The annual Pushcart Prize anthology hits three dozen with characteristic heft and customary good taste.
Volume editor Henderson’s introductory essays have always been part of the charm of his annuals, prizeworthy in their own right, and this one is no exception: In the space of a few pages, he dedicates the enterprise to Reynolds Price, a founding editor and master of contemporary literature, contemplates E.F. Schumacher’s “small is beautiful” ethic as it applies to the small-press world, snarks against e-books and reckons, quoting his poetry editor, that the business of being a Pushcart judge is “an impossible job.” Granted, but the impossibility yields some very good work in this case. A standout on the poetry front is Douglas Goetsch’s odd lyric “Black People Can’t Swim,” its controversy-begging title unfolding a complex tale of ethnic relations in a supposedly post-racial America. Meanwhile, stalwart Paul Zimmer, writing in the Gettysburg Review (which, small-press literature being an incestuous enterprise, Goetsch edits), turns in a lively short story, “Brief Lives,” that becomes a bittersweet meditation on how age divides us, with anyone old enough to remember C.P. Snow’s two-cultures division suspect in this brave new world. Never mind that Zimmer’s contentious cuss remembers Snow’s thesis as “a good shtick for a while and he cleaned up with some best sellers.” Whether there are any bestsellers here remains to be seen, but a few trends can be spotted, including a growing obsession, it would seem, with food: “Today, for no good reason, I ate two slices of toasted cinnamon/raisin bread at 9:30 a.m., a mere two hours since breakfast.” “We waited for the meal to be cooked when we had food, but when we didn’t, we waited for the trucks to bring food.” If these concerns seem Carveresque, see editor Gerry Howard’s fine disquisition on how privileged MFA students ape the working class when not despising it, then turn to Anis Shivani’s essay “The MFA/Creative Writing System Is a Closed, Undemocratic Medieval Guild That Represses Good Writing,” whose title says it all—and then ponder how many of these contributors participate in that system.
As ever, there are a few misfires and humdrummeries, but the Pushcart anthology remains essential for players in the writing game.