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Best New American Voices


PUBLISHED: October 22, 2009

Best New American VoicesAmid the rumored demise of the Best New American Voices anthology series, I’d like to take a minute to celebrate the most recent installment, the 2010 edition. The series has previously brought the debuts of several heavyweights, and this year’s collection is as promising as ever. It features vibrant stories from MFA programs and writing conferences and, while it’s a little heavy on animal metaphors, it has several standouts. Lysley Tenorio’s “Save the I-Hotel,” about the dangers of being gay and Asian and unafraid in the 1930s, is virtuosic and commanding. In Timothy Scott’s surprising “Plato” a widower and a nun figure out how to be hopeful.

A particularly well-crafted story, “Up High in the Air,” comes from Laura van den Berg. Her first collection, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, comes out this month from Dzanc Books and contains eight solid stories, all of which are inventive, cohesive, and memorable.

Only 26 years old and a graduate of Emerson’s MFA program, van den Berg’s collection feels particularly fresh. The collection is full of women who are relentlessly abandoned. Fathers go missing and husbands go mad. Though the stories in her collection take place around the globe, from Madagascar to Scotland to Brooklyn, the women belong nowhere. Their existence depends on a blind belief in the unseen—fidelity, mortality, monsters, madness. The stories can sometimes be beautifully messy, but the best ones are the simplest, recalling the alien sadness of Joy Williams and the sharp wit of Jean Thompson. In my favorite story, “Where We Must Be,” a divorced failed actress who takes a job in the woods as a Big Foot impersonator begins to date a dying man. In a manner both absurd and touching, the story peels back layers of fear and examines what it means to be a survivor, of cancer, of divorce, of imaginary monsters, of anything.

What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves UsWhat I love most about her stories, which are all about women adrift, is that they are anything but trivial. In the very subtle “Still Life with Poppies”, Juliana follows her husband to France, where global terrorism slowly erodes his latent schizophrenia and their relationship, until one day he simply disappears. As Juliana stays in France, an expatriate in every sense, her personal tragedy isn’t the unbearable thing, but rather the way tragedies can also be mysterious, as in the psychological demise of a marriage, or the unknowable chaos of the current political climate. I know, it sounds a little bit didactic, but with van den Berg’s alive voice and careful lens, it works.

And she is just one promising voice in the anthology. Other contributors are equally impressive, and other anthologies are equally important. This year’s PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories featured Caitlin Horrocks’s fantastic “This Is Not Your City,” which illustrates a communication breakdown in a Russian-Finnish family. An alumna of Arizona State’s MFA program, Horrocks’s first collection is forthcoming next year from Sarabande. Best American Short Stories 2009 showcased really smart stories from young writers, two of my favorites being “The Farms,” by Eleanor Henderson, from the UVA MFA program (disclosure: she’s the chair of VQR’s fiction board), and “The Peripatetic Coffin,” by Ethan Rutherford, a rising star out of the University of Minnesota’s MFA program.

Maybe it’s true that most of the readers of literary fiction anthologies are writers who want to be in those anthologies. But the short story is the young writer’s first portal into the world of literary fiction, and without the anthologies to celebrate the form and encourage the endeavor, I don’t know where we would all be. In particular, the Best New American Voices series is a testament to the viability of the youthful perspectives coming out of MFA programs, annually making new what could become staid. If this year’s edition is indeed the last, then perhaps that story is the saddest of the year.

5 Comments

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Lee's picture
Lee · 10 years ago
What is the problem? Financial? I keep searching for blogs and other online sources that serve a similar function with regard to literary fiction published via the internet but have yet to find a really reliable critic - someone who is willing to search the many writer websites for the good stuff, especially indie work from those who are taking charge of their own publication process. It seems to me there’s a real need here.
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Nancy Rawlinson's picture
Where did you hear about this “rumored demise”? I have looked for sources on it but haven’t found any. If it’s true, that’s a real shame.
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Aja Gabel's picture
Aja Gabel · 10 years ago
Nancy: I first heard about it on Ted Thompson’s blog at http://tednotedward.tumblr.com/post/143676988/sad-news. Ted is a contributor to Best New American Voices 2010 (with a great coming of age story.) Since then, the rumors I’ve heard have been mostly unofficial in the publishing industry. I haven’t, as of yet, tried to confirm it with Houghton Mifflin. Lee: Emerging Writers Network at http://emergingwriters.typepad.com/ is a good place to find some of what you’re looking for. Dzanc Books is associated with EWN, and they published Laura van den Berg’s collection.
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Lee's picture
Lee · 10 years ago
Aja: Yes, Dan Green is doing good work, but my impression is that he tends to focus his in-depth criticism on little presses and online literary journals, rather than the truly independent writer. To many people, ‘emerging’ often seems to mean ‘seeking conventional publication’ .
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Arna Hemenway's picture
Arna Hemenway · 10 years ago
John Kulka told a crowd at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference over the summer that the publisher had declined to pick up the contract for another year. He said that he thought there would be a year or two hiatus but that he was confident the series would find a home elsewhere.
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