Thursday, August 28, 2014

A better collection I wish I'd found earlier

kw: book reviews, collections, short stories, poetry, literature

Hmmm. I see that a week has passed. I typically finish a book quicker than that, but a 550+ page tome takes me a bit longer, even when I skip certain items. The 2014 Pushcart Prize XXXVIII: Best of the Small Presses contains 70 pieces, just over half of them poetry. It was edited by Bill Henderson, who gives editorial credit to more than 200 others.

Solomon warned in Ecclesiastes, "Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body." The wise old king would be astonished to find that the number of publishers today exceeds the number of books that existed in the 11th Century BCE. Indeed, it seems unlikely that one thousand books existed even ten centuries later, when his most famous descendant was preaching in Galilee.

Year by year I look for short story collections to be published. There are a great many, so perhaps it is not unusual that I did not earlier encounter the Pushcart collections. As I have written year after year, the quality of thought in Western literature has been on a long decline. It has gotten so I can barely tolerate five of the selections in my earlier favorite, the O. Henry Prize Stories series. This is not to say that writing skill is in decline. The collections all select skillfully written material. I frequently admire the way this or that writer can string words together, even as I deplore the item's vapidity and vacuity.

In general, I did not find this so with the Pushcart Prize volume. A welcome relief! That's why it took me a week to read. Bill Henderson and his collaborators not only gathered the most skillful writers, they found those with something to say. I reckon I read at least 400 of the nearly 560 pages of literature presented. I even read many of the poems. I am quite put off by most "free verse" (that is, non-verse), and seldom read past the first dozen lines or so. There is more genuine poetry in the best prose than in most of what passes for poetry these days. The free verse in this volume did not impress me.

Do you know the phrase, "It has no rhyme or reason"? The original proverb said "rhyme or rhythm". To break up overly-condensed prose into lines at about mid-page is not to produce poetry. It is usually to produce boredom. The only poem in this volume that has both rhyme and meter is a translation of Ballade des Pendus, originally written about 1462 by François Villon. The translation by Richard Wilbur is well crafted and very touching. While not as literal as other translations, I think it better renders Villon's thought into English idiom.

Now to the prose, the bulk of the volume, but less than half the chapters. Much is essay or reportage, and while I didn't enumerate the fiction pieces, as I recall there are about ten, and I read through half of them, including "Teen Culture" by Elizabeth Ellen. A woman and her daughter, spending time together with the daughter's friends: How can this turn out well? Somehow it does. Sort of. I've learned that, if I sit at a meal with a table of youngsters who know me, after a while I am forgotten and, as Yogi Berra said, "You can observe a lot just by watching." This is the mom's MO, mostly, and makes for an entertaining story. I imagine it is more than a little autobiographical.

The nonfiction pieces are by their nature bits of memoir. You may remember Eric Fair, the much-reviled whistle-blower about the torture carried out by "contractors" in Middle Eastern prisons. His piece "Consequence" is flat reporting, interleaving bits of the hate mail he's received, and a few morsels of support, with his experiences at Princeton Theological Seminary. It isn't clear at the end if he finished his degree in ministry.

I made a more personal connection with "Writing & Publishing a Memoir: What the Hell Have I Done?" by Andre Dubus III. I've been urged by my brother, who has a few published books under his belt, to write an autobiography or memoir (or several), but I've hesitated. Mr. Dubus explains why. If you change names "to protect the guilty", somebody's going to recognize themselves and they may hate you for it. If you keep real names you can get sued for libel. Furthermore, I have tried longer forms of writing than these blog essays, and I find I have little endurance to maintain a story line for many pages. Even if it is my story. But another item seems to have the solution.

In "Corn Maze" by Pam Houston, we find that Pam likes things in twelves. Urged by a fellow writer to put 100 of her short pieces together as a book, she recalls thinking, "No, not a hundred, but possibly a hundred and forty-four." She also tells us that her standard answer when asked how much of her writing is autobiography is, "82%"…whether she's writing nonfiction or fiction. No matter. In a book of 300 pages, around 100 items comes out to about 3 pages each, and I think I can manage that.

Let's see. Of the 60 years I remember, I can surely come up with five or six or even seven things I'd like to record for each. When I like a book my blog post is about three pages, so I'm already tuned up to write at that level. Will it be a piece of cake? No. Some things I have to say will cause me to relive certain episodes of sturm und drang. Some folks will indeed wish I'd forgotten them. I can't let that hold me back.

There, you see, from at least one writer I learned something new about myself, something that will help me. This is why I read. The time spent getting partway through a piece and then possibly skipping the rest, time after time, is well invested when I can also come across such a gem. There's more, but I'll leave it to the lucky reader.

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