Monday, October 19, 2015
2015 marks the 100th anniversary of The Best American Short Stories series as well as the first year of The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy.
The centenary feting comes along with a best of the Best, 40 stories that represent a 100 years of the form. Over 700 pages you can see the progression of the short story from "a predictable plot tied up neatly with a happy ending... the literary equivalent of the Norman Rockwell paintings beside which they sometimes appeared" to more artful expressions of deeper emotional and intellectual truths exploded by smaller, more contained experiences and interactions. Between the 20s and the 60s, the form was honed by the likes of Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Salinger and O'Connor, only to then be recalibrated and complicated by the likes of Barthelme and Carver and Moore. Over the century, short stories became less about an experience and more about the experience of an experience; meanings gradually take the place of happenings.
The tome of shorts ends with George Saunders' "Semplica Girls", a story about Third World women shipped to the US to be used as status-enhancing lawn ornaments. Squeaking in at the end of the century, the presence of this story points out what might be termed a "genre-bias" in the previous 98 or so years of The Best American Short Stories. Beginning in 1915, the anthology can't help but leave out the forefathers of the form, the Irvings and Hawthornes and Poes – forefathers, too, of science fiction and fantasy. But the fact that The Best American Short Stories doesn't include the likes of Lovecraft or Bradbury or Sturgeon or Ellison™or Heinleine or Le Guin or Willis is disappointing, but is also not surprising. As the short story became more self-serious over the century – more "literary" – science fiction and fantasy more and more became the redheaded step-children of the form. Of course, "literary" is a genre like any other. It's not a mark of quality, but a summation of conventions. Just as there are heaps of rotten, cheap science fiction and fantasy stories, there is literary dross – god, it seems like there's so much of it.
I've been recommending this inaugural Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy to anyone who'll listen, and the response has mostly been the same: No way this can be the first year. Championed by John Joseph Adams and edited by Joe Hill (Adams read basically every weird story published in 2014 and recommended a list of 80 to Hill, who chose his favorite 20), the resulting anthology is the best of its kind that I've read in a long time. In Karen Russell's "The Bad Graft", a woman becomes possessed by the seed of a Joshua Tree; in Alaya Dawn Johnson's "A Guide to the Fruits of Hawai'i", humanity has been conquered by vampires and turned into feeding slaves; in Theodora Goss's "Cimmeria: From the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology", a serious nod to Borges' classic "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", academics visit a land of their own creation; in Adam-Troy Castro's "The Thing About Shapes to Come," a mysterious plague has most of the world's women given birth to spheres, cubes, and pyramids; in Sam J. Miller's "We Are the Cloud", the brains of orphans are used as wi-fi ports; in T.C. Boyle's "The Relive Box", people become addicted to a devise which allows them to revisit the past.
As a sort of happy accident – accident because Hill's selection process was "blind", meaning he had only the stories, not knowledge of their authors – The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy turned out also to be an impressive showcase for women writers. Whether there's a connection between marginalized writers excelling in marginalized genres can't be answered here, but it's certainly worth a think. I've always used – as I think many readers do – the Best American series as a way to find out about new authors, and it just so happens that this particular iteration is crawling some amazing writers you may never have heard of who just happen to be women.
The leg up that sci-fi and fantasy writing has always had on literary fare is that, even if the writing's poor, a crackerjack concept can sustain a story. But in the case of this collection, great premises are supported by the kind of storytelling chops that usually lands writers in The Best American Short Stories anthology. We're living in a literary landscape where a writer like Stephen King (Hill's dad, don't'cha know), either ignored or reviled by literary critics for the first half of his career, has been awarded the National Medal of Arts. The fact is that much of the great work being done today is being done in previously maligned genres. My sense is that both readers and writers have grown a little tired of strictly "literary" conventions and are beginning to seek, in their short fiction, the sort of entertainment that used to be the hallmark of the form. With this in mind, I can't wait to read – as a head in a jar – the next centenary collection of The Best American Short Stories 2015 – 2115.
Saturday, October 17, 2015
1. The Bookstore will remain open until at least 11:00pm. We will be streaming CBC election coverage on store screens and via our in-store sound system.
2. A non-partisan party will be hosted in the Bistro and Cinema, including great Green, blue, red, and orange-themed drink specials, and complimentary snacks.
3. Our friends at Miijidaa will be extending their open hours and screening the election.
4. The Liberal Party will be having their volunteer appreciation party in the eBar, and all Bookshelf patrons are welcome to stop by to say hello.
It is going to be the biggest election party we have ever had and we are very excited for it. We will have a "Speakers' Corner," inviting guests to give us a 5-10 second video clip on how to make Canadian politics better. We will also have a big surprise for those who arrive during the Blue Jays game. Come early, it is going to be BUSY! Space is limited but we believe that with all of our venues and Miijidaa operating late, we will be able to accommodate everyone. We hope to see you here. Be sure to vote before you come!
Sunday, October 11, 2015
Jess Taylor will read with Kevin Hardcastle in the ebar on Thursday October 15th at 7:00pm.
Maybe you were one of those Matthews or Sarahs who in school had to share your name with another squirt or squirts in your class. I can recall at that age being confused that someone else could have your name. Your name was what individuated you, made you you. But where I was confused, all the Matthews and Sarahs were thoroughly chafed. At school they weren't just themselves, but sort of versions of themselves, divvied up by last names, or numbers, or qualities; members of some group by default. I'm sure this must make for some sub-phase in the steps of Lacanian maturation.
Pauls populate Jess Taylor's fist collection, Pauls. They show up as main characters or friends, men or women, with nothing more than their first names immediately in common. The inclusion of all these Pauls might seem arbitrary at first. The Pauls throughout these 10 stories – some of them fleeting, a few of them recurring – do not share any psychic connection or are members of some shady Paul cabal, nor do they combine at any point to create some megazord-type Paul. They're just regular Pauls. And it's this unremarkableness that makes them special.
The stories they dapple are ones of angst and strife and fancy, mostly experienced by the young. The characters, Pauls or otherwise, are at the age or in a place in their life, where what they're going through feels unique, as though they're the first people to struggle with relationships, with health, with getting older. But the simple presence of a Paul serves to ground whatever the experience, tether it to something bigger. Like all those Matthews and Sarahs in everyone's elementary school, the Pauls in Pauls appear as a reminder that as much as we are ourselves, we're also a moving piece inconceivable machination, whether we want to be or not.
Each Paul, too, serves as a sort of symbol of regularness. (Sorry all you remarkable, dazzling Pauls out there, but you've got a very ordinary name.) The world of Taylor's stories is not odd or quirky, but the banal and brutal place that the world just is. It's how that world is viewed in Taylor's stories that rotoscopes poetry onto the reality. In this way, Taylor's stories recall the early work of Amy Hempel and Lorrie Moore, where life is just regular old, Paulful life enlivened and distorted by how each character experiences it, where a secondary, narrative tension is created by the ways in which the world always seems to fight against our want for it to be something more, something a little less Paul-y.
Sunday, October 4, 2015
Come see Kevin Hardcastle read with Jess Taylor in the ebar Thursday October 15 at 7:00pm.
Full disclosure: I got to know Kevin Hardcastle a little bit in late 2012 when we were both shortlisted for and did not win that year's Journey Prize. He was the only other person at the fancy dinner and glitzy ceremony who seemed as uncomfortable as I was. It was the first time I'd donned the Ritz since some wedding I'd been to as a toddler and I got the same impression from Kevin. Afterwards, we got our commiseration on and on account of how much we drank – we were younger back then and the world was slated to end that December, so... – I don't remember all that much about the time we had. But I liked the guy. He was warm dude, passionate about his work, and equal parts nervous and chuffed about having that work recognized. I liked him even after catching him trying to secret an expensive bottle of bar wine out of my hotel room at the end of the night.
The three years between Kevin almost swiping a swanky wine and the release of Debris feels like too long, but the wait was worth it. In those three years, Kevin's been polishing his prose, building up visibility, plugging holes in just about every lit mag in the country – he even lost the Journey Prize a second time. The refinements aren't astronomical, or even glaring – he had he knives pretty sharp back in 2012 – but Debris reads all the better for time taken with it. There's a confidence and a consistency in the stories that's rare for first books. In a genre where it's easy for less-experienced, less-involved writers to hide behind the laconic cruelty of the subject matter – that genre being GritLit, or HickLit, or whatever you want to term stories about rural people and places – Kevin smokes an impressive amount of nuanced flavour into these tough, gritty strips of stories.
The fringe grittiness – shotguns and fistfights and lawns strewn with debris and detritus – will likely be the dominant talking point with Kevin's writing. Yet the refinement and delicacy of the seeing and telling that goes on makes for a stoic beauty that's the real success of Debris, is what seriously sets the work apart from whatever generic comparisons it will inevitably attract. The rural settings are not the mopey, lonely, objective correlative wildernesses described by Survival. Yes, all the fences are a bit busted and need painting, but that disrepair is just daily fact, not a metaphor for anything. The self-segregated isolation here is a sort of a proud heritage. Most importantly, Kevin's characters are not simply brutish dumb misfits, but men (mostly) and women driven by love and loyalty and duty in such a clear, unconflicted way that conflict is inevitable and intense. All of which is to say that, while the stories in Debris might seem like bummers on the surface, you'd be hard-pressed to find stories this loving, hurt, and alive in anything else coming out lately.
In a different world where Kevin had gotten away with that bottle of room wine and left me with a stupid expensive hotel bill, I'd still have to admit that he's a good guy who's written a great book.