Publications mentioned in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2004

Publications the anthology draws from:

Publications under the heading “Notable Nonrequired Reading of 2003”:

  • The Antioch Review
  • The Sun
  • L.A. Weekly
  • Land Grant College Review
  • Open City (twice)
  • eyeshot.net, now defunct
  • Mother Jones
  • The Kenyon Review (twice)
  • Parabola
  • Five Points
  • Fence
  • Southern Review (twice)
  • Indiana Review
  • The New Yorker again (twice)
  • Mid-American Review again (twice)
  • Tin House again (three times)
  • Salt Hill
  • Epoch
  • Nation
  • Painted Bride Quarterly
  • Grandstreet (I assume this refers to Grand Street, now defunct?) (twice)
  • Story Quarterly again
  • Autobiographix
  • sweetfancymoses.com
  • Ploughshares
  • Speakeasy again
  • Other Voices
  • Bitch
  • Black Warrior Review, another one I should get around to reading
  • The American Scholar
  • The Believer again
  • AGNI, styled Agni
  • One Story
  • Conjunctions again
  • Zoetrope again
  • Hayden’s Ferry
  • The New York Times Magazine

Short story: “Stanville”

“Stanville,” by Rachel Kushner

Appeared in the New Yorker, February 12th, 2018, and in The Writer’s Voice (read and listen)

Several thousand words

You really get a feel for the hopelessness of these women’s lives. The way the main character analyzes that woman who tells the parole board she’s innocent seems very right. I’m a little puzzled by the shifts between first person and third person limited. I wouldn’t be surprised if the author tried two first-person narrators, or two third-, for symmetry’s sake, before discovering that the two points of view required different modes. Maybe the prisoner needs to have her own voice rather than being a distant “she,” while the teacher can’t sustain his own voice because of his lack of self-assurance?

I can’t tell this is a novel excerpt, which is nice.

Defining literary fiction as a genre

“Literary fiction can, like most fiction, be unimportant. It can also be unserious: some of the best of it is. I’d call Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller literary fiction, but it doesn’t strike me as either important or serious. It’s a glorious game.

“[…] I’d suggest that the main identifying feature [of literary fiction]—and in this respect literary writing can and does compass and mingle with any number of other genres—is to do with complexity and depth of attention.”

a very thoughtful essay by Sam Leith, found via Language Hat

Short story: “Backpack”

“Backpack,” by Tony Earley

Appeared in the New Yorker, November 5th, 2018, and in The Writer’s Voice (read and listen)

6,904 words

I love the long buildup, with all the details of the plan hinting at suicide, and the way we come to understand (in an intuitive, unarticulatable sense) why John/Jimmy Ray does what he does, and the way the narration keeps switching between the two names (which somehow never becomes confusing—the fact that they start with the same letter helps), and the character of Carmen, naive yet capable of remarkable things.

Most of the other reviews I’ve seen of this story have been very negative, with one person complaining that the initial plan looked like murder rather than suicide—something that never occurred to me.

I notice the three women all practically have the same name. Carly Charlotte Carmen. Wonder why.

The best writing advice George Saunders ever received

“Once, when I was a student, I cornered my mentor and hero Tobias Wolff at a party and assured him that I had sworn off comedic sci-fi and was now writing ‘real literature.’ I think he sensed, correctly, that 1) this was not an attitude that was going to produce my best work but 2) there was going to be no arguing me off of that position (only time could do that). So he just said, ‘Well, good. Just don’t lose the magic.'”

—George Saunders here (well worth reading in full)

“Don’t lose the magic”! Saunders says it took him four years after his first attempt at “real literature” to get the magic back, but also that “to suddenly recall his advice at just that moment was a sort of force-accelerator.” So maybe writing advice isn’t completely useless.


U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has resigned at the request of the president, leaving Matthew Whitaker as his temporary replacement. Whitaker, not Rod Rosenstein, will now oversee Special Counsel Mueller’s Russia/obstruction of justice investigation. As it happens, Whitaker has a history of criticizing the investigation for going too far, and has floated the idea that it could be defunded.

The president is apparently (I’m not a judge or jury) guilty of attempting to obstruct justice. Worse, he may have succeeded.

Join me. Take to the streets. Here’s a MoveOn.org link to find a peaceful demonstration near you.

Please, all decent and eligible U.S. citizens …

Please vote. If you haven’t already, vote. Vote for the party that doesn’t tear children away from their families. Vote for the party that isn’t determined to let climate change become a catastrophe rather than inconvenience big businesses. Vote.

Find out where to vote: Vote.org

See what’s on your ballot: BallotReady.org

(I stole those links from XKCD, but I’m positive Randall Munroe won’t mind.)

Short story: “Like a Ghost I’m Gonna Haunt You”

“Like a Ghost I’m Gonna Haunt You,” by Curtis C. Chen

Appeared in Daily Science Fiction and in Toasted Cake 195, October 2018

979 words


Not crazy about the title, which doesn’t fit the tone. (I didn’t realize it was a song until I googled it just now.)

Short story: “Miracle Polish”

“Miracle Polish,” by Steven Millhauser

Appeared in the New Yorker, November 14th, 2011 (read here), and read by Stuart Dybek for the New Yorker Fiction Podcast, November 1st, 2018 (listen here); also anthologized in The Best American Short Stories 2012 (Heidi Pitlor and Tom Perrotta)

6,482 words

I listened to this story in two parts and in between the parts I forgot that it was in first person. The narrator’s life seems almost too depressing for first person. Millhauser captures a sense of muted despair, a despair too muted, too drenched in mediocrity and banality, even to be satisfyingly painful. At the end, I wonder if his terrible choice even matters; he’s already irrevocably addicted to what the mirrors show him, and things would have ended just as wretchedly if he had deliberately chosen Miracle Polish over Monica.

That repeated “Are you?” is so awful. You just want it to stop! A good scene, though I suppose you can see where it’s going after a certain point.

I was surprised when I saw the story on the page to notice all the commas and comma splices in the first two sentences. I wonder why Millhauser made that choice? Maybe to show the narrator’s impatience?

More time, less writing

“More time, yet less writing. Part of this has to do with the paradox of productivity that many of us are familiar with. I’m reminded of a corporate cliché I used to hear all the time: ‘If you really need something done, give it to someone busy to do.’ In speaking to other writers, I’ve learnt that my experience is far from uncommon. It seems that for many, the constraints of a day job, family, or other responsibilities provide a structure around which a writing routine can be eked out. Scarcity of time also leads one to guard fiercely whatever writing time one does have. Now that I finally have the luxury of time, I find myself only too prone to letting it slip away.”

—Rachel Heng (x)