Now in its 36th year, the annual Pushcart Prize anthology, “Best of the Small Presses,” has become a standard title for anyone interested in a sampling of who or what is happening in contemporary American literature.
The anthology has reached a point that the reviews from year to year are probably rather much the same: Each assessment pronounces a respectable selection of older and younger writers with pieces that range from outstanding to good to not so good to simply boring. From year to year the critical consensus may change as to which genre is better represented in that particular volume: Is the selected poetry better than the chosen fiction, or do the essays or memoirs eclipse both?
“Pushcart Prize XXXVI”
Edited by Bill Henderson
Pushcart Press, $18.95
The Pushcart Prize has also been around long enough for there to be an ongoing irate reaction to its annual appearance. The grousers will assert that the selections are too safe or too predictable, lamenting that the authors are not one’s friends, one’s wife, or one’s self. The represented presses may also be bemoaned as being too safe, too predictable, or not owned by one’s friends, one’s wife, or one’s self. The fairness and objectivity of the selection process will be argued as those not selected, and the friends and mothers of those not selected, rail against the innocuous, pedestrian choices once again made by the minions of the conservative literary establishment. (This year there are 52 presses represented, 15 of which appear for the first time, out of more than 650 small presses.)
Any compilation of any kind with “best” in its title is open to this type of disdain and quibbling. But truth be told, the annual appearance of the Pushcart Prize is, as always, an ideal opportunity to enjoy, discover (or rediscover), and, yes, quibble about a considerable array of poetry, fiction, memoir, and essays, whether they be the year’s best (whatever that may mean) or not. The current volume is no exception. It is difficult to think that anyone picking up this book and even cursorily thumbing through it would not find at least a few pieces to enjoy and appreciate.
For example, there are several exceptional stories this year; among them are Elizabeth Tallent’s arresting “Never Come Back,” the haunting “Girls, at Play” by Celeste Ng, Sandra Leong’s “We Don’t Deserve This,” and Frederic Tuten’s elegant “The Veranda.” Poetry is well represented by selections from Alice Friman, Joy Katz, and Stephen Dobyns. John Murillo’s “Song,” Douglas Goetsch’s “Black People Can’t Swim,” and Mark Halliday’s “Meditation After an Excellent Dinner” are first among equals here.
The selection of nonfiction is particularly outstanding. Among the very best essays are Anis Shivani’s necessarily scathing “The MFA/Creative Writing System Is a Closed, Undemocratic, Medieval Guild System That Represses Good Writing” (the title really says it all), “Never Give an Inch” by Gerald Howard, which considers the scarcity and importance of the working-class author, and Lisa Couturier’s “Dark Horse,” a disturbing depiction of horse auctions and the fate of those horses that fall to the “kill buyers.”
Mark Richard’s selection from his memoir, “House of Prayer No. 2,” is one of the exceptional pieces of any genre. Using the second person singular, he draws the reader into his bizarre Dickensian childhood world of pain, misunderstanding, and spirituality as a “special child,” one who suffers from hip defects as well as the perception that he is “slow.”
Perhaps in any other year Mr. Richard’s piece would be the hands-down best selection of the anthology, but here it is rivaled by the memoir of another Southern writer, John Jeremiah Sullivan, although his is far different in tone. His funny and affectionate (as well as poignant and a bit creepy) “Mr. Lytle: An Essay” deals with his time as a “kind of apprentice” or aide to the 92-year-old Andrew Lytle, the longtime editor of The Sewanee Review and the last of the Southern Agrarians, a group of writers and philosophers that included Robert Penn Warren and Allen Tate, during the last year of his life. Mr. Richards and Mr. Sullivan share a talent for keen observation, and they each write with a seeming effortlessness and grace about offbeat situations made very real. Both of these remarkable writers touch the reader’s heart as well as mind.
Mr. Sullivan’s essay is also among a number of pieces that give this volume, intentionally or not, a lingering thematic sense of death and bereavement. It begins with Bill Henderson’s introduction and his remembrance of Reynolds Price, a founding editor of the Pushcart Press, and continues with such pieces as Mr. Dobyns’s fine poem for Hayden Carruth, “Laugh,” Leon Stokesbury’s “Watching My Mother Take Her Last Breath,” Deborah Thompson’s moving “Mishti Kukur,” in which she recounts her trip to India six years after her husband’s death to visit his relatives, Gerald Stern’s brief poetic remembrance of Pablo Casals, Eve Becker’s touching memoir concerning her father, “Final Concert,” and stories by Susan Steinberg and Anna Solomon.
A word or two regarding Mr. Henderson, whose yearly introductions to these anthologies should not go unnoticed but often do. Not that he has been necessarily overlooked, having been recognized by the National Book Critics Circle and Poets & Writers, among others, but it is good to be reminded of the chance he took 36 years ago and the service he has provided to readers since then. It is an almost impossible task for the general reader to keep up with the small presses, but over the years Mr. Henderson and the Pushcart Press have provided a convenient means of entrance into at least part of this vital literary world.
Neither he nor the Pushcart Press is perfect — from year to year some of the volumes’ inclusions as well as exclusions are head-scratchers. And Mr. Henderson needs to curb his rants against online writing and e-readers and concede that good writing can be and is found on the Internet. But these caveats do not lessen the reader’s debt to him for taking a long ago leap of faith and for continuing to produce an always generous and varied view into one corner of the ever-evolving American literary scene.
Bill Henderson is the author of, most recently, “All My Dogs: A Life.” He lives in Springs.
After 30 years of teaching literature at Southampton College, William Roberson now works at Long Island University’s Brentwood campus. He lives in Mastic.