Two anthologies intrigued me enough this year to use them in the classroom, a rare occurrence. New American Stories boasts a lineup of writers I appreciate — Rebecca Lee, George Saunders, Lydia Davis, Joy Williams, Don DeLillo, Robert Coover, Denis Johnson, and Claire Vaye Watkins — but its was the introduction by Ben Marcus that sold me on the book. I had written an essay on prefaces, introductions, and forewords this year for The Millions, so I’ve been particularly attuned to the existence of these literary first-acts. I am somehow becoming less cynical with age, so I don’t mind moments of literary cheerleading — as long as the origin appears genuine. Marcus seems to love words, and what more could you ask of an anthology editor?
I loved this:
I have been reading stories for forty-two years and I still find it astonishing that, by staring at skeletal marks on paper or a screen, we can invite such cyclones of feeling into our bodies. It is a kind of miracle. Our skin is never pierced and yet stories break the barrier and infect us regardless.
Love. The company of others. Shelter. There are some things that we need so innately that it feels awkward and difficult to explain why. To this list of crucial things, without we might perish, I would add stories. A short story works to remind us that if we are not sometimes baffled and amazed and undone by the world around us, rendered speechless and stunned, perhaps we are not paying close enough attention.
Marcus might also champion poetry in much the same words, and his introduction could suffice for the 2014 edition of The Best American Poetry, although guest editor Terrance Hayes’s own introduction is excellent. One of my least favorite annual complaints is the requisite lampooning of the Best American Series by Writers Who Were Not Included, and while I don’t begrudge anyone their rants, it is best to encounter each anthology on its own merits. Hayes’s introduction is a hilarious imagined dialogue with a poetry scholar that includes a few simple but sharp teaching suggestions (“In my classes I ask students to name a poem’s hot spots. The idea is that in any poem there is a line or two that heats the rest of the poem. A kind of focal point that both anchors and charges it.”) and a wonderful diagram by Jacques Maritain from the chapter “The Internalization of Music” in Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry.
Two of my favorite poems from the anthology are “To Survive the Revolution” by Traci Brimhall and the powerful “Fallen” by Vievee Francis. “But I was never the light of my father’s eyes, nor any / well-lit brother’s (that deep husked choir), so there / was no height from which to fall. I began here / in the proverbial bottom.” The route is worth enjoying, but her ending takes away my breath: “Lucifer’s a common story, a / child’s bogeyman. What should frighten you is this: / Imagine what he would be had he not fallen, had he never / known the elusive light at all, never been privy to the cords / of God’s neck, if he in fact doubted such things, / believing only in what anguishes and writhes, trusting / nothing more than what soils his hands.”
Perhaps my lack of interest in criticizing these anthologies is that I never view them as truly the best of anything, regardless of their intentions. I view an anthology as a sequence of previews: most are well-produced, some are thin, some are out of place. A good anthology will feel like it carries a narrative arc, and has much the same feeling as completing a good collection of short stories. A great anthology will happily and humbly exist in the service of its writers, and will appreciate when readers put the collection down and seek more and more of the words that truly stir them. I’m thankful for such an experience twice in a single year.
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