Saturday, January 10, 2009

De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum

From the LA Times' Jacket Copy blog:

Taken together, two anthologies -- "The Best American Short Stories 2008" and "Pushcart Prize XXXIII: Best of the Small Presses" -- provide a guide to the best work in contemporary short fiction.

I'm a bit skeptical. I've read some of the Best American Short Story collections in the past, and I have liked some of the stories in them. Last year's, for instance, guest edited by Stephen King, had a moving story by Richard Russo, engaging ones by Louis Auchincloss and Joseph Epstein, and a devastating one by Alice Munro that I'd read when it came out in the New Yorker. This year's collection is edited by Salman Rushdie; it, too, has some stories I enjoyed. Another Munro story, this one from Harper's, that really got under my skin when I read it in the magazine; and a typically terrific George Saunders story. I wonder about some of the other choices, though. Daniyal Mueenuddin's "Nawabdin Electrician," in my opinion, was a worthy story, but not extraordinary. Steven Millhauser's "The Wizard of West Orange" seemed to me one of the least interesting stories in his collection Dangerous Laughter; at least one of the others would have been eligible and better for inclusion, I think. And I thought Jonathan Lethem's "The King of Sentences" was one of the worst stories in the New Yorker that year.

When it comes down to it, though, there's no accounting for taste, and thus these "best of" anthologies—the Best American, the Pushcart, and the O. Henry—have to be taken for what they are: arbitrary collections of stories that somebody liked for their own subjective reasons.

For my money, the best of the "best of" collections were the O. Henry Prize volumes from 1997 to 2002. The stories were chosen by Larry Dark, whose taste is apparently pretty congruent with my own. It was in these collections that I encountered great stuff like Andre Dubus's "Dancing After Hours," Munro's "The Love of a Good Woman," Lorrie Moore's "People Like That Are the Only People Here," much of Saunders's Pastoralia, Steven Millhauser's "The Knife Thrower," my first introduction to him; Jhumpa Lahiri's "Interpreter of Maladies," Pinckney Benedict's "Zog-19: A Scientific Romance," Michael Chabon's "Son of the Wolfman," Russell Banks's "Plains of Abraham," Mary Swan's "The Deep," Dan Chaon's "Big Me," T. Coraghessan Boyle's "The Love of My Life," Andrea Barrett's "Servants of the Map," and David Foster Wallace's "Good Old Neon." These are some big names, but I also encountered more obscure gems like Julia Whitty's "A Tortoise for the Queen of Tonga," W.D. Wetherell's "Watching Girls Play," Cary Holladay's "Merry-Go-Sorry" and Peter Baida's "A Nurse's Story, John Biguenet's "Rose," Tim Gautreaux's "Easy Pickings," and Don Zancanella's "The Chimpanzees of Wyoming Territory." 

When Dark stopped editing the series after 2002, it no longer felt the same. Yesterday, though, I was pleased to find that he's got a blog, part of his gig as director of something called The Story Prize.

In the end, I suppose, these annual collections are only the first round of a long-term process, no less arbitrary, of literary valuation. Some works will be canonized, anthologized, read in schools, studied and written about, while others will be forgotten, maybe temporarily, maybe forever. As Barbara Herrnstein-Smith argues in Contingencies of Value, there's no objective standard of merit that will determine their fate. 

The old Latin saying, De gustibus non est disputandum, has it only half right in saying that taste is beyond dispute. Taste may be subjective, but it is eminently disputable. That's how culture is created—in the dispute over taste, in the battles over value, in the winners and losers and runners-up.

No comments: