A Heroic Holdout

Bill Henderson is a staunch holdout against the encroachment of technology
From left, Colum McCann, Zadie Smith, Sharon Olds, Bill Henderson, Jonathan Galassi, Ben Marcus, and Philip Schultz celebrated Pushcart’s 40th anniversary at the Village Community School in Manhattan in November.

“Pushcart Prize XL”

Edited by Bill Henderson

Pushcart Press, $19.95


The Pushcart Prize is celebrating its 40th anniversary; 40 years of bringing us the very best new writing from America’s small presses, whose sheer passion and strength of purpose keep them afloat in the face of the multinational publishing behemoths. Celebrate is the appropriate word.

In his introduction, the collection’s editor, the endearingly curmudgeonly Bill Henderson, laments the loss of the old independent publishers and the fabled editors, the rise of vanity publishing, the disappearance of magazines and newspapers in “the insane excitement of a digital world.”

He quotes a paragraph from an essay by Leon Wieseltier, former editor of The New Republic, in The New York Times Book Review, which is worth repeating again here: “Amid the bacchanal of disruption, let us pause to honor the disrupted. The streets of American cities are haunted by the bookstores and record stores, which have been destroyed by the greatest thugs in the history of the culture industry. . . . Words cannot wait for thoughts, and first responses are promoted into best responses, and patience is a professional liability. As the frequency of expression grows, the force of expression diminishes: Digital expectations of alacrity and terseness confer the highest prestige upon the twittering cacophony of one-liners and promotional announcements. It was always the case that all things must pass, but this is ridiculous. . . . Meanwhile the discussion of culture is being steadily absorbed into the discussion of business. Where wisdom once was, quantification will now be. . . .”

Mr. Henderson is a staunch holdout against the encroachment of technology. Many years ago he founded the Lead Pencil Club (he may be the sole member) as a protest about how the speed and convenience of writing on a computer were at the expense of quality. Today, when “editor” has almost become a word you have to look up in the dictionary, he is still wielding that pencil like a sword in the fight for literary excellence.

The chosen entries, which are submitted as the best of their best, come from the names that have been literary paradigms for decade upon decade — Paris Review, BOMB, Ploughshares, American Poetry Review, Granta, Sal­magundi, and some 60 other small presses. Can they still thrive? Can they still make it in the face of big commerce? Will there still be dedicated people like Bill Henderson willing to look out for us, the nation’s readers, to make sure our lives aren’t reduced to twitterings? We can but hope.

You glance at the blurbs, maybe raise an eyebrow a little at Richard Ford saying, “More good poems, essays, and stories are found in these presses than in any other place on the planet,” and launch yourself into this tome. And the truth is that it doesn’t take long before Mr. Ford is vindicated — everything you read in this collection is outstanding.

Zadie Smith’s wonderful “Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets,” which follows an aging transvestite on a trip to Manhattan’s East Side to get a new corset, gets the collection off to a rambunctious start. It’s laugh-out-loud funny; until it isn’t. Anyone who has ever sabotaged an opportunity by being overdefensive will feel a twinge of self-recognition as Miss Adele storms out of the helpful corsetier, full of self-righteous and unjustified indignation.

And isn’t that what one hopes for — in a short story as much as a novel — something beyond the story itself, something that lingers long after and creaks around in the back of the mind, perhaps an insight into old problems, or an infinitesimal change in some long-held prejudice, or a little sympathy where there was none before. Something that enriches.

For this reviewer, the anthology would be $19.95 well spent just for “Long Bright Line” by Josh Weil. At the beginning of the last century, Clara’s father is a member of the Society for Aeronautical Enthusiasm and he passes on his obsession for all things aeronautical to his daughter. But she is a girl, her place is in the kitchen. When he wins a trip in an air balloon it is Clara’s younger brother who goes with him. As the years pass, her hopeless desire to be an aviatrix changes as she decides her place is on the ground after all, where, obsessively, she starts to make huge earth canvases, with mown grass, planted corn, shoveled snow, that can be seen only by the postal carriers who fly over her farm. It is a lovely, slow paean to the life and soul of an artist.

Lisa Lee’s “Paradise Cove” is a chapter from a novel she is working on about a dysfunctional Korean immigrant family. This episode features as nasty a display of sibling jealousy as I can recall reading, and it is to be hoped the novel follows fast on the heels of the prize so we can find out what happens to that hellish brother. 

E.A. Durden’s “The Orange Parka” follows another immigrant, Rakesh from Guyana, as he tries to cope with the death of his wife, a freezing northern winter, precarious employment, and, primarily, his missing daughter, who has been skipping school and over whom he has lost control.

Pingfang — if you have not heard of it before, it would be good to Google this World War II Japanese biological research unit before reading the strange and beautifully written “Train to Harbin” by Asako Serizawa. Read the entire entry, harrowing though it is, because a little background information here is important. Ms. Serizawa moves very quietly through this tale of secrets and lies and of how compromise and cowardice and circumstance can turn a young man into a brute and, what is worse for him and the world, then allow him to go unpunished.

Among the essays, there’s an interesting one by Joyce Carol Oates about her youth growing up on a farm, reading, reading, reading, then discovering some of those aforementioned small presses while at Syracuse University, where she earned 70 cents a week working in the library. As it turns out, she was first published not by any of them but by Mademoiselle, which at that time, if you can believe it, was publishing serious writing by William Faulkner, Sylvia Plath, Paul Bowles, Flannery O’Connor, and Truman Capote.

There is so much wonderful writing here: Frederic Tuten’s “Winter, 1965,” about the pains of getting published, Dan Chaon’s “What Happened to Us?” about tragedy as seen — but not understood — by an 8-year-old boy, poetry by Tony Hoagland, Edward Hirsch, and Jane Hirshfield, and I am barely halfway through the book.

There are 68 entries of fiction, poetry, and essays in “Pushcart Prize XL,” and although I knew that these had been whittled down from a much larger number of submissions, I didn’t realize to what extent. In the back of the book are listed the small presses that submitted entries — about 1,700 of them! What a labor of love this volume is; what an armada of editors scudding through oceans of text to discover the best. Long may it continue.

Sheridan Sansegundo, a former arts editor of The East Hampton Star, lives in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

Bill Henderson lives in Springs.