names—are barely worth publishing, and certainly not worthy of a prize. A famous writer of fiction—I forget who—was once asked why she wrote, and her answer was this: I write because I’m in love with words. This is the very best answer I can think of, but I suspect that it would not be well-received by purveyors of MFA, or by many writers included in this anthology. Some of the writers here anthologized admit, in the appendix, to setting out writing stories in order to air out sociological issues. In MFA programs I assume that they are encouraged to do so, just as the touchy-feely profs encourage them to be politically correct.
But as any genuine writer of literary fiction should be aware, political correctness has no place in creative writing; the genuine writer should never be concerned about offending anyone, nor does emphasis primarily on sociological matters make for good fiction. Once again, let me emphasize that I am speaking of genuine literature as Art. As I have stated elsewhere, if the writers of “domestic literary fiction” would only leave the word “literary” out I would not be nearly as aghast at what they write. Same goes for so-called “literary journals.” If they want to call themselves that, they should publish Literature, not Sociology. And they should find editors who can tell the difference between Literature and Crap.
In the contents to the anthology I would like to have put, in capital letters next to “Telemachus,” NOT AN MFA STORY. THIS ONE IS DIFFERENT. NOT BORING. We could have similar messages next to the other good stories in the collection.
And to the future editors and selectors of the so-called best stories of the year, I would like to send this note: PLEASE, PLEASE, PICK MORE STORIES LIKE THIS, STORIES THAT ARE NOT IN THE MFA STANDARD MODE. PLEASE DEVELOP SOME HIGH STANDARDS ABOUT WHAT GOOD LITERARY WRITING IS.
Oh, one other thing: let’s abolish all creative writing programs in all American universities. Don’t you think that’s a good idea?
–U.R. Bowie, author of Such Is the Scent of Our Sweet Opalescence (Short Stories)