Top critical review
on March 25, 2004
In last year's unsatisfying collection we got big name writers, big name magazines. For 2003 Walter Mosley chose to buck the establishment. The New Yorker, which in 2002 was represented by eight stories, has two stories in this collection (as does Callaloo). Of Mosley's twenty picks half are about minorities. Well, fine - most editors select with an agenda in mind (though it may be far back in their minds, where they don't have to acknowledge it). Unfortunately, this year's "new talent" does not come as a fresh breeze.
Four stories are deserving of being in an anthology called "best", though I am moved to mention only one of them: Ryan Harty's wonderful "Why the Sky Turns Red When the Sun Goes Down." Two stories are outright BOMBS.
Most of the work in 2003 suffers from a constricted cautiousness. At their core these stories are writerly exercises that lack the animating spirit of true feeling. There is also much shallowness in these pages, and the stories most guilty of this carry a solemn, earnest tone, indicating that their authors were aiming for deep and meaningful work. When you mix solemnity with superficiality you get pretentiousness. Under the surface gloss of the prose we get spurious emotions from contrived characters - and then a muddled complexity of reasoning is layered on, requiring the reader to make "connections" in order to arrive at "meaning." (Why bother, when what matters - authenticity - is missing?)
A link can be made between these faults and their source. Actually, Walter Mosley has only apparently bucked the system. Almost all the stories he selected are by authors who have attended prestigious university creative writing programs (and, often, currently teach at one). So the selection is still coming from the mentality of a MFA seminar room.
In these rooms there's an over-concentration (by disparate personalities with questionable literary perceptions and/or motivations) on picking something apart. Over-analysis leads to a cautious perfection. What survives is the intellectually obscure (because that is risky to criticize). Prose is scrutinized til not a hair is out of place. There's a undeclared pressure to conform to a uniform value system. Life experience - the experience of necessity - is limited.
Yet it is the products of such programs that get published in the leading magazines; they are what Katrina Kenison and the annual editors draw from for inclusion in BEST. In a way writing has become like the practice of medicine, where a diploma from a prestigious university must hang from the wall.
Maybe all literary magazines should reverse the prioritization process and devote an issue to authors who have never attended a creative writing program (and have the manuscripts evaluated by non-academics). Maybe then a fresh breeze would come flowing in.
Maybe... It won't happen. The status quo is entrenched. No, I would advise an aspiring writer to get into that seminar room. And once there, network, network, network. It's clearly the road to success. Who knows, one day you may appear in BEST.