American Short Stories Since 1945 (Book published in 1968 and acquired, 30 April 2021)

I was perusing the anthologies, looking for a book called Anti-Story: An Anthology of Experimental Fiction (1971). I didn’t find it, but the spine of American Short Stories Since 1945 interested me enough to pull it out, and the wonderful cover (by Emanuel Schongut) intrigued me more. The tracklist on the back cover is what got to me:

I’ve read seven of the stories and fourteen of the twenty-six authors here. You probably have too. But there are close to a dozen authors here I’ll admit I’ve never even heard of—authors rectangle-pressed in with favorites of mine like Barthelme, Gass, Jackson, and Pynchon, whose piece “Under the Rose”is part of V., which I recently re-read. (I opened the “Acknowledgements” page to see that “Under the Rose” was first published in Noble Savage 3, May 1961—I checked the “N” anthologies and found Noble Savage #2, but no three for me.)

Edited and introduced by the poet John Hollander, Since 1945 “aims to show the major shapes taken by shorter fiction in America since the end of World War II.” Published in 1968, it’s heavy on the white guys, but I think there’s an attempt here to point toward not just “major shapes,” but new shapes.

I couldn’t not pick it up (I’d brought in some paperbacks to trade, anyway). Maybe I’ll try to read it this summer, posting on each piece. I’m most interested in how the selection of authors shows a tipping over in to postmodernism, a postmodernism many of these guys never signed up for.

 

A conversation about New American Stories, an anthology curated by Ben Marcus (Part 1)

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Over the next few weeks, Biblioklept contributor Ryan Chang and I will be discussing New American Stories, an anthology edited—or maybe “curated” is the right word, although I’m not sure—by Ben Marcus.  

Edwin Turner: You got your copy of New American Stories? Let’s talk about the cover, the intro, and the first story,  Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s “Paranoia.”

Ryan Chang: The cover and the introduction, and hence the context of the selections, elegantly mesh, which is more than I can say for 99% of covers. But I like anything that Mendelsund touches. It’s quiet, understated, but an excellent visual metaphor for what Marcus discusses in his introduction. The best part about this cover is the spot where part of the word “Stories” tries to mingle with the blocked passage from the introduction. The two don’t merely coexist, or mesh at all, but exist in this static conflict. It seems to be what Marcus wants most out of this new anthology; it occurs to me that I don’t have a lot of anthologies because a) I find them pretty boring, b) if it’s going to be an anthology, it’s going to be non-Anglo and -American — most of the time, the anthologies featuring these authors are already on my shelf in one way or another, and when I flip through them in the book store, the new context in which I find an author (say, someone like Richard Yates and Barry Hannah) isn’t new and exciting.


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The cover is great—spine too. I agree with you that it’s “quiet”—although that’s a strange word, y’know, considering there’s so much going on there—so much text. But the book is handsome, and the cover presents as a baseline postmodern conundrum—
Where does the text begin? The authorship question is there too, on the second page, the “Also by Ben Marcus” page—as if Marcus were the author of the collection. Which in a way he kinda sorta is—the whole mixtape/DJ/curator thing—I mean he’s the author of the “anthology,” the tracklist, the occasion. I’m generally suspicious of the overuse of the term “curator,” but I think it’s ultimately more apt than editor. And Marcus spins a cool set. The book is a tasty gateway drug.

Anthologies were really important to me when I was 15, 16, 23…but now I tend to think of them entirely in teaching terms, often in very jaded terms, honestly. I would love to be able to look over the selections here with fresher eyes, if you know what I mean. As a freshman in college, I read the 1994 anthology The Vintage Book of Contemporary Short Stories, which Tobias Wolff edited. It would be impossible for me to overestimate the importance of that for me—it introduced me to Barry Hannah, Denis Johnson, Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver, and all these other writers who simply weren’t on my radar. In retrospect, I realize that that anthology represented a very particular kind of writing, but I think Wolff captured something of an era there.

RC: The posture of most anthologies is to celebrate/represent the coalesced spirit of a kind of writing, or an era. And I only realized this reading through Marcus’s introduction. He writes, “This anthology aims to present … a sampler of behaviors and feelings we can very nearly have only through reading. A sourcebook of compulsory emotions.” I really like this. The focus of NAS is on language — as is to be expected in Marcus’s hands — and not on, say, a particular identity, era, or whatever. This is an anthology about the breadth of styles and forms — which brings me back to the cover. It’s a really brilliant illustration of Marcus’s guiding aesthetic principle in his own work and here: the productive tension between form and content. The scope of selection is wide, and encouraging from someone known to run in “experimental circles.” This is an anthology about aesthetic modes, not being an American.

ET: Parts of Marcus’s introduction feel a little like a wide-eyed sermon for the choir to me, but maybe I’m being cynical. Maybe I want him to be cynical with me. We all know why we’re here; get to the stories. His riffs on language and what and why we (might) use language offer an adequate “defense” of the title/mission New Stories—but there’s not really an engagement with the American aspect there, which, I suppose, might have played into a deeply ideological thing, a statement thing. Maybe A Sourcebook of Compulsory Emotions is a much much better title. But—but! But that first story, Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s “Paranoia”—that’s a very American story, or, rather, that’s a story about America: nationalism, capitalism, racism, militarism, football, a Fourth of July scene? Oh, and, paranoia.

RC: The first story is a great opener, I think. It’s a classic realist mode, which, after reading the introduction, will get the reader to think, “Will something weird happen?” The weirdness that happens is the “moral honesty” that Marcus talks about in the introduction: the weirdness is in how normal this story is. I say classic and realist and I mean that the plot is straightforward, its language is plain and mostly functional (that is, free of any acoustical poetic attention or syntactical destruction), and about, quote-unquote, real people. Here’s the weird, and it’s not even that weird: the small talk we take for granted — i.e., when we ask the other person how they’re doing; in “Paranoia,” it’s the weather — becomes this refrain for each section in the story; Sayrafiezadeh deftly shows that repetition — i.e. stability — gives only the illusion of comfort, and that comfort in almost-knowing the weather is a salve against the American reality: that the worst will always happen. I won’t give the story away for anyone reading this post, but “Paranoia” works on two really brilliant moves. They’re pretty obvious maneuvers, but I think it shows that even in a more straightforward form, if one hones in on the tension between form and content — that is, diction/syntax and images the former evokes — some affecting writing is bound to occur. The other way — a commitment to a particular position — political, moral or otherwise — comes off cheap and stale.

ET: “Paranoia” asks its reader to attend closely to diction: “That word’s not called for!” is a through-line in the story. I almost wrote tale for story there (attending to diction), but “Paranoia” is not a tale. There’s no neat bow at the end. It succeeds on vibe, on mood, on the evocation of menace its title promises.

RC: Yeah, you’re right — it demands that the reader divert their attention away from the televised bombings of “the peninsula,” and on the subversive, subdermal ways in which language organizes reality — exactly how Marcus describes language in his introduction.

ET: So…let’s read the last story together next, no? Then, you pick one that’s a reread for you, but not for me, and we’ll read it—and then I’ll do the same—pick a reread for me that you haven’t read? Good?

The Book Lover – Ali Smith

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Let’s start with a confession–I haven’t finished reading all of Ali Smith’s anthology The Book Lover yet. Like most collections I own, there’s a fair chance that I won’t read every story, essay, or poem collected here, but chalk that up to the nature of anthologies. With any compilation, there are always going to be those great, transcendental moments where you’re suddenly hipped to a new voice, a new sound, a new vision, or re-introduced to an old friend you hadn’t thought about in quite some time. There will also be those texts that fail to grab you at the first sentence (or, rather, you fail to put the work in), and those texts that are simply a bit too long for the gap you’re presently trying to fill. So far, The Book Lover has been mostly filled with bits of shining revelation, startling wit, and plain old great writing, and I’m not going to spoil the meal by forcing it all down at once.

In collecting some of her favorite voices, Scottish author Ali Smith displays a keen understanding that the literary omnibus is peculiarly open to discontinuous and scattered readings. She prefaces The Book Lover with a quote from Virginia Woolf: “Any method is right, every method is right, that expresses what we wish to express, if we are writers; that brings us closer to the novelist’s intentions if we are readers.” Woolf’s words invite us to read the collection in any manner we wish, and I followed suit, picking it up in spare moments, usually at work, where I rarely get the time to concentrate on anything like a novel for a sustained amount of time. Still, Smith has put a great deal of thought into the arrangement of her sources, grouping them into six sections, GIRLS, DIALOGUES, JOURNEYS, THE WORLD, HISTORIES, and BELIEFS. The pieces in the section sometimes speak to each other directly (Hilda Doolittle’s “The Cinema and the Classics: Beauty” followed by Colette on “Mae West” followed by Lee Miller on “Colette”), but more often than not the pieces respond to each other in an oblique, layering fashion. It’s left to the reader to link William Blake’s “Infant Joy” to a section from Anne Frank’s diary, or connect the dots between Tom Leonard’s hilarious poem “baa baa black sheep” and the strange journalism of Lorna Sage’s “Our Lady of the Accident.” These connections were most interesting to me when re-encountering a text I was utterly familiar with, like the “pear tree” passage from Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, re-contextualized with something I’d never read, like the selection from Billie Holiday’s autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues (note to self: go get Lady Sings the Blues).

Ultimately, The Book Lover is successful in that it doesn’t attempt to be a “greatest hits” collection; instead, we’re treated to a wide selection of diverse and often dazzling writers. Smith’s project will not only introduce you to writers you haven’t yet read, it will make you want to read their works as well. I will, however, admit to being a little bit jealous: I think I’d love to put my own anthology together. After all, I’m a book lover too. In this sense, The Book Lover inspires its readers to think about the value of their own libraries, the way that the authors that they love speak to each other across time and space. Recommended.

The Book Lover is now available in the US from Anchor Books.

Summer Reading List: Anthologies to Know and Love

No summer reading is complete without imbibing the variegated prose of an anthology. The following are the literary equivalents of skillfully-detailed mixtapes, made by a friend who wishes to communicate only that he or she has your best interest at heart.

The 2008 O. Henry Prize Stories anthology is a great way to play catch up on all of the reading you missed last year. Culled from publications like Zoetrope, Harper’s, Granta, and Tin House, this anthology features established masters like William Gass and Alice Munro along with newer voices. There are plenty of highlights and no duds. Sharon Cain’s “The Necessities of Certain Behaviors” explores an amorphous world of gender-bending, while Stephen Millhauser’s “A Change in Fashion” imagines a new mode where women cover every inch of their flesh from the gaze of men. Lore Segal’s “Other People’s Deaths” perfectly captures the painful awkwardness and shame we experience when encountering, um, other people’s deaths. Similarly, the title of Tony Tulathimutte’s “Scenes from the Life of the Only Girl in Water Shield, Alaska” is spot-on, and Gass’s contribution, “A Little History of Modern Music,” is the funniest monologue we’ve read all year. But our favorite in the collection has to be Edward P. Jones’s “Bad Neighbors,” which examines the changing fortunes of an African-American neighborhood in Washington, D.C. A great collection, and if a story disappoints you, there’ll be three to make up for it.

In the ultimate in lazy reviewing, we will let the title of McSweeney’s kids anthology Noisy Outlaws, Unfriendly Blobs, and Some Other Things That Aren’t as Scary, Maybe, Depending on How You Feel About Lost Lands, Stray Cellphones, Creatures from the Sky, Parents Who Disappear in Peru, a Man Named Lars Farf, and One Other Story We Couldn’t Quite Finish, So Maybe You Could Help Us Out stand as its own summary. However, this is a beautiful book with lots of lovely pictures, and the collection is worth it for Nick Hornby’s story alone. Good stuff.

Edited by superstar Chris Ware, The Best American Comics 2007 serves as a delicious tasting menu of some of the best comix published in the past few years. Although hardcore comix fans will no doubt have already read the selections from Charles Burns’s Black Hole and Adrian Tomine’s Optic Nerve, there’s plenty here for aficionados and newbies alike.

Chances are you’ve read a number of the canonical texts in 50 Great Short Stories, but it’s also likely you haven’t read them in years. We’ve had this book for years, and have revisited often to indulge in old favorites for new inspiration. Classics like Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and Hemingway’s “The Three-Day Blow” nestle up against lesser-reads like Edmund Wilson’s “The Man Who Shot Snapping Turtles” and Francis Steegmuller’s “The Foreigner.” And have you read Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” since high school? No? Shame on you! What about Carson McCuller’s “The Jockey”? Dorothy Parker? Kipling? Consider it a light crash course in great literature.