The venerable literary annual turns 40, with no signs of slowing down.
Editor Henderson, whose brainchild the prize was, customarily includes a rather dour state of the publishing union address in his introductory remarks. Here, he invokes literary lion Leon Wieseltier, who lamented the “bacchanal of disruption” that has left in its wake the corpses of so many bookstores and record shops, “destroyed by the greatest thugs in the history of the culture industry.” Against this gloom, Henderson is unusually cheerful: he holds that the future is so bright for small-press types that they’ve got to wear shades, provided someone else buys them since there’s no money in the culture biz. The anthology speaks to that, its contributions coming from comparatively well-heeled venues like Paris Review and American Poetry Review but also from scruffy little magazines out on the fringes of the publishing world, if still mostly concentrated around the cultural centers of the Northeast. As ever, among what Henderson enumerates as “68 poems, stories, essays, and memoirs from 51 presses,” there are some remarkable standouts as well as a few pieces that don’t make a dent. Colum McCann’s story “Sh’khol” is a marvel of tragic compaction: within a hundred words, Irish parents adopt a Russian child with fetal alcohol syndrome, bubbling with happiness at the new arrival, and in the flash of seven years, divorce, the wife “living out west, her parents…gone, her task…doubled.” Amazingly, things get worse. Joanna Scott’s story “The Knowledge Gallery” is a smart, brooding piece of literary dystopia, though it’s good to know that in the Soylent Greeny future there are still doughnut holes. Among the heavy hitters, Joyce Carol Oates, bracketing Wieseltier, wistfully recalls the beginnings of her career, when literary writers such as Truman Capote and Katherine Anne Porter appeared in the pages of fashion magazines: “How improbable this seems to us, by contemporary standards!”
Indeed. But apart from presenting an overstuffed selection of good work, Pushcart affords room for hope. Here’s looking forward to many more editions.