How Publishing Is Rigged You thought it was a meritocracy??


BASS 2011 Part 1: The Introductions

BASS 2011Best American Short Stories 2011 came out a few months ago and even though I’d read most of those stories already since BASS stories are typically pulled from a handful of magazines each year, notably The New Yorker and The Atlantic. In fact, out of the twenty stories in this year’s BASS, thirteen are from one of the following four magazines (The Atlantic only had one this year):

  • The New Yorker: 7 stories
  • Tin House: 2 stories
  • McSweeney's: 2 stories
  • Granta: 2 stories

It does seem a bit short-sighted to me that the people behind BASS are finding “The Best” stories in the same handful of magazines from year to year. There are hundreds of literary magazines available each month, each containing at least a few short stories. And really, should The New Yorker automatically captures a majority of “The Best” of them, each year, simply because they're The New Yorker?

The BASS series is edited each year by Heidi Pitlor. Pitlor picks approximately 120 stories published throughout the year, and gives them to the guest editor (Geraldine Brooks for 2011) for the final, winning selections. Pitlor also provides an introduction to this year’s volume in which she describes how bored she is with the “typical” modern short story, and what she looks for when she reads fiction.

Pitlor’s example story is described as essentially a story that revolves around the family, where the main character has a flaw and an unusual job, there is a conflict, there is a quirk (either regarding the main character or a secondary character) and the ending would “suggest resolution but hint at its opposite.”

Although Pitlor is not far off in her assessment of today’s stories, the irony here is that she is attempting to curate volumes that depart from her formula when she’s done nothing of the sort.

Pitlor goes on to say:

“I seek a certain intimacy when I read, a sense that the writer is someone knowable to me, someone I can trust--not a professor, not an acrobat.”

Why on earth should a reader give a second thought to the writer of a story? The writer is not part of a story, and no more a direct part of the reading experience than the chair he or she was sitting in when the story was written. The writer has written the story, and so in that sense, he or she is a part of the narrative, but the nature of the writer should not at all matter to the reader. When I read a story, I’m not thinking: Gee, I feel like I know this writer. The writer of this story is someone who is knowable to me, and who I trust.

That “knowable to me” part is perhaps more damning than the “someone I can trust” statement. Most people don’t venture far from their own socioeconomic status when seeking out friends or even acquaintances. So for a writer to be knowable to Pitlor, that writer would have had to have had roughly the same life experiences as she, and with similar backgrounds. It’s like she set out to find stories that are appealing to her solely because she could go out for tea with the author, not because the stories themselves are exemplary in any way.

The fact that “who the writer is” is something that matters to Heidi Pitlor is a common enough problem--and I’ve written before about writers who are more interested in showing off their own skills than they are at telling an actual—who would have thought it—story.

Pitlor also casually remarks that she would like to see more stories about war, given today’s political and world headlines. Which is a curious statement, and made me wonder if there will be a notable upward trend in war-themed stories for 2012, as writers attempt to cater to Pitlor and her offhand remark. It was a very strange thing for her to say and seemed totally out of place with the rest of Pitlor’s introduction.

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Out of place, that is, until I read the Geraldine Brooks introduction, in which she also complains about the lack of stories about war. Then a light bulb went on; these two must have had some conversation about war-themed stories and each decided to feature a snippet of that conversation in their BASS introductions. I can’t see the point of making such statements; it’s as though Brooks and Pitlor wanted to air their own grievances about these supposedly missing war-related stories, and it comes off as more whiny than anything else.

Brooks also talks about the safe-ness of the bulk of short stories that are published today, and her desire to get away from stories that are safe. She then mentions the titles of the two “risky” stories in the anthology that she is championing as overcoming their “non-literary fiction” labels. In selecting these two stories, Brooks muses that she is

“...releasing more such stories out of the genre ghetto and into the literary mainstream.”

Brooks’ implication is that the literary fiction world is somehow “better” than the “genre ghetto.” The use of the derogatory word, “ghetto,” to describe everything that isn’t “literary fiction” as stupid and beneath her, as a rule. And by extension, those readers of genre fiction are also stupid.

The whole tone of that one small phrase is so elitist and offensive I almost put the book down right then and there. Nice and inclusive, right? I thought that the publishing world was hurting for customers, or did I miss something? I’d think that people in publishing would be happy to have any kind of readers--and wouldn’t make such a point to dismiss whole branches of the published word as belonging to some kind of “ghetto.” And anyway, I’ll bet that the genre fiction contains way better stories than any of the stuff found in properly ordained “literary fiction.”

Brooks goes on to make an argument for rise of short story in today’s world—with the growing numbers of e-readers on the street, young people are using this new technology to engage in the age-old practice of reading. She says:

“The form is perfectly suited not only to the emerging platforms or our times but also to the users of those platforms, a new generation of young readers who love and demand good stories, their imaginations nourished by a decade-long boom in children’s fiction. The right short stories, with their highly skilled writing, tough-minded, somber adult themes, but undaunting length, can be the perfect form for young readers still developing and experimenting with their fictional tastes.”

Thanks to J. K. Rowling and her ghetto genre fiction (I'm assuming Brooks is crediting Rowling here), Brooks has gathered that there is a new generation of readers out there, hungry for more adult books. Oh the disappointment they have in store for them, when these kinds find Brooks’ so-called “tough-minded, somber adult themes” in the contemporary fiction they’ve found.

My god, that sounds miserable. I’m an adult, and while I’m not against a serious theme in a story, it’s got to have some kind of sparkle to it. Brooks describes the short story as something to be endured, not something to enjoy. “Tough-minded, somber adult themes” is what Brooks thinks makes for a good short stories. Those poor kids. No wonder they’re trading books for Angry Birds.

And in fact, in Brooks’ twenty selected stories:

  • two stories feature characters who attempt or commit suicide
  • one features a dead mother
  • one that includes an entire dead family
  • a story with a broken engagement as a central theme
  • a story where there’s been an accident involving a child
  • two stories featuring dead children
  • a story about the Holocaust’s effects on a two men
  • a story that features a dead wife
  • a story with a mother who has abandoned her family

Somber adult themes, indeed. And all kind of the same themes, right? Death pervades this issue of BASS, and death involving direct family relations, and often children. Are these the only themes that writers are allowed to write about? Death? Affairs? Abandonment?