I spent a lot of this holiday season in bookstores, buying gifts on impulse that I intuit those I love will love. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t.
But it also gives me the opportunity to see what’s hot, what’s being pushed, what’s being discounted and remaindered and what’s new in the book world.
One of the most obvious places for catching up on what’s happening in the literary world is “THE BEST” series. Like THE BEST AMERICAN POETRY 2007.
In my younger years, from say when I first started sending poems out for publication at fifteen to oh, last year, I looked at these year-end collections or any kind of anthology, as either a book I thought I deserved to be included in, and would be someday, or as a book I deserved to be included in and the assholes who edited them obviously had no taste!
Lately, thankfully, I mostly have no envy or ambitions for these things because first of all I know how ephemeral they can be but also because I finally understand that I would not want to be a part of a club that doesn’t want people like me in it, sort of the opposite of the famous Groucho Marx comment about not wanting to belong to a club that would have him, which is the way I felt too often throughout my life.
But the point of this post is not my feelings about my absence in so many anthologies and end-of-the-year-best-of collections, but the absence of all kinds of other talented creators whose work is also never included in these things.
THE BEST AMERICAN POETRY 2007 includes a handful, if that, of poems deserving to be in a book with that title (like Elaine Equi’s great poem) while the rest are mediocre at best, even ones from poets I can often dig (like Galway Kinnel’s poem in this volume).
In the poetry workshop I host in the tiny living room of my apartment, the working people, who also happen to be poets, write poems that are so far beyond most of the “poetry” in this volume, it’s embarrassing to even think that readers will pick up a book like this and think it represents anything near “the best” of poetry.
The same goes for “the best” short stories and essays, etc.
It’s like the poetry in THE NEW YORKER, or the fiction for that matter. How can a magazine that includes such incredible non-fiction (if I edited a year-end “best of the year” anthology of essays, I could easily just pick them from THE NEW YORKER) which almost all the time engage and enlighten, also include short stories and poems that fall flat on the page, that make no impression other than preciousness or irony.
Not that the fiction in THE NEW YORKER isn’t well crafted, or the poems, to some extent, but almost every short story in the magazine leads me to get engaged with characters who end up most of the time doing nothing, revealing nothing, learning nothing, etc. The stories end in mid-air with the implication that it’s all meaningless anyway, so why bother. Well, why bother printing the stuff then?!
The poems do more or less the same, make the point that life is full of mundane moments that add up to, well, life.
You would think that all the “experimental” and avant-garde breakthroughs of the 20th century, or even the 19th for that matter, never occurred, except the one that opened poetry to plain speech and “free verse” and the one that allowed short stories to be pointless, as part of the point.
(Though THE BEST AMERICAN POETRY 2007 does contain some more “experimental” poets, like an old favorite Rae Armantrout, most of it falls into the category I just created above.)
Best thing to do with THE BEST books is pick one up in the bookstore and browse through it and when, or if, you find something you dig, remember the name of the author and go and buy their books, not the "THE BEST (whatever) 2007" which is ultimately either "the friends of” or the “most influential, with whom I have to curry favor” or “the ones who are getting the most hype because they have 'the best' agents or editors or publishers…” or just “my poor taste and judgment for all to see.”