Freedom from choice

From short stories to sports and science writing, "Best of" anthologies prove that readers like their books preselected.

Topics: Poetry, Books,

Freedom from choice

As a rule, freedom of choice is a good thing, but even good things can be run into the ground. And in 21st century America, we’re running freedom of choice into the ground. Is it reasonable that we be expected to analyze competing cellphone plans and long-distance services so we can pick the one that’s best for us? Should we consider it a privilege to pick the optimal energy company for our needs? Are we supposed to have the time and expertise to comparison-shop for the best deal on homeowners insurance and decide for ourselves which of the various medical treatments for breast and prostate cancer is best for us? Excuse me, but what ever happened to experts?

Sometimes a person just wants to hand the reins over to somebody else. This longing accounts for the personal shopper, the prix fixe dinner and — judging by the towers of books on the floor by my desk — the proliferation of annual “Best of” anthologies. This year’s total is 15 and climbing.

The “Best of” anthology offers readers freedom from choice in the nicest possible way. The way it works is that each anthology has a long-term series editor, usually a writer of some repute, and an annual guest editor, generally a big-name literary figure. (For example, this year’s guest editor for Scribner’s “Best American Poetry” is Rita Dove; for Houghton Mifflin’s “Best American Short Stories,” it’s E.L. Doctorow.) The series editor does the grunt work, scanning the whole year’s output from big and little magazines, newspapers and even online magazines when the spirit moves. The series editor then turns over 100 or so of the best to the guest editor, who makes the final cut.

Houghton Mifflin is the 800-pound gorilla of the annual anthology biz: Its list of anthologies includes short stories, essays, sports writing, mystery stories, recipes, travel writing and science and nature writing, with more categories under discussion. Meanwhile, other publishers are getting on the anthology bandwagon. Scribner’s has been publishing its distinguished Best American Poetry series since 1988, and this year’s debuts include best magazine writing, science writing, food writing, art writing, writing by men and women of all colors and new (previously unpublished) voices.

Janet Silver, Houghton’s editor in chief, estimates there are more than half a million Houghton annual anthologies in print, and she describes the recent growth as “exponential.” (As if marking out its territory, Houghton has actually trademarked the phrase “Best American.”) Asked to explain the annual anthology’s newfound popularity, Silver says her own company owes its success to “readers with ever less time, looking more and more for preselection by authorities they trust and admire.”

Preselection: the wave of the future. You heard it here first.

Preselection is one of those organizing principles — like Oedipal conflict or right-wing conspiracy — that seem, the minute you hear them, to make disparate phenomena fall into an understandable pattern. Oprah’s Book Club, for instance, has had more influence on American literature than Lionel Trilling and Ralph Waldo Emerson combined. It’s so popular because Winfrey is saying, “This is a good book. Go and read it.”

What about those commercials on cable TV for anthologies of “the world’s greatest music” — the ones that always seem to include the New World Symphony, Beethoven’s Fifth and “Pathetique”? The audience may be full of people slumped potatolike on their sofas, but it’s obvious that they’re yearning for preselected classics.

And finally, consider these two words: Martha Stewart. Stewart is the queen of preselection; after her minions have scoured the planet for recipes, ingredients and domestic artifacts, she steps in and puts her personal imprimatur on this Christmas menu and that andiron. What is Stewart, if not the guest editor of the Best American Lifestyle?

Against this cultural backdrop, the rise of the “Best of” anthology starts to look like a historical inevitability. Yet annual “Best” anthologies are not exactly a new phenomenon. The first major series, dedicated to short stories, was launched in 1915; it seems to have had the field mostly to itself for more than half a century. In 1975, the annual Pushcart Prize anthology appeared on the scene, dedicated then, as now, to showcasing the best of the small presses. The next decade saw a few additions to the genre — most notably, the debut in 1988 of Scribner’s annual best poetry anthology — but the real groundswell didn’t begin until the early ’90s.

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Since the real roots of the “Best of” phenomenon slightly predate choice overload, other forces probably account for its first stirrings. One possible candidate is the demise of the so-called canon. The canon, as every serious reader surely knows, was the corpus of academically sanctioned literature — Homer to Shakespeare to Mark Twain to Ernest Hemingway — that was routinely taught in high schools and colleges. But in the mid-’80s some academics began to argue that the very existence of the canon was a monument to intellectual imperialism: It was arbitrary, it was exclusionary, it had less to do with excellence than with tradition. These books endured not because they were great but because the impressionable young people who were made to study them then went on to teach them. According to critics, the canon needed to be opened up to other voices; they envisioned a better world in which we’d all be free to shape our own personalized canons.

It hasn’t quite worked out that way. Instead of opening readers’ eyes to the vast universe of possibilities, the demise of the canon left a lot of people less sure about what’s really worth reading. The “Best of” anthology, with its contents approved by a prestigious guest editor, assures readers that they’re not wasting their time.

Another element in the “Best of” groundswell is the clamor of unedited voices online, sucking up readers’ time and attention. The Internet seems to have heightened the determination of writers, skilled and unskilled, to make themselves heard in defiance of any filters. The idea seems to be that publishers, editors and academics are gatekeepers, censors and party poopers, determined to silence what they don’t like and to control what ordinary people are going to read. (This, you should know, is the exact opposite of the way editors, publishers and academics think of themselves — which is as people longing to discover hidden and original voices.)

Predictably, unedited literature online is a mixed bag. By all accounts, Stephen King’s online serial “The Plant” was a deft and readable satire, but after the first, successful installment so many readers failed to pay for downloads that King had to pull the plug. But much self-published Web writing seems to be merely old vanity-press content in new bottles. Amateur writers can now offer sample chapters on e-publishing Web sites, have their manuscripts printed one book at a time using print-on-demand technology and distribute real books through online bookstores. But quality is still the sticking point: Judging from the sample chapters I’ve seen, the books are the dreary equivalent of shows on community-access cable. They’re not anything that the average reader for pleasure would want to spend any time on.

For most of us, the anthology boom is a godsend. Anthologies let us encounter new writers and new ideas, and we can pursue them at book length if we choose. They’re the perfect bus or subway books, the perfect books for the summer house, the perfect bedtime reading. They work for any occasion when you can focus only for 20 minutes or half an hour. (And with a legitimate book on your nightstand instead of a ratty stack of magazines, you never again have to hear your spouse say, in tones of exaggerated patience, “Are you finished with this August 1998 New Yorker yet?”)

But even godsends have downsides, and I’m bound to say I’ve picked up a couple of disturbing signs in this bull anthology market. First, if this year’s crop of “Bests” is any indicator, publishers are slicing the available territory into thinner and thinner slivers. What if each succeeding series becomes overspecialized, like a mite that can only lay its eggs in the earwax of a Siberian tiger? Not only does specialization raise the specter of extinction, it defeats the purpose of an anthology. If you need to buy 10 different “Best of” anthologies to get a nice broad sample, you might just as well subscribe to lots of different magazines. That way, you at least get the pictures of Elizabeth Hurley with golden retriever puppies.

Then, too, will the growing number of voracious series editors begin fighting over the same choice morsels? Already, duplicate pieces have started turning up in different collections. A wonderful story by Jhumpa Lahiri appears in “Best Magazine Writing” and “Best American Short Stories,” and she shows up in “Best Food Writing” too (to slightly less advantage). Both “Best American Essays” and “Best American Science Writing” include physicist Steven Weinberg’s brilliant analysis of whether the universe shows evidence of design. (Answer, for those of you who haven’t been keeping up: It doesn’t.) Floyd Skloot’s first-person essay “Thinking With a Damaged Brain,” about life after contracting a debilitating virus, also appears in both anthologies.

And what do we know about the people preselecting our reading for us? Might we unwittingly be fostering growth of an anthology mafia? The signs are there. For instance, the durable David Halberstam has pieces in both “Best American Sports Writing 2000″ and “Best American Travel Writing,” and he edited the 1991 “Best Sports Writing” besides. Novelist Alan Lightman looks like a potential anthology don: He edited “Best American Essays 2000″ and is slated to edit an upcoming edition of Ecco’s “Best American Science Writing.” Not to mention Joyce Carol Oates, a veritable Veg-O-Matic of the anthology world: Oates was a founding editor of “The Pushcart Prize Anthology” in 1975, edited “Best American Short Stories” in 1979, edited “Best American Essays” in 1991 and edited “Best American Essays of the Century” in 2000.

What’s more, are these series editors going far enough afield to bag us the best? Although the introductions always allude to the onerous job of sifting through thousands of entries (and some even solicit contributions for upcoming editions, with mailing addresses and deadlines and everything), a jaundiced reader might be forgiven for thinking that if a bomb, God forbid, were dropped in midtown Manhattan, the next decade’s “Best” anthologies would be skinnier than an issue of Talk. All the usual suspects — the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, Esquire, Sports Illustrated, Vanity Fair, the New York Times — turn up so often that I began to wonder if editing a series merely means subscribing to the same magazines I do.

On the other hand, casting the net too wide presents its own problems. “Best New American Voices,” launched this year by Harcourt, has a sort of open-admissions policy; series editors John Kulka and Natalie Danford announce breathlessly that they’ve gone straight to the source and gleaned unpublished short stories from “writing programs, arts organizations, and community workshops.” This seems sweet but is surely destined for retail failure: Who, beyond the relatives of the anthologized, is the audience for such a book? True, the editors note that the work has been “prescreened” by workshop directors, and volume editor Tobias Wolff assures us that the stories are good, but I think the average anthology reader is looking for more filtration, not less.

Those who pride themselves on the catholicity or adventurousness of their reading tastes may well take a dim view of the “Best of” boom. I can envision intellectuals saying, with a certain hauteur, “I would never allow someone to choose what I read.” These are probably the same people who ask for menu substitutions in nice restaurants — on the theory that they know more than the chef about what tastes good with what — or who walk around looking like the wrath of God under the impression that they have a “personal style.” My position is, if it’s good enough for John Updike or Joyce Carol Oates or Harold Bloom, it’s good enough for me.

Literary lions who refuse on principle to play the “Best of” game are another problem altogether. For the 2000 volume of “Best American Poetry,” series editor David Lehman invited his 14 past and present guest editors to list their choices for 15 best poems of the century. Most did, but Adrienne Rich refused flat out, and Louise Glück wrote a thoughtful letter, also declining. It said, in part: “There can’t be, I think, the best of the great … What remains is preference.”

To which I can only respond, on behalf of the hungry readers of the world: Louise, Adrienne, listen to me. You have no idea what it’s like out here, trying to sort through the noise, the hype, the mediocrity, in search of something that’s really worth paying attention to. Your preferences are fine. Just give us the list.

JoAnn Gutin is a writer and anthropologist who lives in New York.

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