The Pushcart Prize, III
The Pushcart Prize, III is a celebration of the quality of the writing currently appearing in small magazines and journals around the country. Some of these periodicals are supported by universities, others are sponsored by private individuals or groups, and most of them—if not all—receive funds from foundations. No one who looks through the contents of this fat volume can doubt the quality and importance of the writing appearing in these small publications, but an ominous question lurks in the background: does anybody read these magazines? Appropriately enough, this very question is addressed in one of the most provocative essays in this book, Stephen Minot’s “Hey, Is Anyone Listening?”
With few exceptions (perhaps Pepys’s Diary is the only true example in our literature) most writers write to be read. They have something that they want to share, an idea to communicate, a vision to let loose on the world, a fear or a hope to thrust before the unsuspecting reader. The fact, however, is that fewer people are readers than before, and fewer of the readers are reading serious literary magazines. In 1973 Harvey Swados, a gifted novelist and story writer who got his start in little magazines, published a grim article in the New York Times Book Review in which he complained that his students did not read little magazines, although they intended to try to publish in them. The average educated American does not know these magazines exist and only the largest or most sophisticated university-based cities have even one store which carries a selection of these periodicals. They exist by benefit of foundation grants, not through subscriptions or newsstand sales. Therefore, we have the spectacle of countless writers producing stories, essays, and poems to be published in magazines that sell only a few hundred copies (mostly to libraries) and which, for the most part, go unread. The situation is both ironic and tragic.
As Stephen Minot points out in his essay (reprinted from the North American Review), the best that the writers published in these magazines can hope is that their work will be selected by the editors of various anthologies, such as Best Stories of —- or college textbooks or volumes such as the present Pushcart Prize. Only then may a significant number of readers be expected to cast an eye over the fruit of their labors.
This situation is sad because the quality of work appearing in these periodicals is remarkably high. It also is of quite astonishing variety, ranging from literary essays to psychological poems to in-depth interviews to discussions of religion to symbolic prose poems to long, autobiographical poems to literary stories of great sophistication and skill. Sometimes the stories tend to be “academic” in the limiting sense, depending too much on the academic world for plot and characters and point, as in James Crumley’s “Whores,” and several others in this volume. Other stories, although not specifically about university life, reflect too directly the attitudes and emotions of the academic life. However skillfully written, these stories often lack the vitality of literature forged out in the world; but they are always interesting and worth reading, whatever their limitations. It would be a shame for them to be denied seeing print, or, being published, to fail to find the readers who may enjoy them and derive benefit from them.
One of the more interesting stories collected in this book is “Parting Shot” by Walter Abish. It is about the daughter of a well-known novelist whose father uses her in all of his novels, and her husband who becomes obsessed by a girl in a photograph he has bought. The story raises significant moral questions concerning the nature of love and duty and the complexity of relationships, and is constructed in an oblique, subtle manner, which heightens its impact. “The Fat Girl” by Andre Dubus and “The United States” by Robley Wilson, Jr., are conventional in form, but are intelligent and effective pieces of writing; in the latter story, the title refers to both the country from which the expatriot characters have come and the luxury liner on which they are returning to their native land. The symbols in these stories are clear and well thought out and give depth to the plights of the characters, while avoiding the obvious or banal. More unusual in form and intent is a story named for one of the early heroes of Nazi Germany, “Horst Wessel,” a seriocomic tale of a businessman suffering from a bad tooth while in Frankfurt. Another story unique in form and content is Wesley Brown’s “Getting Freedom High,” which deals with a group of young Southerners in the movement; here, the author confronts some very real issues,...
(The entire section is 1955 words.)