“Will the near future necessitate warning labels in front of all published material?” asks Robert Atwan, in the foreword to The Best American Essays 2014. Atwan is worried about trigger warnings, indications of an “opinionated, partisan atmosphere” where people fear what they might read. In these climes, the essay, he suggests, might be a “risky and endangered method of communication.”
There’s a whole family of these Best American books, and if they share a trait, it’s a predisposition toward anxiety. Each selects the “best” examples of one genre from last year’s magazines. The first anthology, Best American Short Stories, came out in 1915. But over half of the active titles have launched in the last 15 years, as the franchise has expanded to accommodate genres like comics, even infographics. (Can we expect a Best American Tweets? Best American GIFs?) There are also the outcasts and misfits. God may be dead, but something called Best Spiritual Writing, once part of the Best American series, continues to resurrect itself. Best American Poetry is another off-brand item, with a publisher all its own. Canada has an edition, too, which occasionally includes one of my poems.
The anxiety coursing through the opening matter of some of these paperbacks concerns the zeitgeist. David Lehman, series editor for Best American Poetry, doesn’t quote a single line of verse in his 13-page foreword to the latest edition—the longest of all the forewords in this year’s Best American series. Instead, he dilates on Twitter, “the tyranny of technology,” and the downtrodden humanities. (In fact, in the 2009 edition, Lehman cited something I wrote, as proof of a “hostile universe.”) Glenn Stout, in Best American Sports Writing, describes ours as “metric-driven times,” in which we tend to “reduce everything to data—sales figures, ‘starred’ reviews, Facebook shares.” Heidi Pitlor, in Best American Short Stories, finds the number of writers watching The Bachelor “perplexingly enormous,” and is resolved to spend less time online this year. (She is going to try to convince local bookstores to start trivia nights.) At least Jennifer Egan, who did the final selection for Pitlor, recognizes how quickly some “new threat” can supersede the last. Still, she can’t help but place her “responses to our warp-speed technological change. … on a spectrum from anxiety to terror.”
It’s true these are tough times for the book industry (even if the Best American brand continues to metastasize—Science Fiction & Fantasy is slated for 2015). It’s also true, as Egan suggests, that people, when consulting smartphones on the train, are probably playing games and not, say, working their way through The Recognitions. Fear of the zeitgeist may be a natural response when one is mulling the state of the nation’s art.
Boosterim is another. According to Tim Folger, who edits Best American Science and Nature Writing, “you will find in these pages the most important journalism of our time, the stories that will last.” According to Lehman, there’s a “harvest of poems” to “glean.” “[P]lenty more where that came from,” says Egan, having talked up a couple of her own selections.
But when stories, essays, and poems come steeped in overheated gushing, they can start to look like steamed broccoli—the healthy portion of the reader’s plate. Such boosterism also encourages aspiring writers—one of the key demographics at which these books subtly tilt—to assume they have something to contribute to the harvest, when in fact they might be better off fussing with that smartphone. Some of the editors even dangle bait: detailed instructions for submitting work by mail. The work, of course, must already be published, and even then, one suspects the instructions don’t apply to everyone. An Ian Frazier or Annie Proulx—both of whom appear in Best American books this year—surely has no need to address envelopes.
Stout, in his foreword, tells a particularly attractive story about a young person, “as yet undecided on a career.” One day, the young person encountered a sportswriter on public transit. How does one become a writer? wondered the young person. “As they parted [the sportswriter] simply handed the young writer-to-be his copy of The Best American Sports Writing. ‘Just read this,’ he said.” Lehman, for his part, delights in relaying that the 1990 edition of Best American Poems was the first book of poems this year’s editor, Terrance Hayes, ever bought, and that Hayes owns the lot of them. He has also consulted his Freud: because all of us have the capacity to dream or make slips of the tongue, Lehman reasons, becoming a poet is merely a matter of learning technique. “It took the advent of creative writing as an academic field to institutionalize what might be a natural tendency in American democracy.” Certainly these books offer the civilian a sense of the range of American stories, essays, and poems—and the fantasy that she might be able to publish one.
But a closer look at Lehman’s contribution to the series reveals flaws in the fantasy. The Best American Poetry compiles roughly 75 poems every year, and prints under each one its provenance: the magazine where it first appeared. (Other volumes, like Best American Short Stories, print fewer selections.) Presumably, then, to have made the cut for Lehman’s book, a poem has already had to survive several editors, each with a gate to keep. In some cases, it has had to endure a special horror: the scrutiny of creative writing students, who often serve as first readers for university-based journals. Thousands of negative micro-reviews—meted out as slush piles were dispatched—barnacle the underside of Lehman’s buoyant book.
I wouldn’t have it any other way. I count on discerning editors to sift and cull. But Lehman’s brand of boosterism would like to pretend we can do without this form of honest criticism. When it comes to what makes a poem the “best,” Hayes, the poet Lehman tapped to make the final selection, is fashionably unhelpful. “You know when a poem moves you just as you know when good music moves you, regardless of its genre or style,” Hayes says. “The problems arise when we are asked to explain why we like what we like. It’s a problem for everyone, save a few deluded scholars, I guess.” Hayes says he doesn’t “mind critics,” but he reduces them to a dated caricature, whose bursts of hot air are brought down a degree or two by Hayes’ cool. “I’m not ashamed to say I wanted a diverse mix,” says Hayes, knowing perfectly well that declaring an interest in diversity, far from shameful, only shames the rest of us, who merely—thoughtlessly—wanted to read the best, most entertaining poems, and not revel in the plurality of American poetry.
More problematically, it’s the sheer fact of the harvest—as opposed to individual stalks—that Lehman celebrates:
In the proliferation of competent poems, poems that meet a certain standard of artistic finish but may lack staying power, I cannot see much harm except to note one inevitable consequence, which is that of inflation. In economics, inflation takes the form of a devaluation of currency. In poetry, inflation lessens the value that the culture attaches to any individual poem.
Lehman is less interested in excellent poems, which can only be consumed one at a time, than an idea, “poetry,” which he sets in opposition to the brutal zeitgeist. In 2013, he had it that “poetry is tolerated but pales in power, status, and everything else to punditry of even the blandest and most conventional sort.” In 2012: “Poetry has managed to thrive in the face of all the technological changes that seem, on the surface at least, so hostile to the muse.” But as Gore Vidal reminded us, “The Novel doesn’t exist. There are only novels.” Poetry doesn’t exist either. The Best American Boosterism would have you believe otherwise. But there are only poems, some more deserving of a reader’s time than others.
Not all of the editors in the Best American series balk at honest criticism. Egan sets out her criteria for a good short story, and then pulls specific examples from her own selection. Bill Kartalopoulos, at the start of Best American Comics, celebrates the way “networked technology” has democratized discussion, but notes that “critical distinction … can elevate the field.” Otto Penzler, in Best American Mystery Stories, acknowledges the importance of “subjectivity,” but points out that some works are “transcendently exquisite.” Not all of the editors engage in boosterism on behalf of some put-upon genre.
Lehman, however, is convinced the reader’s life “depends on” poetry. He chooses to end his foreword by chastising those magazine editors who “continue to fall” for the death-of-poetry pitch—an “evergreen.” Readers of Lehman’s own evergreen should be wary of anthology editors who feel compelled to measure their genre against the moment, and don’t have the good sense to get out of the way of the work they mean to introduce. They should be wary of editors who, fearing the reader may cast it aside, swaddle their product in layers of optimism. “Nothing stinks like a pile of unpublished poetry,” wrote Sylvia Plath. The same might be said of an annual anthology that greets its readers through a gritted smile.