The Pushcart Prize hits its 35th anniversary, and editor, literary activist and Pushcart pusher Henderson is ticked off.
That’s about 16 decades in dog years, or a century in computer years, a time long enough to note some trends and to develop a cantankerous irascibility. When he started his annual round-up of the small-press world, writes Henderson, “as now, publishing was in crisis,” with conglomerates snapping up formerly independent houses and pundits bemoaning the collapse of literary culture. Well, now things are different, he writes: “Now, our busy money folks don’t even recognize print—fake books (Kindle) and fake publishers (vanity) abound.” No e-books, presumably, for the Pushcartians, and Henderson compounds the snippiness later with outlashings at the likes of Northwestern University Press and Doubleday for various sins against the culture. But no matter; publishing may be in a state of crisis, but that seems not to have stanched the flow of manuscripts into the judges’ inboxes. As usual, the Pushcart Prize anthology turns up many of the usual suspects, the tenured MFA mafia, seasoned with young and emerging writers bursting with fresh insights. Which is to say: It’s always good to hear from warhorses such as Philip Levine (“I’m doing my feeble best to entrance you”) and Barney Rosset (“Beckett came in, tall, trench coated, and taciturn, on his way to another appointment”), but for the news-seekers, the greater pleasures in the book will be in the arrivals of writers such as Amanda Rea, who writes affectingly of her father’s efforts to make it as a country singer, and Susan McCallum-Smith, who blends offbeat family history with, of all things, episodes in philately. As is often the case, the nonfiction is fresher than the fiction, which tends to the derivative (if the accomplished derivative)—though Marilyn Chin’s subversive take on Buddhist folklore, mixing plainspun folktales with lines of the Don Rickles variety (“Leave the poor bird alone, you loser-redneck”), makes up for a lot of workshoppish sins.
As ever, an essential barometer for spotting literary trends—and, for would-be writers, figuring out where to send the next submission. And, as ever, essential, period.