Commentary

Is Something Missing from the Pushcart Prize?

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Posted on January 6th, 2012 at 6:53 pm

I am a big fan of the Pushcart Prize anthologies; I own the first 1976 anthology, the 25th anniversary edition, and each one from the past six years. Pushcart editor Bill Henderson is something of a hero of mine, a feeling probably held by much of the literary publishing world; I use his book The Art of Literary Publishing every year in my publishing course. Luna Park interviews were once chosen by selecting the author of the first piece from that year’s Pushcart anthology—a tradition that ended the year I couldn’t get ahold of Katie Chase. When the Pushcart Prize began, it brought renewed attention to the literary magazine and small press world. The prize’s name is even credited to another publishing hero of mine, George Plimpton, for his Fifth Avenue Project Pushcart Protest in the 70s. Upon finally meeting Henderson at the 2008 AWP, my hands shook and I forgot to introduce myself. And two years ago when I had questions about a publishing project, I wrote Henderson a letter. I still have the charming reply he sent the following week.

Nonetheless, I was disappointed last month as I sat in the bleachers during my daughter’s swim meet and flipped through the 2012 Pushcart Prize edition. Was it just the chlorine making me uneasy? As usual the work in the anthology was generally good, sometimes fantastic. I read John Jeremiah Sullivan’s essay “Mister Lytle” once again and lingered over each sentence of Lydia Davis’s short fictions. I stuck my tongue out at Anis Shivani. I read Katherine Graber’s poem “The Telephone” five or six times.

The problem was the severe limitation of the anthology’s scope, an anthology ostensibly offering up the “Best of the Small Presses.” This is a shortcoming most significantly represented by Henderson’s disparagement of any and all online and electronic publishing venues. (Only one online publication was chosen from for this 2012 anthology.) Here is from Henderson’s introduction:

I have long railed against the e-book and instant Internet publication as damaging to writers. Instant anything is dangerous—great writing takes time. You should long to be as good as John Milton and Reynolds Price, not just barf into the electronic void.

As if that isn’t enough, Henderson goes on to quote from a letter he received from Clay Reynolds, director of creative writing at University of Texas at Dallas:

Now literary parties are peopled by crushing bores talking about iPads and Nooks, bragging about the number of volumes they’ve downloaded and comparing computers. There is no booze, certainly no smoking. And there are no books.

I want to say that Reynolds sounds like someone who hasn’t been getting enough invitations, but it is more likely he just hasn’t been paying close enough attention to both how much the literary world has evolved over recent decades and how much it has stayed the same. It’s still a bunch of people in love with books, with stories, with language. Now I haven’t been to a Paris Review Revel or FSG book launch, but all the book festivals, conferences, and parties I’ve been too are filled with people nerding out about books in all forms, touching them, clicking them, flipping them, scrolling them, and passing them around. And there’s usually plenty of booze.

Maybe it is because I am writing this on the back end of a Word Press platform, but I am simply overwhelmed by such perspectives about literature twelve years into the twenty-first century, three decades after the invention of the personal home computer, and when every kid in my daughter’s sixth-grade class has an email address and can use Google Docs better than I can. All of the smartest and best writers I know write, publish, research, and communicate both in print and online: Benjamin Percy, David Shields, Kelly Link, Michael Robbins, Blake Butler, Laura van den Berg, Margaret Atwood… This isn’t even a point that needs to be made any longer; perhaps in 2002, but not 2012.

When the Pushcart Prize began in 1976 it was the anti-establishment (for lack of a better word). Anais Nin, Buckminster Fuller, Charles Newman, and Ishmael Reed were all prominent supporters from its inception. Maybe today things have changed? Not only are electronic and online publications nearly missing, but so are most cutting edge literary magazines and presses—Conjunctions and n+1 are about as avant garde as it seems to get this year. The anthology begins with work by Steven Millhauser and John Jeremiah Sullivan, two stunning authors, but also ones we can easily find in the glossies. Most of the publications with work chosen from them are largely mainstream, lit mag industry staples: Georgia Review, Harvard Review, New Letters, New England Review, Poetry, Third Coast, Tin House, and so forth. Again, these are largely great magazines; what’s lacking in the anthology is greater diversity and real coverage of the best being published in the indie presses.

Of course I’ll buy next year’s anthology, and the following year, and the year after that. And if I run into Henderson I’ll try to remember to introduce myself and thank him for all the great work he’s done for literature over the decades. The Pushcart anthologies are overall great publications, probably the best out there for representing and promoting what’s going in indie literature. I’m just hoping for a bit more electricity in the future.

Here’s a final quote, this time from Frederick Barthelme, who nailed it back in 1997:

There seem to be two basic views of the Web among literary folk. The first and most common is that the Web is a wasteland, another television, a form of advertising — all utterly unsuitable for literary activity. Among these folk there is a curious parallel between response to the Web and response to alternative literatures. Those who are terrorized by any change in the habits, practices, and product of writers, any change that might tend to disenfranchise them, are also, and perhaps not surprisingly, terrorized by the rise of the Web as a publishing forum. The second common view is the giddy “it’s all experimental” approach that proclaims that anything on the Web is a fabulous extension of literary activity as we have known it and will clearly destroy all not up-to-date literary activity in about twenty minutes.

Both these views are, even in their most sophisticated disguises, silly.

My sense is that the Web is a gun. It’s all potential, what we do with it; it’s a device, a system, a “site” in the linguistic sense, a prospect. How we use it over the next decade or two will define it. At the moment it’s politically and socially semi-neutral, uninflected, a tool for, in our case, the distribution of literary information. Years ago Charles Newman wrote a series of acute essays for TriQuarterly in which he discussed at length the power and potential of literary distribution systems. I know he didn’t have the Web in mind, and who knows what he thinks about the Web, but the Web certainly qualifies as a stunning development in distribution systems.