It seems a quaint idea now, but there was once such a thing as a celebrity anthologist. Edward J. O’Brien was a pale and sickly young poet and playwright who’d graduated from high school at 16, attended Boston College and Harvard, but dropped out, resolving “to educate myself as long as life lasted.” He became the protégé of William Stanley Braithwaite, a poet and critic who in 1906 began publishing an annual survey of American poetry in the Boston Evening Transcript. When Braithwaite’s editor suggested the paper run a companion survey of short stories, the task fell to O’Brien, who solicited complimentary copies of all the going magazines publishing fiction, several of which had circulations in excess of 500,000, not to mention the little ones that were about to become busy launching modernism. O’Brien proposed an annual anthology to a Boston publisher, and so in 1915, there appeared the first volume of the Best American Short Stories franchise that still, along with its many cousins (Essays, Travel Writing, Non-Required Reading, Science Fiction and Fantasy, Mystery Stories, Infographics, etc.), persists today. O’Brien, whose frail heart kept him out of World War I, became a sought-after and well-compensated public speaker; moved to England and began a parallel project in the Best British Stories; became a correspondent of Pound and Joyce, among other modernists; gave Hemingway one of his first big breaks by anthologizing his early story “My Old Man” before it appeared in a periodical (a violation of one of his own rules); and, by the end of his life, was working for Hollywood and confining his literary efforts to two nights a week.
O’Brien was skeptical of the value of plot, an enemy of commercial writing, suspicious of urban cliques, and a booster of provincial outsiders. It’s strange to read of the dynamics that governed the production of short fiction at the time he began his anthology project because they are the reverse of what they are today. As an art form, the short story was deluged in commercial modes, and what we’d now call “literary fiction” was an exception in need of champions (not least from British and Irish critics who were prepared to dismiss the entire American scene); today, it’s the proponents of “genre fiction” who cast themselves as the underdogs against the hegemony of literary realism. At the start of the 20th century, writers of prominence like Jack London or Henry James stood to make a quicker, bigger buck from publishing fiction in magazines than they did from their books; in today’s narrowed field, no one can hope to pay the rent from writing fiction for The New Yorker, Harper’s, or Vice. Of course, the then-nonexistent national apparatus of creative-writing education in universities has propped up a class of American fiction writers, promoted the story form as at least a pedagogical tool for apprentice writers, and funded a host of small-circulation journals to publish them. What’s surprising is that any glance at O’Brien’s first few Best Short Stories (the American label came later) volumes—filled with slight anecdotes, cheap twist-endings, and overwrought, not yet modern prose styles—shows that they don’t write ‘em like they used to, and that the American short story is much the better for it. Though the form has largely been deprived of the lucrative and popular ecosystem of magazines that gave birth to it, the passing of a century has left writers with an array of styles, modes, and moves to deploy at will. But the richer, the more mature the form, the harder to make it new.
In 1915, the short story as it manifested itself in American newspapers and magazines was still a young thing, less than a century old and awaiting codification. Chekhov was only 11 years dead, and it would be decades before his influence was felt on these shores. Nor had the epiphany-generating story pioneered by Joyce or the surrealist tale of Kafka made their marks. But it was in the story form that imports and original concepts, not to mention new ideas, like psychoanalysis and historical impressions of wars and other catastrophes, could leave their traces in fiction with an impact more immediate than novels can muster. Delmore Schwartz’s “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” in which a narrator in a movie theater watches with horror as his young father courts his mother on the screen (hello, Freud and Kafka), is a good example of the short story as a sort of lightning bolt. It wasn’t one of O’Brien’s picks for 1938.
The story of the American short story in the 20th century is a familiar one, and it can be glimpsed crudely in 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories, published last fall. Edited by Lorrie Moore and Heidi Pitlor (a novelist and editor of the series since 2007), the collection draws on the series’ legacy to track the evolution of the realist story over the past century. It’s a cyclical path of revolution and retrenchment. The modernist flowering of the 1920s by the 1940s becomes codified in something like what we now think of as the New Yorker story. Conservatism and sentimentality, in the testament of O’Brien’s successor, Martha Foley (one of the founders of Story), are the strongest forces at work in the immediate wake of World War II, and the rebels countering this trend are largely Jewish writers, like Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth, and African-Americans, like James Baldwin. The 1960s and ‘70s witness an uptick in explicit portrayals of sex (John Updike) and violence (Joyce Carol Oates), as well as the emergence of grim minimalism (Raymond Carver) and antic collage-driven postmodernism (Donald Barthelme). By the 1980s, the scene is far less white and perhaps less formally adventurous, with underrepresented experiences reinvigorating traditional forms. New rebellions commence in the 1990s, best exemplified here in the singular work of George Saunders. Moore and Pitlor’s anthology leaves it an open question whether the present moment—defined by the digital transformation of the marketplace, the encroachment of styles of writing born online, and a pervasive anxiety about the printed word—is another incipient revolution or a phase of digging in.
Three more anthologies published last year suggest that while the story remains one of our most flexible popular literary forms, and the quickest to absorb signals from the culture, if we’re on the verge of another revolution, the shockwaves haven’t registered yet. Or perhaps the short story in America has matured to a point where the form can no longer be shocked. Best American Short Stories 2015, edited by T.C. Boyle, suggests that while an uncodified experimentalism persists in many quarters, familiar story forms may be stronger than ever. But that’s a picture complicated by a better and ultimately more persuasive anthology, New American Stories; edited by Ben Marcus and drawing on stories published over the past decade, it leaves the impression that the the revolutions of the past century have been absorbed by four generations of writers at work today, and that modes once heralded as avant-garde now linger among the array of strategies available to any writer. Both of these anthologies present themselves as surveys but reveal themselves to be arguments in favor of certain kinds of stories. The Unprofessionals: New American Writing From The Paris Review, edited by Lorin Stein and collecting work that’s appeared in that magazine since he took its helm in 2010, makes a more explicit argument for what he calls “realism c.2015.” That realism as a concept itself may have expanded to the point where we can reckon it as a territory where nearly all the writers collected in these books could be argued to be writing within it, or at points nearly adjacent, is a sign that, a century after the modernist revolution, we’ve come to something like a grand reconciliation.
“Has the time not come at last to cease lamenting the pitiful gray shabbiness of American fiction?” O’Brien asked in the introduction to the first volume of his series. He was an obsessive cataloguer and approached the task of determining the best stories of the year with a totalizing quasi-scientific rigor ultimately subordinated to his own taste. “During the past year I have read over twenty-two hundred short stories in a critical spirit, and they have made me lastingly hopeful of our literary future.” In the back of the first volume of the series, there’s an index that lists all of those stories, their authors, and the publications in which they appeared, each rated on the basis of form and substance, or the alchemical combination of the two, according to O’Brien’s three-asterisk system (“‘Three-asterisk stories’ are of somewhat permanent literary value”). He included rankings of the bigger publications based on the percentage of the stories they published that achieved “distinction” on his scale. The first time around, Scribner’s placed first, with 71 percent; Harper’s (along with Good Housekeeping, the only titles he judged still going) came in third, at 56 percent; the Saturday Evening Post brought up the rear with 18 percent. Overall, O’Brien was rather generous with his asterisks. His method brought him to the conclusion that “Zelig” by Benjamin Rosenblatt was the finest achievement of the past two years. Its literary value has turned out to be only “somewhat permanent”; a crude portrait of a miserly Russian Jewish immigrant on the Lower East Side, today, it’s basically unreadable. The only writer collected in the anthology whose name lasted is Ben Hecht. Willa Cather, who earned an asterisk, and Edith Wharton, who scored two trios of asterisks, were left out.
But there’s something endearing about O’Brien’s impulse to quantify the national literary output and hold it up against naysayers domestic and foreign. That he actually did all the reading himself sets him apart from the literary scholars led by Franco Moretti who these days conduct literary analysis as data analysis. The noblest aspect of the project, as it continues today, is the commitment to surveying as much of the nation’s literary output as possible, which means deep reading in piles of obscure journals. I once had a job doing something like this for a few years, combing through issue after mediocre issue of Glimmer Train or Missouri Review, waiting for the next issue of NOON or Conjunctions to arrive because those were the best journals and always carried something fit to reprint for a larger readership. As long as these magazines persist, there’s always a chance of a Don DeLillo emerging somewhere like Epoch, but extended exposure to most little magazines in the U.S. will convince you that it’s a barren landscape or a jungle of sentimentality and cliché.
Boyle’s 2015 anthology (culled from stories that appeared in 2014) will do little to convince anyone otherwise. There are a few very good stories among the 20 collected here. Denis Johnson’s “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” is a compendium of indelible moments from an aging adman’s life, the most powerful of which comes first: a woman bending to kiss the stump where a veteran amputee’s leg used to be and then breaking out in tears. Justin Bigos’s “Fingerprints” assembles a son’s scattered views of a fucked-up father. Both draw their force from unifying many small stories in a single piece. Otherwise, the farthest the anthology strays from conventional realism is “Moving On,” in which Diane Cook imagines a shelter for widows who wait to be chosen on a black market for new wives by lonely rural American men. Thomas McGuane’s “Motherlode” is a comic thriller about an innocent freelance cattle-geneticist who falls in with a couple of small-time oxycontin peddlers in fracking territory. Victor Lodato’s “Jack, July” is a convincingly squalid scene of a meth-head’s odyssey, coming down and trying to come home on a hot day in the Southwest. “Bride” by Julia Elliott is a wild piece of work set in a medieval monastery during the plague years, and exploiting the scene for all it can at the level of language.
But I’ll confess that I knew I’d be frustrated with Best American Short Stories 2015 when I came across a reference in Boyle’s introduction to a pair of “missing-child stories” by Colum McCann and Elizabeth McCracken. What’s at stake in a story about a missing child? No doubt there’s panic, parental recriminations, a suspenseful search, and most likely the child is found. In McCann’s maudlin and manipulative “Sh’khol,” the child is a deaf-mute orphan from Russia with scars on his back attesting to a history of abuse spending Christmas on the Irish coast (cue overwriting about the weather) with his divorced adoptive mother. Because the child can’t speak, when he’s found more or less unharmed, she’ll never know what became of him in the missing hours. (Whether the reader cares is another question.) In McCracken’s “Thunderstruck,” set mostly in Paris, a troubled daughter winds up in a hospital bed, leading to her vacationing family’s separation and causing cracks in her parents’ marriage. Again, the scenario’s contours are easy to predict, and the story crumbles under any readerly resistance to the tugging of heartstrings. Similar maneuvers are at work in Maile Meloy’s “Madame Lazarus,” which you could easily call a “dead-dog story” or a “World War II recalled in old age story” (one device prompts the other).
But what may unify the better and worse stories in Boyle’s anthology is that his organizing principle seems to be an emphasis on a sort of storytelling that relies on scenarios with robust sympathy-triggers to set the action in motion. Cook’s “Moving On” and Kevin Canty’s “Happy Endings” both alight from the circumstance of a dead spouse. Cook’s narrator moves into dark and original imaginary terrain; Canty’s hero attends a Christian Singles club and visits a rural massage parlor where he discovers he enjoys the treatments named in the title. Whether or not you blame him for that, the stories’ descent into epiphanic dramedy is hard to forgive. Canty’s story, along with Louise Erdrich’s “The Big Cat,” the story of a family whose unhappiness is revealed by its female members’ habit of snoring, and a pair of historical costume dramas by Megan Mayhew Bergman, which trots out Marlene Dietrich as a character, and Aria Beth Sloss, a narrator’s precious imagining of her father’s arctic explorations, show that literary fiction is at its worst when it’s easy to imagine it recast as quality television or low-pressure art-house cinema. The battle between words on a page and images on a screen has long been lost.
This is a trap almost entirely avoided by the stories collected by Ben Marcus in New American Stories. In his introduction, a prose performance as dazzling as any collected in the book and appealingly slippery as a statement of an editor’s agenda, he compares his anthology to the mixtapes he made for girls as an adolescent. “Obviousness was a clear turnoff.” This isn’t always so obvious either to short story writers or editors of anthologies. Perhaps a mark of Marcus’s avoiding the obvious is the only slight overlap between the authors he’s included and the living authors in Moore’s anthology. Only George Saunders and Mary Gaitskill appear in both. Of late-career masters, Marcus has DeLillo, Robert Coover, Deborah Eisenberg, Lydia Davis, Denis Johnson (the same story selected by Boyle), and Joy Williams. His organizing principle is a diversity of styles: “I sought stylistic and formal variety in the stories not to be fair but because there seem to be endless ways to … reckon with our time.”
Marcus’s book could lend itself to many subdivisions, and many of his selections seem likely to become anthology mainstays. He collects writers from four generations, various strains of realism, historical fictions, parallel worlds, metafictions, and moral fables. In his own writing, Marcus has moved from the experimental books The Age of Wire and String and Notable American Women—which drew on forms like encyclopedia entries and instruction manuals—to The Flame Alphabet and Leaving the Sea (the latter a collection), books that reconciled the dazzling effect he can achieve at the sentence level with more conventional narrative modes. As a critic, he’s also been a fierce defender of the experimental streak in American literature, however vaguely defined. (He’s also the editor of a previous anthology, The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories (2004). Here he writes, “The minor labels that would scar our writers—realist and experimentalist would be the obvious ones—seem like someone else’s nicknames, sounds we use to call off a dog. We say these words out loud and we feel the instant shame in having told a lie in a language we hardly even speak.” Arguments about realism and alternatives to it dominated the discourse around U.S. fiction during the 2000s, so it’s no surprise that Marcus feels no need to rehash them.
But the overall impression the anthology conveys is one of a disparate group of outsiders who have reached a measure of accommodation with the mainstream. George Saunders is represented by the story “Home.” Though the story is full of comic exaggeration and told in the anguished and angry slapstick voice of a returning veteran, it doesn’t feature mutants or other dystopian elements that characterize Saunders’s earlier work. Maybe he doesn’t need them anymore, or perhaps, like Marcus and a few other writers he’s collected—DeLillo, Williams, Donald Antrim—he’s come in from the fringe to give realism a push. Without violating the real in any meaningful sense, all of their stories draw their power from explosive images embedded within otherwise-restrained narratives. In Saunders’s “Home,” there are a few of these moments, but none as potent as the sight of the cracked veteran narrator asking to hold his infant niece, being refused, then picking up a pitcher of lemonade, holding it like a baby, and then spiking it on the floor in a rage. In DeLillo’s “Hammer and Sickle,” a Madoff-like convict gathers with other inmates in a low-security prison around a television to watch his own children, like a hypermodern Greek chorus, deliver singsong reports about the international financial crisis. A father and son live together in Williams’s the country, and the son speaks to the father in the voices of his departed mother and grandparents, and as they sit together, the answer to the question of which of them is mentally ill keeps shifting. The climax of Antrim’s “Another Manhattan” is the vision of a well-dressed man in the midst of a breakdown running down a New York street with a large bouquet, its thorns tearing at his skin. Like Johnson’s image of a woman crying before an amputee’s stump, these images slip the bounds of questions about a character’s sympathetic qualities or an author’s style and take on their own indelibility.
Several of the younger writers collected, meanwhile, seem to be operating under the spell of Saunders’s early work, though perhaps not as radically, achieving strong effects by shifting realist action into skewed worlds. In “Paranoia,” Saïd Sayrafiezadeh manages the trick of creating a parallel America on the eve of war just far enough removed our own to keep its simple scenario about characters in precarious legal and economic straits interesting. The couple breaking up in Tao Lin’s “Love Is a Thing on Sale for More Money Than There Exists” similarly live in a country where people worry that terrorists might “replace your dog with something that resembled your dog but was actually a bomb.” Heightened ambient anxieties effectively raise the stakes of what are otherwise fairly simple scenarios. Charles Yu goes a bit further in “Standard Loneliness Package,” in which the narrator works for a firm customers hire to outsource their pain via its employees’ implant chips. It’s one degree of science fiction, but also a deadpan story about the common experience of having a shitty job in the service industry that opens out into the painful end of a doomed relationship.
A few stories soar almost entirely on the power of language. Lucy Corin’s “Madmen,” about an imagined corporate ritual that accompanies a girl’s first period, spins out into a dazzling comedy of language—and a catalogue of madnesses—that’s impossible to summarize. Rachel B. Glaser is a poet as well as a fiction writer, and her story “Pee on Water” adopts familiar poetic techniques like disjunction and juxtaposition to push along a narrative that isn’t quite a narrative but calls forth a world of images that will be familiar to certain readers, especially an American under 50 who grew up in a suburban household with a television.
Other deviations from realism aren’t as successful. In a few cases, setting a story in an alternate bygone world serves as a permission slip for sentimentality. Jesse Ball’s “The Early Deaths of Lubeck, Brennan, Harp, and Carr” is set in an imagined honor culture resembling the West of the early 20th century but ungoverned by sense or logic or laws; by the end, the story seems a rote playing out of its title. Anthony Doerr’s “The Deep” is a highly stylized imagining of Detroit before and after the onset of the Great Depression that follows two children who spend their days at play, are tragically separated, then reunited by chance: The result is pure Disney. But the few misfires in this book attest to the canonizing strength of the anthology as a whole.
Founded in 1953, The Paris Review has always had a dual mission: finding promising new writers and publishing them; and interviewing established writers and setting down the blueprints of their legacies. The magazine has never been a bastion of avant-garde writing, but it’s never been exactly immune to it either. In his preface to The Unprofessionals, Stein situates his ambitions for the magazine in a sense of despair. In his telling, the once-great lit mags have been folding or fading—“nobody forced them on you, nobody argued about them”—the glossies are staid and less permeable for young writers, and “the most adventurous new journals specialized in politics, criticism, history, humor, design” (though he doesn’t say so, he perhaps has in mind n+1 and The Believer). Book publishing is flailing, as bookstores vanish and the books pages in newspapers diminish, and social media turns “young writers into publicists, creating an echo chamber of empty praise.” These pressures turn MFA students away from short stories, essays, and poetry, and toward the novel, networking, and the dream of the large advance. “Where this happened,” Stein writes, “it often meant less close reading, less real criticism, lower standards, and less regard for artistic, as opposed to commercial success.” Echoes of Edward J. O’Brien.
There’s no doubt something deeply true about the state of affairs as Stein describes it. Perhaps most dispiriting, because it was impossible to predict and is the newest aspect of the permanent literary dystopia, is the sense that the digital publishing environment has failed to boost fiction in the way it has long-form journalism, and has instead turned fiction writers into hucksters of a sort. (Poetry, on the other hand, has received a boost from the internet, mostly by connecting poets to each other and fostering their lively and fertile internecine arguments, but that’s another story.) Fiction doesn’t go viral, and the few well-publicized attempts to publish fiction via social media (by Teju Cole, Rick Moody, and Elliott Holt, among others) have been exceptions that prove the rule that fictional narratives and status updates don’t reliably mesh. The self-promotion Stein mentions is far more common, though perhaps also more innocuous than he implies. It’s unlikely that Twitter has ruined any writers. (I would challenge Stein to name one literary writer who tweets frequently in order to sell books rather than out of some mix of enjoyment and neurotic compulsion.) Before the rise of social media, literary self-promotion was largely conducted at parties; Twitter at least reduces the risk of alcoholism.
The Unprofessionals collects 12 works of fiction (several of them excerpted from novels), 14 poems, and five essays. The most prominent contributors on hand are Zadie Smith (the story “Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets”) and John Jeremiah Sullivan (the essay “Mr. Lytle”). Of the fiction writers, Ben Lerner, Emma Cline, Atticus Lish, Ottessa Moshfegh, and Angela Flournoy have all been on the receiving end of affirmative media attention (and in Cline’s case, a staggering book advance), but their appearance in the Review’s pages tended to anticipate it. It would be hard to argue, and Stein doesn’t quite do so, that the writers assembled represent a unified aesthetic. The closest he comes is the phrase “interiority overheard,” and in this respect, he avoids the recourse to the bromide that seems to be the tendency of most editors of literary anthologies.
On the interiority spectrum, Lerner and Lish mark out opposite poles. Lerner’s prose contribution “False Spring,” an excerpt from his second novel 10:04 (his poem “No Art” is also included), is an interior monologue performed with a degree of self-consciousness high enough for the narrator to call it “Beckettian.” It moves from a fertility clinic, where the narrator anxiously masturbates in a cup; to the street, where he conducts a hilarious conversation with his imagined offspring, who shape-shifts, taking the form of various children he knows; to the Park Slope Food Co-op, where a fellow volunteer tells him the story of her own shifting paternity, delivered in his voice, not hers; then on a walk to the Brooklyn Bridge, where the voice turns ironically to that of a self-examining poet—“I resolved to be one of the artists who momentarily transformed bad forms of collectivity into negative figures of its possibility, a proprioceptive flicker in advance of the communal body”—before shedding a tear. Lerner’s narrator does slapstick, fantasy, essay, and glimpses of the sublime without straying from the bounds of his own head. His fiction draws force from the way it appears to dramatize its own creation.
Lish’s narration in “Jimmy,” an excerpt from his novel Preparation for the Next Life, about a construction worker who passes in and out of prison, is third person with limited access to its subject’s thoughts, shifting in and out of dialogue without quotation marks, and occasionally alighting on a line of lyrical beauty it conjures entirely on its own: “Drinking opened tunnels in his head that led into the third tomb of the night.” It’s no accident that these two pieces of fiction, though both set in New York City, depict characters far apart in sociological terms, the professor and the sometimes-incarcerated biker. The balance of the anthology leans in Lerner’s direction, but often to entirely different effects.
Garth Greenwell’s “Gospodar” is a virtuosic telling of an internet-arranged sadomasochistic encounter between two men in an apartment in Sofia, Bulgaria. Hardly anyone dares to or can write sex with this sort of precision and sinuosity: “And then he took another chain, this one shorter and finer, with little toothed clamps at each end, which (using both his hands, letting the leash fall free, since after all I was not an animal, I didn’t need to be bound) he attached to my chest. I sucked in my breath at this, the first real pain he had caused me, but it wasn’t a terrible pain, and not unexciting; a thrill ran through me at this too, and at its promise.” The encounter goes wrong, a safe word is spoken and ignored, but the sex and the gorgeous sentences remain of a piece.
In “Lelah,” Angela Flournoy achieves something of an opposite, though nearly as dazzling, effect when writing about gambling addiction, deploying abstraction rather than precision in the service of a different sort of derangement: “after a while, if she didn’t go broke, she’d slip into a space of just her and her hand and the chips that she tried to keep under them. A stillness like sleep, but better than sleep because it didn’t bring dreams. She was just a mind and a pair of hands calculating, pushing chips out, pulling some back in, and running her thumb along the length of stacks to feel what she’d gained or lost. She never once tried to explain this feeling in her GA meetings.” If Greenwell’s is the art of clarity, Flournoy’s is the art of the opaque.
There are cross-currents between the essays and fiction in The Unprofessionals, much of it within the sphere of sexual frankness, which emerges across the book as a source of literary energy. Kristin Dombek’s “Letter From Williamsburg” discusses the contours, manners, and psychology of a threesome in the same detail as Greenwell’s narrator analyzes his encounter in Sofia. In Amie Barrodale’s “William Wei,” the narrator confesses, “I kissed her. It was a bit like kissing a doll, or a timid old lady. I mean that she didn’t kiss me back, but I don’t know if you know this. That can be very attractive.” John Jeremiah Sullivan relates having a pass made at him by the old man he works for as a caretaker, the last of the Agrarian movement of writers, and it leads him to a point about the intersection of eros and literary creation: The men of the movement “loved one another,” and that was “where part of the power originated that made those friendships so intense, even after spats and changes of opinion, even after their Utopian hopes for the South had died. Together they produced from among them a number of good writers, and even a great one, in Warren, whom they can be seen to have lifted, as if on wing beats, to the heights for which he was destined.” That doesn’t mean Sullivan is unaware of the awkward humor of the situation: “I didn’t expect him to grope me like a chambermaid.”
How different a world we’re living in today is on view in Dorothea Lasky’s poem “Porn,” in which the narrator relates seeing a porn actor who reminds her of an ex-boyfriend, her half-brother, a boss, and “Someone who darkened me / A million times over.” The narrator of Emma Cline’s story “Marion” is 11 years old and lives in cultlike circumstances with her friend, the 13-year-old title character; the girls practice giving each other massages, get kissed on the lips good night by adult men, find another girl’s crotchless underwear, and hear rumors of Roman Polanski’s crimes, yet they’re at the same time strangely innocent, as when Marion goads the narrator into knocking a loose tooth from her mouth, not realizing it won’t come back. When Marion picks a scab on her arm and eats it, the narrator says, “That’s disgusting.” A flirtation with disgust might be the unifying quality of the writers collected in The Unprofessionals. As the narrator of Ottessa Moshfegh’s “A Dark and Winding Road” says of an afternoon of sex, “It wasn’t painful, nor was it terrifying, but it was disgusting—just as I’d always hoped it would be.”
The “echo chamber of empty praise” Stein laments in his introduction has a perpetual battery these days, and many of the echoes are paraliterary in nature, grasping at some imagined consensus that wouldn’t be desirable if it were possible. What’s less often acknowledged is that strife can have productive effects in literary affairs. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, anglophone poetry endured what are now remembered as the “Anthology Wars” that pitted the Robert Lowell–led Formalists collected in two volumes titled New Poets of England and America against the various avant-garde schools collected in Donald M. Allen’s The New American Poetry. (An anthology that attempted to bridge the gap, A Controversy of Poets, appeared in 1965.) If I’m right that New American Stories and The Unprofessionals suggest that we’ve reached a moment of reconciliation among contesting camps, then perhaps what these books are crying out for are counteranthologies that will suggest novel lines of attack. Every anthology is itself a kind of fiction, and Marcus and Stein have done a service in pointing to their ideas of what constitutes the new. It’s time for their rivals, whoever they may be, to step forward and show us what else we’ve been missing.