Toward a More Complete Measure of Excellence

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The measure of excellence is a pursuit with which writers and critics are often intensely concerned. At the end of each year any number of magazines and organizations issue a list or series of lists to quantify the year’s best books, stories, poems, and essays. There are anthologies for each year’s best short fiction, poetry, essays, mystery writing, travel writing, non-required reading, comics, humor, science and nature writing, and sports writing. As soon as these lists and anthologies are released, people who care about such things react. We agree or disagree and explain, enthusiastically, why. Another year passes and another set of lists and anthologies are released and so it goes.

Most everyone who discusses “best of” lists and anthologies says these measures don’t really matter, that they are silly, but clearly these measures hold some value or we wouldn’t discuss them with such frequency and vigor. These measures of excellence matter because they set a tone and make a statement, one that is sometimes troubling, about what is valued in literature. I tend to see these measures for what they are—a set of suggestions based on arbitrary, narrow, and subjective standards. These suggestions generally reflect the literary zeitgeist and reveal the trends that interest major publishers and magazines. However, let’s not be coy. These measures also matter because most writers, even if they won’t admit it, wonder if (and hope) their work will someday be recognized as excellent, as the best. Unfortunately, for some (oft-marginalized) writers, the possibility of such recognition feels rather dim and the dimness of that possibility also sets a tone.

Establishing a standard of excellence for literature is a seemingly impossible task so critics make best guesses. All too often, though, it feels like those best guesses are being made from a very limited range of options. There’s also so much that remains unknown in these measures. Rarely is any substantial explanation offered as to why a book or story has been deemed excellent as if the writing in question is so excellent the justification for inclusion goes without saying. Such is not always the case.

This week, The New York Times released their list of the ten best books of the year. There are no surprises on the list and all kinds of disappointment because most of these books represent a rigid, narrow spectrum of excellence. It would be lazy to attack this list in petty ways so I’m not going to do that though including Stephen King (a writer I admire and enjoy) is vaguely insulting in the same way it would be to reward Angelina Jolie for still being beautiful and altruistic—in both cases, excellence has already been amply measured.

My disappointment in The New York Times list this year is not necessarily about the books being honored. I am disappointed by the lack of imagination in the choices and the marked absence of so many excellent books published this year that made neither this list nor the 100 Notable Books the Times recognized last month. These lists cannot possibly include every book published (nor should they) and a staggering number of books published each year. I recognize that. There are always going to be omissions but some of the omissions could be more aptly described as gaping voids. A major press published every book included in the Ten Best Books of the year list. The relative absence, on both the long and short list, of experimental fiction, short fiction, poetry, and books published by small presses (save a few exceptions) is dismaying. There are also profound cultural absences. I would not say there is no diversity in these lists but there is not enough to diminish the overall sense that far too much of human experience is willfully absent.

I have no problem with major presses. If they ever come calling, you better believe I’m going to answer enthusiastically, but as a writer whose career has, thus far, been sustained entirely by small presses and literary magazines, and as a reader and critic who has been exposed to truly outstanding writing from these presses and magazines, I cannot help but wish some of the work in that community was recognized by the “paper of record,” and other arbiters of excellence.

Most of the reading public gets their literary news from The New York Times. As such, the paper bears a responsibility for the decisions they make about the year’s best books. Part of that responsibility must include recognizing books that might otherwise not receive the critical attention they merit. That responsibility must include fostering a better, more inclusive and creative measure of excellence. When I consider this year’s long and shortlists, I get the sense that the people making these decisions are choosing to read narrowly and irresponsibly by not doing the work of seeking out the vibrant work being published by small presses and lesser known literary magazines. They are failing to take a more imaginative approach to identifying the year’s best writing.

In October 2011, Jeanette Winterson wrote a provocative essay in The Guardian on readability and literature where she said, “There are plenty of entertaining reads that are part of the enjoyment of life. That doesn’t make them literature. There is a simple test: ‘Does this writer’s capacity for language expand my capacity to think and to feel?’” The books I loved most this year, books that deserved serious consideration in any measure of excellence, were compelling both in terms of language and what that language expressed. As I have considered which books I would include on my own “best of” list for 2011, several books immediately come to mind, books I find myself discussing over and over because they are memorable and excellent, because they have expanded both my thinking and emotional response to literature.

I cannot fathom of a list of the ten best books of the year that does not include Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water (Hawthorne Books), a book that exquisitely demonstrates the writer’s capacity for language—language that was imaginative, intellectually stimulating, and emotionally resonant. Yuknavitch’s memoir was one of the most stunning books I’ve ever read and undoubtedly the best book I read in 2011. More than that, the book is innovative in structure, tone and spirit and marks a real evolution in the memoir genre. Excellence is not about perfect writing. It is about perfect intent and few books this year demonstrated perfect intent better than The Chronology of Water.

Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Once Upon a River (Norton), was another outstanding book I return to willingly and eagerly. The novel focuses on life along a river in rural, economically distressed Michigan. Campbell took a unique, subtle approach to portraying an independent young woman who endured all manner of violence but was also able to create a different kind of life for herself with a gorgeous, quiet strength.

Mule & Pear (New Issues Poetry & Prose), a collection of poetry by Eliza Griffiths, was perfect in intent. The writing was imbued with intimacy and each poem worked in conversation with important texts by black writers. The sophistication of the book’s project left a vivid impression. Griffiths tackled sex(uality), slavery, the strength of women, the mark of history, and the power of language, in fierce poems that were so memorable I return to them over and over.

Blake Butler’s There Is No Year (Harper Perennial), was a dense, bewildering experimental novel that frustrated me as much as it intrigued me. To this day, I cannot be sure if I love or hate the book. I cannot decide if Butler is brilliant or laughing at all of us. But as Winterson suggests, the language in this book expanded my capacity to think and feel. I was actively engaged from the first page to the last. I questioned what I was reading, at times loved what I was reading, at times wanted to throw the book out the window, but never was I passively staring at the page. I also know I have never read anything like it and doubt I ever will again. Surely, that uniqueness, and the way this book challenges the reader is a mark of excellence.

Other books I would have loved to see on the notable or ten best list include Silver Sparrow (Algonquin) by Tayari Jones for the moving, bittersweet story it tells, This Is Not Your City (Sarabande) by Caitlin Horrocks for the range of stories and narrative styles the collection holds as well as the impeccable prose, Zazen (Red Lemonade) by Vanessa Veselka for the sheer audacity, Green Girl (Emergency Press) by Kate Zambreno for the fierce, and complex interrogation of the female experience, and I could go on. These are books that either experiment with language, and/or tackle important social issues, and/or tell amazing stories—books that deserve to be recognized for their excellence yet like far too many such books, remain noticeably absent from discussions of the best literature produced this year.

This predilection for tastemakers to reward successful, major presses is not only harbored by the Times. When I consider the state of publishing, I am often preoccupied with a sense of absence—the books and stories not being published or recognized as excellent. Last year, I wrote an essay, “A Profound Sense of Absence,” where I was quite critical of Best American Short Stories 2010 not because of the quality of the fiction, which was generally beyond reproach, but because of the homogeneity of many of the stories that received the imprimatur of “year’s best.” There was a demographic narrowness in many of the stories that made me uncomfortable. It was also frustrating to find that most of the stories were published by a small number of literary magazines. Best American Short Stories could have more aptly been named Best American Short Stories About Upper Middle Class and Wealthy White Heterosexual People That Were Published in Elite Literary Magazines. There were certainly exceptions, but not enough.

To be fair, the stories in any year’s Best American Short Stories and the books recognized by “best of” and “notable” lists are a reflection of the writing being published. The problem of how excellence is measured, at least a good portion of it, lies with editors and publishers. Year-end anthologies cannot recognize culturally or stylistically diverse writing, if it is not published in venues where it will be noticed.

In Best American Short Stories 2011, six stories were published by a little publication called The New Yorker. Granta, Tin House, and McSweeney’s each had two stories in the anthology. These magazines are undoubtedly publishing excellent writing but their dominance also tells us that beyond the elite tier of magazines, it is more challenging for excellence to be recognized or acknowledged.

The three most interesting parts of BASS 2011 were the foreword by Heidi Pittlor, the introduction by guest editor Geraldine Brooks, and the list of Notable Stories at the back of the collection, a list that does include stories from a broader range of literary magazines while also listing a mind boggling nineteen (by my unofficial count) stories from The New Yorker and several stories for each of a number of other elite magazines like Ploughshares, Tin House, Ecotone, and Granta.

Just as I have no problem with major presses, I have no problem with elite magazines. I read them regularly. I certainly submit to them. One of my favorite short stories this year, Laura van den Berg’s “I Looked for You, I Called Your Name,” was published in Ploughshares. The one magazine I read the instant I receive it is American Short Fiction. I am never disappointed by The Paris Review. And yet, I also know there is brilliant work, deserving of recognition, being published in smaller, lesser known magazines like Hobart, Everyday Genius, Guernica, New York Tyrant, and again, I could go on. These magazines publish writing that is as consistently excellent as the writing in the elite magazines yet rarely does it receive a fraction of the recognition. The editors of the Best American anthologies share the same responsibility as the arbiters of excellence at The New York Times, to read beyond known quantities, to venture into the less predictable world of smaller presses and magazines, to set a different tone and measure for how we measure literary excellence.

In her introduction to BASS 2011, Geraldine Brooks says, “A great piece of writing is the one you feel on your skin. It has to do something.” I have no disagreement there. Great writing is often visceral and something you experience in the body as well as the mind. Toward the end of her introduction, though, she has strong words of advice for writers, suggesting, for example, that there are enough stories about adultery and that love stories do not need to end bleakly. She notes, “Foreign countries exist,” and, “There’s a war on.” She wonders why religion mostly appears in stories as a foil for humor and suggests that there is too little humor in short fiction. She goes on to say that, “There’s nothing wrong with writing stories set in bedrooms, classrooms, kitchens. These are the places where we spend large slabs of our lives. But the air becomes stale there.” I read enough to know these are fair observations but I would also suggest that the air also becomes stale in narrow publications that privilege a certain kind of story, detailing a certain kind of experiences, from a certain kind of writer. It would have been useful for Brooks to acknowledge that as well.

Much of what Brooks challenges in short fiction can be found in her selections for this year’s anthology. On the whole the writing was, as in last year’s anthology, beyond reproach. Once again, though, I was struck by the overall white, straight, and middle or upper class aesthetic of the choices. I am increasingly resigned to this inevitability. Yes, there’s a wonderful, fraught story by Jess Row about a biracial nurse who is involved with the daughter of the Korean woman he cares for. There’s a good story by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie about a man in Lagos who feels trapped by his marriage and his upper class life and who thinks with some nostalgia and regret about an old girlfriend who has recently tried to reconnect. There’s a story about the complex friendship between two gay men in Chicago. Caitlin Horrock’sThe Sleep,” was imaginative and engaging. Beyond these selections, the stories are what you might expect and they tend to blur together as a mass of exceedingly competent writing that is not as memorable as it should be for a collection measuring excellence in short fiction.

Both Pittlor and Brooks make a point, in their commentary, of suggesting there should be more writing about the war though none of the anthology’s selections do so. Critics are newly obsessed with asking, why aren’t more writers writing about the war and at times, the question seems dismissive and simplistic. The simple answer is perhaps, for whatever reason, writers don’t want to write about the war. The more complex answer is that maybe they don’t know how or that this war is, even now, relatively young. Perhaps writers (and I include myself in this group) don’t know what to say about this war yet. I wonder, though, why we don’t see the same demand for writing about other serious problems the world is facing. Where are the stories about the economic crisis or the systematic attack on undocumented immigrants who are being deported at an alarming rate or the political fracture of our government? Where are the stories about the complexities of race, ethnicity, sexuality and gender? These are issues that are just as urgent as the war and deserve the same literary attention and yet there is scant evidence of this urgency in Best American anything.

After I wrote my first essay on this sense of absence, several people asked what I’m looking for. It is difficult to articulate and yet it isn’t. I am not looking for a quota. I do not have a checklist. But I do want more. I want to no longer feel like too much is missing. I want writing that is more vibrant, more interesting, more challenging, more daring, more unexpected, more reflective of the world we actually live in and the people who populate that world. I want to see writing that takes chances and makes me uncomfortable and that makes me think. I want to read books and stories that are memorable and that don’t become part of the incoherent blur of things I once read. All I want is everything.

The writing I want to see is out there—I read it every day in literary magazines that are renowned as well as those that are lesser known or just starting out. I read it in books from major publishers and small presses and even micropresses. I do not find enough of that writing recognized by arbiters of excellence.

There are always so many prescriptions for writers about what they should or shouldn’t write about, about what they’re failing to write about, and about what they’re writing too much about. Rarely do we consider that writers are not the only ones in the literary ecosystem who need prescriptions. Perhaps, we should offer prescriptions for readers, editors, and critics to develop a more complete measure of excellence, and a more responsible, risk taking, and inclusive way of reading.


Roxane Gay's writing appears or is forthcoming in Best American Short Stories 2012, New Stories From the Midwest 2011 and 2012, Best Sex Writing 2012, NOON, Salon, Indiana Review, Ninth Letter, Brevity, and many others. She is the co-editor of PANK, and an HTMLGIANT contributor. She is also the author of Ayiti. You can find her online at http://www.roxanegay.com. More from this author →