If you must read a creative writing program anthology

Whenever there was a flood, people from half the county would come down to see the sight. After a gully-washer there would not be any work to do anyway. If it didn’t ruin your crop, you couldn’t plow and you felt like taking a holiday to celebrate. If it did ruin your crop, there wasn’t anything to do except try to take your mind off the mortgage, if you were rich enough to have a mortgage, and if you couldn’t afford a mortgage you needed something to take your mind off how hungry you would be by Christmas. So people would come down to the bridge and look at the flood. It made something different from the run of days.

– “Blackberry Winter”, Robert Penn Warren

Best of LSU Fiction
eds. Nolde Alexius and Judy Kahn
Lousiana State University Press, 2012
260 pp.

LSU: He took it a little farther than I’m willing to go.

So here’s the thing: If you’ve begun your anthology with an exceptionally fine story by an American master, and if on page 20 you’ve got yourself one exalted, starry-eyed reader, you should refrain from socking said reader with nineteen middling-to-weak stories by people who happen to be connected to your writing program. That this kind of bait-and-switch happens in Best of LSU Fiction is not the fault of the writers lined up to follow Robert Penn Warren, who fled Louisiana State the first chance he got.* The fault lies with the book’s editors, both longtime associates of LSU’s program, who no doubt see the book as a labor of love and a celebration of writing at LSU. This doesn’t help the reader, of course, who’s just been knocked off the mountain and down to the malarial workshop swamp below.

The deeper problem lies in the genre, the writing-program anthology. (By way of disclosure, there’s a short and forgettable piece of mine in a doorstop anthology of Iowa Writers’ Workshop stories; that book wasn’t hailed as a classic either, and for good reason.) Program collections die quietly enough as university annuals and journal issues, but occasionally some enterprising mind dolls them up and sends them into the trade market. The big guns have to go into these books, so the program’s top writers go slumming, out of friendship or enthusiasm or the misfortune of being dead and helpless, while the less talented get shown up comprehensively; sometimes there’s an insistence on trotting out each writer ahead of his or her story, as if a breathless little bio sprinkled with program gossip will put you in the correct frame of mind to read the inspired creation, and impress upon you the notion that you’re in the presence of important literary goings-on. Pity the poor reader who just wanted a story.

The LSU anthology also demonstrates painfully that collecting “the best”, when your best is not star quality, leaves the reader with a checklist of things not to do when writing fiction. Do not, for instance, love up place names while hugging their meaning to yourself. Do not compensate for lack of story with wild crazy drinking adults creating havoc which will be washed away by a flood or God or the course of human events. Do not put on a cornpone storytelling voice and thump away in it unless you’re sharp enough to play the gimlet-eyed whopper king. If the same woman appears in half your classmates’ stories and looks and talks suspiciously like Brett Butler, then for God’s sake, try a little harder, rather than getting plaintive and claiming that half the state is in fact just like Brett Butler. And if you’re going to imitate Henry James, but aren’t as good as Henry James, then don’t, just don’t. Not in public.

Many of the stories in this collection are workshoppy and precious; some are weak. I will not pretend to understand the appeal of Walker Percy, who begins his story here with one of the most abject and graceless openings I’ve seen: “Roger moved toward the stern of the ferry.” (The story improves – a defibrillator would have improved it, given that first line – but is as weak an example of the “wide-eyed boy from ____ finds his way in New York” story as I can remember reading.)

There are several moments of relief and even delight, and I would encourage readers to look for these writers:

Robert Penn Warren’s “Blackberry Winter” is the book’s lone primetime production, and for those who have not read him beyond All the King’s Men, it will come as a reminder to look him up again. I will not give away any of the plot or images; I will say only that it takes profound understanding of human trials and ways to make a reader burst into tears at the end without knowing why, and make her wait for understanding to catch up with emotion. His prose is as fine as you would expect.

John Ed Bradley’s excerpt, “Famous Days”, reads like a polished draft, not a finished story, but the voice is measured and careful, not exceeding its abilities and refusing to showboat; a scene with a man discovering his wrecked car is clear, moving, and genuine. You get the sense that Bradley knows what’s important in the commerce between people.

Moira Crone’s “Gauguin” does not distinguish itself in expat-in-subtropics literature, but she pulls off something remarkable: She manages to use the work of a major painter without making the reader stop and think how much better the painting is than the story. The use of Gauguin is fitting, if heavyhanded, and for at least a few paragraphs, the story is equal to the painting.

Rebecca Wells’ “E-Z Boy War” is not great literature, but the woman knows a story when she sees one and can tell it, which is more than can be said of most people walking around with MFAs. The story’s sentimentality is more or less paid for by the pro-quality entertainment.

Vance Bourjaily’s “The Amish Farmer” has one fine vivid scene, though the story is much weaker than it ought to have been, given his talent, and the workshop-teacher story he packed around the scene is reprehensibly dull.

James Wilcox has no doubt done better elsewhere; his story “Camping Out” has a sure and literary voice, but character motives here are whimsical, the characters unaccountably crabbed, and the story altogether floppy.

If you are interested in LSU’s writing program – maybe you are, God help you, a scholar of American writing programs — then this is the book for you. But if you are a reader looking for some American South, I would recommend leaving this book alone, and picking up some Robert Penn Warren instead this winter.

*LSU Atones for Losing Robert Penn Warren, Who Once Dismissed It as a ‘Hell-Hole, Chronicle of Higher Education, Nov 16, 2001

A version of this review was first published in The Short Review.