For the last week or so, I’ve been leisurely reading my way through “Pushcart Prize XXXVII: Best of the Small Presses” (Pushcart Press: 652 pages, $18.95 paper), the 37th annual collection of
winning essays, stories and poems from America’s independent publishers and literary magazines.
I've had a love of these anthologies for 25 years — for their diversity, their range of expression, and also for their commitment to writing and publishing in a culture where the values of literature — not to mention the values of independent thinking — are often regarded as passé or naïve.
"It's the most ghastly of times and the most glorious of times," editor Bill Henderson writes in his introduction. "First the ghastly: politicians; lifestyle, consumers; a culture of celebrity glitter; an internet tsunami of instant facts, factoids and nonsense that obviates knowledge and wisdom; a 'greed is good' oligarchy; vanity publishers taking over the commercial publishing empire; legitimate and terrified publishers in a race to the best-seller bottom; bookstores collapsing; Kindle in charge; profiteers cashing in on wannabe authors with zero talent....A cacophony of drowning shouts."
You don't have to agree with all the particulars (I don't) to understand what Henderson is decrying, which is the culture of distraction that reading and writing stand against. And he makes that point explicit when he gets to the glory: "In all my years of editing this series," he enthuses, "I've never been so happy with our literature.... The Word survives, indeed thrives, in the ruins."
The contributors to "Pushcart Prize XXXVII" include a lot of well-known talent; Marilynne Robinson, Joyce Carol Oates, Ann Patchett, Robin Hemley, Benjamin Percy, Anthony Doerr. But I read it — as I have every other book in the series — for the writers I have yet to know.
There's Andrew Hudgins, who begins his story "Helen Keller Answers the Iron" (originally published in the Kenyon Review): "Though I'd rather have been one of the boys who could smack a baseball solidly with a bat, my talent was telling jokes."
Or Matt Hart, who in the poem "Beyond and Beyonder" tells us: "The human / predicament is nothing short of marvelous. We get to decide / how it goes."
Best of all is James Richardson's "Vectors 3.1: Aphorisms and Ten Second Essays," a piece comprised of 42 numbered sections, reminiscent of Joe Brainard, that offer observations and even advice. "You try to take it back," he writes, "but the tape in reverse is unintelligible." Or: "In the long run there is only the short run."
This is work with nuance, with layers; it amuses, yet also pursues a larger point.
"Seem like the older I get," Richardson insists, "the fewer reasons there are to do the things I don't want to, which makes them both harder and easier to do."