The 25th anniversary edition of a tradition in American literature, heavier on quantity than quality but still worth perusing for some showstoppers.
Henderson’s introduction alone makes for worthwhile reading: the cast of beginning editors he names reads like the list for a literary hall of fame, and his history of the prize charts a recent trajectory of publishing at large. Among this year’s entries, essays, memoirs, and short stories dominate, with poems interspersed like an unfortunate form of punctuation: Cathleen Calbert’s “Bad Judgement,” with its dazzling and vibrant rhythm and flow, and the brutally full-bore “Six Apologies, Lord” by Olena Kalytiak Davis, among a few others, are strong exceptions. But it is a dozen or so short stories and a few memoirs and essays that deserve special recognition. Standouts include Salvatore Scibona’s “Prairie” (which evokes the solitary feel of growing up the Canadian prairie), Ken Kalfus’s “PU-239” (which tells of a nuclear reactor technician with nothing to lose), and other impressive inclusions (such as Kathleen Hill’s “The Annointed,” Jane McCaffrey’s “Berna’s Place,” and Joan Silber’s “Commendable”). Memoirs are surprisingly good: Bret Lott’s “Toward Humility” is notable, as well as Andrew Hudgins’s “Half-Answered Prayers.” And there is literary criticism, as well: in “Milton at the Bat,” Jeffrey Hammond writes a defense of Milton that reads like a modern-day defense of poetry. It is ironic that Hammond’s piece shares the stage with Seamus Heaney’s “New Staves” (an attempt to answer the question “What good is poetry?”), since a comparison of the two illustrates the imbalance that appears throughout the collection: while Heaney’s answer feels flat and rote, Hammond’s is enthusiastic and convincing.
Seventy-four entries were selected out of over 5,000 nominations. Another cut might well have been made, but there is wheat here among the chaff.