Pushcart Dreamin’

Every year I buy the new Pushcart Prize anthology, eager to read the best work that was published in the previous year, and hoping that one day one of my own stories might find its way into its pages. I’d never thought much about how it worked, but this is what I always assumed: an editor at one of the contributing small presses listed in the back of the anthology recommends a particular story or poem and then the people who are listed in the front, along with the big cheese, Bill Henderson, make a final decision.

After reading Mark Halliday’s essay, “Pushcart Hopes & Dreams,” in the current issue of Pleiades, however, it’s clear that my assumption was wrong. I guess if I had bothered to think about it, I’d have realized that this would be just too, well, democratic.

Halliday writes: “Each November 1 I receive a letter from the Pushcart Press inviting me (along with hundreds of other writers) to nominate works for the annual Pushcart Prize volume.” So, it’s not just the journals listed in the back that do the nominating; they also take nominations from established writers. Okay, I guess—more chances for the worthy but little-known writer to receive recognition for a particularly excellent piece of work. And now that I’ve gone searching for it, I see that they don’t hide the fact that their contributing editors nominate (they acknowledge it on their website). They do not acknowledge, however, that some of these contributing editors don’t nominate particular works, but a list of names.

Halliday continues:

…the easy, convenient way is for a ‘contributing editor’ to nominate writers rather than individual works.  All you have to do is list ten of your friends, if you want a quick way to do something nice.  Then Pushcart gets samples from your nominees, probably including some pieces that you the nominator have never seen.

Halliday goes on to say that he has had two prose pieces appear in Pushcart volumes that were “nominated by poet friends…who no doubt assumed they were nominating [him] as a poet and who had never even seen the prizewinning prose pieces.”

Okay, so this is a little bothersome, and it goes against everything that the anthology is about, or what the average reader assumes it’s about, which is recognizing the best (obviously subjective, but still, by someone’s estimation) individual stories and poems that were published in the previous year. I’m not heartbroken or anything, and I’m still going to buy the anthology, but I think it’s something of which readers (and Pushcart hopefuls) should be aware.

(Note: This issue of Pleiades (30.1) is pretty great, by the way. I really enjoyed Meghan Kenny’s story “I’ll Tell You What” and the 150+ pages of book reviews.)