Good Writing Will Be Recognized: Best This, Best That, and Nonrequired

The charmingly obnoxious rejection note I inherited in taking over editorship of Santa Monica Review says it all, if frustratingly for recipients: We hope you will find some consolation in the individuality of editorial tastes and in the assurance that, with persistence, good writing will be recognized as such. I wonder if submitters can thank founding editor Jim Krusoe (Parsifal) for that gently waggish if totally polite and somehow even encouraging “Thanks, No Thanks” letter. It's reproduced on the SMR t-shirt, long ago sold out except for a dozen extra larges. For a great interview with Jimbo, my own mentor and all-around literary good egg, see recent Los Angeles Review of Books interviews.


Speaking of editorial tastes, it's that time of year, holidays approaching and, yes, the arrival of the annual end-of-year lists, with excellent, good, and sometimes average writing recognized. Alas, this year's otherwise terrific Best American Short Stories lacks a selection from your favorite West Coast lit mag, but does include in its enviable “Notable” section a short story by frequent SMR contributor Michael Cadnum.  It must be a damn good story indeed because “Slaughter” also made it into the back of Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012, too. I sure liked it. For more on Cadnum's work, check out his website. If you want a copy of the story, let me know, and I will mail you a back issue.

The “Best” series is a reliably satisfying treat, and I survey all four this morning, briefly: short fiction, essays, poem and the all-its-own category as organized and edited by Dave Eggers, super-author and cultural activist at Best Nonrequired, Inc. I can't stand guest editor David Brooks, but recommend the Best American Essays collection anyway. Despite Mr. Brooks, a spin 

monkey who somehow finds a way to say and write so very much about nothing, the collection and its place in the tradition of the whole series is necessary and fun and, yes, a good way to catch up. Because, regardless of the sketchy justice of “best,” the contents here represent in a salvation-offering way, a kind of reverse herald, the news of what's been. Meaning, here's what you may have missed, but can still read, your chance to bag the zeitgeist or at least feel it thumping around in its cage, to argue and debate and, best of all, recommend or dispute or, finally, ignore.
So, yes, stories and essays and poems you and I have perhaps already read over the past year, and would indeed have chosen for inclusion in our own anthology had we been Robert Atwan or Heidi Pitlor or Brooks or Mark Doty.  Necessary and indeed “required” stories by Nathan Englander, Mary Gaitskill, Alice Munro and George Saunders. But some up and comers like Bibliocracy favorite Julie Otsuka, author of the novel The Buddha in the Attic

The nonfiction collection's “Notables” list is about four times as long as that of the others, which maybe says something about quality, quantity.  I don't care, just know I will photocopy it, along with table of contents, and save for reading the winners. There's legendary Joseph Epstein, Jonathan Franzen, Lauren Slater.  I note that the essays chosen tend to come 
from pretty big-time magazines, including Harper's, Elle, The New Yorker.  But there's also Zocalo Public Square from Southern California. Nice.

Poetry I am pretty stupid about, but immediately picked out Brenda Hillman and Dean Young, two poets whose work I admire and follow.  I find the poetry anthologies extremely fun and enduring, and I am still rereading the 2009 anthology, which I keep by my bedside lately. Young plays in a remarkable world of the surreal, and Hillman's most recent collection included some of the most politically engaged work I've encountered lately. 
Eggers' wonderful, weird categories tell you that all bests are off, and that your assumptions about all of what I have said above, and what the other editors imagine are, happily, useless. I dig this conceit, where you get the following areas of self-constructed success, the cart before the excellent horse.
Best American Reflection on Historic Protest Movements 
Best American Reflection on a Modern Protest Movement
Best American Palindrome
Best American Sonnet with Vengeance
Best American Minutes from the General Assembly of Occupy Wall Street
Best American Tweets Responding to the Death of Osama bin Laden

Get it?  It's a homemade, entirely subjective and kind of perfect revisionist reading of the year passed, with the editor claiming a space left perhaps available, unoccupied, by the other three. So, with all four of these anthologies, wrapped up nicely in an old copy of The New York Review of Books or Threepenny Review, both of which are represented here aplenty, we've got a terrific holiday gift for someone you love. I mean besides yourself.

Best American Short Stories 2012, ed.Tom Perrotta, 384 pps., $14.95
Best American Essays 2012, ed. David Brooks, Mariner, 336 pps, $14.95
Best American Poetry 2012, ed. Mark Doty, Scribner, 240 pps., $16.00
Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012, ed.Dave Eggers, Mariner, 432 pps., $14.94
Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program Bibliocracy Radio on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California.

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2 Replies to “Good Writing Will Be Recognized: Best This, Best That, and Nonrequired”

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