Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Against anthologies

Tracy and I spend the entirety of today (as well as much of Thursday) preparing for our CW classes, which will be starting (along with MFA school) late next week. It has been unbelievably complicated accomplishing the simple task of scanning, cropping, printing, and arranging short stories and poetry for our students. The scanner at the library takes pictures from above, so my thumbs are visible in many of the scans, holding the books open, and, in one case, my entire left hand is a claw on the left page. You can see my wedding ring. It's black and white -- very classy. My hands are pretty girlish, though also hairy. When my students get their copies of the pages, I will tell them that each time they see my fingers on the margins, it is a reminder of how much I love them and care for their education: I assembled those readings one damn page at a time, against all odds, in spite of the resistance of some of the most obstinate computers and programs in all time, rescanning some books three times to get the files safely from Point A to Point B.

Sadly my students will have to pay for their copies of these stories (I'll leave them with the copy office in the library, which will then print + bind for everyone who asks), but this seems far superior to the usual strategy of forcing them to buy up anthologies. More work, yes, but ultimately less money and less waste for what I think will be better outcomes. Here's why:

1. The dependence of creative writing instructors on anthologies has a stultifying effect on writing and writers.

I won't claim to know what the aesthetic of any individual anthology is, because I don't read them enough to know. And of course there are exceptions -- Best American Fantasy and Horror is fairly encyclopedic and I remember spending whole weeks discovering new writers through it when I was in high school -- but generally my sense is that you go to Anthology X for this type of story and Anthology Y for that type. If you get a yearly anthology you're mostly exposing your students to what was trendy and easy to publish in a given year -- I remember getting the impression from one particular year of Pushcart that epiphany stories were basically all anyone wrote anymore -- and if you do one of the readers focusing on a broader range of time things arguably get worse, as you end up with a very checklisty collection of writing. Here's the Billy Collins poem. Here's the William Carlos Williams poem. Etc. In short it ends up very bland, and usually even in its blandness and broadness captures only a few segments of one general aesthetic; I don't want to give my students the idea that the only work that matters comes in the form of realist stories about middle-class and upper-middle-class white people having affairs and poems about, you know, whatever Billy Collins writes about. (I can never remember.)

Not only will I capture a broader sense of what's happening and what's happened in writing for my students by avoiding these books, but by not making the claims that anthologies make on their own behalf, I can distort their image of what writing is and can be perhaps a bit less. My reading list will not say it is exhaustive, will not say it is a collection of The Best, will not in fact claim any authority beyond my good taste and general open-mindedness. If a student doesn't find what she's looking for in my chosen works, I hope to make it clear there's still plenty more out there: that this is only the beginning. I think that anthologies tend to create a sense that there is One Thing in writing to which we should all aspire, and I think that this is how they perpetuate themselves, and I think that this is (part of) why people quit writing, or write boring garbage they would never actually themselves read.

2. The illusion that everyone reading the same fifteen people gives us a "shared vocabulary" needs to die sooner rather than later.

This is perhaps another way of saying what I'm really getting at above. There seems to be an assumption in creative writing pedagogy that everyone should read certain stories and authors as they progress toward the MFA, and then within the MFA. This is necessary because A) you can't be a good writer unless you've read, say, Hemingway, and B) it lets us all speak the same language.

If I had only read Hemingway and the other approved authors in school and on my own time, I wouldn't speak the same language as these other writers because I would have quit writing. The main effect of this system isn't that people can communicate more so much as that they needn't communicate: remove everyone who isn't on your wavelength from the room and it will begin to seem very much as if you're actually talking to each other.

My experience of the official primary texts of creative writing has been so different from the experiences of other writers that I don't believe they can actually unite people in a conversation: referring to Moby Dick in discussion doesn't communicate your experience or sense of Moby Dick, it invokes mine. Instructors especially dependent on the "shared vocabulary" concept will also tend to believe that there is one correct experience of or reaction to a book or story or poem, which can make it damn hard to have a conversation in light of the reality that this is, you know, bull. To really talk about writing is harder than gesturing at The Things They Carried or "Pet Milk," in part because writing well is more difficult than simply emulating these texts. The more we're allowed to bring our own experiences, aesthetics and favorite texts into the classroom, the more we will be forced to actually engage each other rather than echoing our own thoughts off each other's lazily bobbling heads.

3. But maybe what I'm really trying to say is simply that my favorite stories aren't in these anthologies.

Which leaves me at an impasse. Do I crowd-source my teaching and attempt to explain to my students a spark I don't actually see? Do I explain to them the brilliance of "Hills Like White Elephants," which I can understand but can't really feel or believe? Or do I assign them Shirley Jackson's "The Daemon Lover," which I actually love, and for which I can actually express and teach love?

Haven't they spent their whole lives being taught that literature is something you only pretend to care about? That it's something you fake your way through? That you can never really enjoy it, and shouldn't expect to? Do I have to give them that same lesson?

It's not about me, it's about the students. Which means I have to be a little selfish. I have to focus on sharing things that I genuinely and personally believe are great.

4. It lets them spend their time and money more wisely.

The only anthology I'm having my students buy this semester is a collection of plays. Why am I doing that? Because I'm not well enough read in plays to choose my own -- I would put something by Durang in, something by Beckett, something by Sondheim, or whatever, and that would basically be it. Maybe give them a flashback to high school with some Tennessee Williams. With the anthology I've chosen (which seems well-edited, I hope) I've narrowed the field of possibilities considerably, and so it becomes easy to choose, with some baseline level of confidence that the students will benefit. But it may not have the best plays in it, and it certainly won't have the ones I can teach most passionately, and odds are my students will benefit from some far more than others. If I knew more about plays, if I had been reading them longer, I could have selected those few works that would benefit my students most, provided them with copies, and then directed them to spend their money on a collection of work by one exemplary artist. This is what I've done in fiction and poetry (with Helen DeWitt and Abraham Smith respectively) and this means that my students will both have a small collection of carefully selected prose and poetry bought at a low price, and two incredible longform works.

Ultimately the use of anthologies seems like a way of wasting one's expertise and students' money. You don't want to take the time to curate, so you don't. They buy things you know they'll never even consider reading, and which, if pressed, you couldn't explain why they should read -- after all, chances are you haven't read it either. Nobody in any creative writing class ever read everything in the Pushcart anthology. My students will read everything they pay for in this class, and I suspect they'll have a more rigorous, more enriching experience as a result. They will also own a copy of Helen DeWitt's The Last Samurai, which is something I wouldn't have felt comfortable making them buy in addition to a story collection, a poetry collection, and a collection of plays. I would trade a hundred sales of Best American Short Stories for one sale of The Last Samurai.



  1. I don't teach CW classes, but in my intro comp sections I've tried bringing in supplementary essays from my bookshelf instead of using anthologies. Sometimes the students are as interested in the publication the piece came from as they are in the piece itself, which is exciting. I had one guy who couldn't stop about why the Believer shouldn't be named the Believer if it wasn't a religious text.

    Can you share any of the highlights from your list?

  2. Didn't realize you taught -- where do you teach?

    I like using essays I've found, too.

    Right now my list is, in prose: Tim O'Brien ("The Things They Carried," "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong"), Daniel Wallace (from Ray in Reverse, "The House he Built" and "The Main Thing"), Shirley Jackson ("The Daemon Lover"), Brian Evenson ("The House Rules"), Kafka ("In the Penal Colony"), Blake Butler ("The Copy Family").

    In poetry: Sharon Olds, Hart Crane, Paul Celan, Carmen Gimenez Smith, Eula Biss.

    Still figuring out plays.

  3. I teach and do academic advising in a place of unimaginable horror.

    I'm curious about Shirley Jackson. I know some hardcore fans but I've never picked her up. I think she's on my short list of to-check-outs.

  4. She's really good! I would get her collected fiction -- The Haunting of Hill House is good but not really as powerful as a lot of her short stories. Haven't read her other long stuff yet.

  5. I know a lot of academic presses are letting profs pick and choose pieces for custom anthologies. Of course, this generally only works if you're a real prof and not a TA, like me. I've tried to cull works for custom anthologies twice, and twice was I foiled!

    This year, I'm teaching an argument class (composition) and, unlike previous years, I'm depending on essays from prior books I've read or taught from (sort of like you) or from magazines I subscribe to. So far, so okay.

  6. That's a really cool idea (the custom anthologies). Right before Fictionaut came out I had a similar idea for a site that focused on letting people build and print their own magazines from stories posted online. Wouldda been a logistical nightmare but maybe something like that could help here.