I’ve just finished reading the 2018 edition of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s venerable Best American Short Stories (BASS), and I feel I’ve been brought up to date with my politics, above all, the political grievances I ought to feel. But should political issues determine the year’s best stories and should catching up on politics be a reason for reading a volume of short stories?
As with every volume in this series, there are twenty stories. The first, Mary Anderson’s “Cougar,” is about characters living in poverty and without much hope for better lives in rural Montana. The second, Jemal Brinkley’s “The Family,” depicts a black ex-con returning to society and seeking to piece together a family broken by an unforgiving economic system. Yoon Choi’s “The Art of Losing” depicts an elderly woman coping with her husband’s dementia, a situation that is worsened at the end when she has an accident that puts her life in danger. In Emma Cline’s “Los Angeles,” the drifting protagonist eliminates any potential she might have by reducing every event to a story to tell a friend who isn’t really a friend.
In the fifth story, Alicia Elliott’s “Unearth,” the skeleton of a Mohawk boy who was effectively disappeared by an abusive Anglican charity is unearthed when foundations are being laid for a new burger joint. Get it—Western consumer society eats up indigenous culture. In Danielle Evans’s “Boys Go to Jupiter,” the photograph of a white college student’s nearly naked body is posted online. When a black hallmate takes online offense, the white student responds with a message on the photo of a Confederate flag. The incident causes her all kinds of grief with her black classmates, the college administration and just about everyone else.
To pick out a few others, in Jacob Guajardo’s “What Got into Us,” two fourteen-year-old boys discover they are attracted to each other. Cristina Henríquez’s “Everything is Far from Here” is about a young Latina detained at the U.S. southern border and separated from her infant boy, apparently forever.
I think of my politics as liberal, but I expect the jaundiced way I’ve written so far in this essay would cast doubt on my credentials. Admittedly, my summaries don’t do justice to the stories in BASS 2018, which are reliably sensitive. The predicaments they present are real, and I do believe that fiction can be the most compelling medium for showing how others live. We need, for example, to understand just how cruel our policies are on the southern border. We heterosexuals ought to have room in our hearts to recognize that attraction between young boys is real and deserving of understanding. Jemal Brinkley’s story is moving, with the released prisoner trying to assist the wife of his now dead best friend and her son, and the wife then embracing him and his kindly intentions. The story is an encapsulation of so much that can go wrong in black communities and how staunchly its members can respond.
Still, in an artistic sense, are all these stories, so dominantly political, deserving of the adulation, “best”? It’s the ancient question of art and politics.
W.H. Auden wrote that, “In our age, the mere making of a work of art is itself a political act.” Heidi Pitlor, editor of the BASS series, quotes George Orwell as saying much the same thing: “‘The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.’” Roxane Gay, chosen in 2018 to reduce Pitlor’s selection of 120 stories to the twenty to appear in the published volume, writes in her introduction: “…an artist who claims to have no interest in politics nevertheless engages in a political act.”
I can understand this argument if I analogize it to the claim that those who renounce Catholicism are, whether they like it or not, necessarily engaging with the Catholic Church. If you are writing stories about cute rabbits or caped super heroes, so the argument goes, you aren’t just producing pure entertainment. Take, for instance, L. Frank Baum’s Yellow Brick Road, part of his elaborate allegory about late nineteenth century financiers and the damage they were doing to the railroads and the people they ought to serve.
By extension, then, is all human activity political, even when people claim to have no interest in politics? Many people I know have little or no interest in government and our ostensible leaders. They see preoccupation with the day’s news as a distraction from real life, which is teaching children, helping clients solve problems, working on construction sites, selling real estate, operating buses, saving lives in hospitals. Neither Donald Trump nor Nancy Pelosi belong there. If they turn up, they’ll make a ridiculous show of throwing paper towels at hurricane survivors or giving more or less cookie-cutter speeches at funerals.
Many feel the same way about art. Give them an escapist television special any day. When I started working full-time, I realized that by the time I got home, whether right after work or after seeing friends at dinner, I had little mental energy left over for challenging works of literature. I read as much as I could, a discipline drilled into me during school all the way through college, where I developed a deep appreciation and affection for classic and other fiction. This background was a gift. But while it remained important to me, so much so that after two decades I’d leave the law for unremunerative creative writing, it was very much in the background to more immediate demands: job performance, friends and girlfriends, financial independence, good health.
I came to appreciate the hook, the trick some authors have of pulling you into their novelistic world and making you want to stay. The hook is a book’s entertainment value, and there’s no better hook than suspense, of one kind or another, what comes next?
Against his own assertion that the mere making of a work of art is a political act, Auden said elsewhere that “poetry makes nothing happen.” Quoting such a sophisticated writer as Auden like this necessarily over-simplifies, but it’s striking that one author’s writing contains these seeming polar opposites. Of course, they aren’t opposites if you believe that politics makes nothing happen, but the evidence of the impact of politics for good and bad is overwhelming.
Whether or not poetry, and literature in general, can change anything, they shouldn’t be written with that intent in mind. Auden was so embarrassed by his political phase that he withheld one of his most striking poems, “Spain, 1937,” from later compilations. Yet in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, his poem, “September 1, 1939,” written on the brink of World War II, was cited in the New York Times and other publications. Did that poem make something happen? Probably not, at least not by any standard that can be measured. But much change isn’t susceptible to measurement.
Best American Short Stories is deservedly an institution, and the practice of selecting a different final editor every year helps it be many things to many people. In her 2018 introduction, Gay acknowledges that she disliked the 2010 edition, though her predecessor that year was one of her favorite writers, because it was filled with “rich white people.” No serious reader today would disagree that diversity is not only a good thing, but a necessary one. The 2018 BASS is unquestionably diverse, both in is authors and its characters. But I can’t help suspecting that this diversity became an end in itself, pushing art aside into second place or even further back. Every story is well-crafted and otherwise professional. But the overall tenor is of grimness and oppression. Grimness and oppression in art don’t necessarily speak to the badly-done-by. If I’m ground into the dirt with the unfairness done to so many people in this world, I feel only what anyone would in the literal version of that experience: pain. In my experience, people who have been badly treated, whether by other people or nature, seek some form of relief, even if it comes mostly in the form of humor. If there’s no exit, all I have is that person across from me, call it my alter ego, who makes me frustrated, angry, aggrieved and sad.
A couple of stories stood out for me in BASS 2018. Dina Nareyi’s “A Big True” depicts an Iranian immigrant in the United States whose difficult life is alleviated in part by his musical heritage and in part by his incisive sense of comedy. Curtis Sittenfeld has the imprimatur of “bestselling” author, and you can see why in her BASS 2018 contribution, “The Prairie Wife.” A lot happens in this story, and the characters are at once complex and sympathetic. Even the straight guys in a story about lesbian love remain with their dignity intact. (She was less kind to one of her characters in “Gender Studies,” her story in BASS 2017.) Other than that, there’s a fantasy story about a woman who returns to her parents’ home after several years away to find that it has been sized down to Lilliputian scale, and an apocalyptic tale about a murderer who is still killing people by story’s end.
I didn’t leave this book feeling better about humankind. Is that the point? Gay blames Trump and his Republican enablers for the mood of this volume. What we need isn’t more of it, but a counterweight. To take an extreme contrast, suppose an anthologist were putting together a volume of stories and decided to include one about a mass murder at a school—such stories have been published. In that case, also include one about the students at Parkland, Florida, who not only demonstrated great courage, but went on to make a cause célèbre of fighting against laws that accommodate violence.
Despair shouldn’t be counted as a sin, but I can understand why it is. We each need to seek out an alter ego that is kind to us and to affirm the faith that there must be a way out from oppression and hardship. There must always be hope, whether for the victim, however improbable, and for the reader, who is pulling for all victims.