The Best American Short Stories 2019

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, February 23, 2019

I’ve been buying The Best American Short Stories for decades but I have never finished reading one from cover-to-cover. I’d always jump around reading whichever story grabbed my attention with its opening lines. For 2019 they finally produced an audiobook edition, and I listened to the whole book. I’m very glad I did because I was introduced to a much more diverse selection of great writing. Going by initial impressions isn’t always wise.

Here’s a listing of the stories with a short comment by me, and a link to either the story itself (rare) or to an analysis by blogger Karen Carlson. She writes the kind of essays about the short stories she reads that I wish I took the time to do. It’s a shame that all of these stories aren’t available online because they all deserve more readers. Some of the sites have limits to free reads. You might try loading the link in a different browser if you’ve reached your limit. Or better yet, just buy The Best American Short Stories 2019. Who knows, maybe you might even be inspired to subscribe to some of these magazines.

  • Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. “The Era” from Guernica  – In the future, they teach kids to be completely honest about their feelings. Fun literary science fiction.
  • Kathleen Alcott. “Natural Light” from Zoetrope: All-Story – Learning about a parent from a photograph. I often speculate about old photographs.
  • Wendell Berry. “The Great Interruption” from Threepenny Review – A story within a story set in the 1930s. Berry’s entry is a stark contrast to most of the other stories because it feels old. Like it was written long ago.
  • Jamel Brinkley. “No More Than a Bubble” from LitMag – Two guys hook up with two mysterious women for one strange night. Very vivid.
  • Deborah Eisenberg. “The Third Tower” from Ploughshares – Another literary story that could have been published in a science fiction magazine. About a Kafkaesque form of therapy.
  • Julia Elliott. “Hellion” from The Georgia Review – My absolute favorite story of the collection, and luckily available to read online. A young southern Tomboy teaches her visiting cousin how not to get to beat up by her rowdy crowd of friends. Imagine Scout in the 21st century.
  • Jeffrey Eugenides. “Bronze” from The New Yorker – Set in the 1970s, a teen who’s trying to find himself by dressing glam gets picked up by an older man. Nice historical contrast to the more modern stories in the collection.
  • Ella Martinsen Gorham. “Protozoa” from New England Review – Another top favorite from this collection that’s also available to read online. Eighth-grade girl wants to appear more sophisticated but gets in over her head. The stories I liked most in this collection were those set nearest to the present by young writers. It’s not that I didn’t admire what the older writers (Berry, Le Guin, Eugenides) were giving us, but their stories often seemed like history, while the younger writers were reporting the news from various sub-cultures.
  • Nicole Krauss. “Seeing Ershadi” from The New Yorker – A dancer pushes her body to the limits to stay in a touring company while becoming more and more philosophical.
  • Ursula K. Le Guin. “Pity and Shame” from Tin House – I’m totally used to Le Guin’s science fiction and fantasy, so it was disconcerting to read what essentially feels like a western. An abandoned woman takes in a mine inspector crushed by a tunnel collapse and nurses him back to health.
  • Manuel Munõz. “Anyone Can Do It” from ZYZZYVA – A compelling tale of migrant workers, where a woman must try something new to survive. Another vivid story.
  • Sigrid Nunez. “The Plan” from Lit Mag – A disturbing story about a man driven to commit murder because it’s on his bucket list.
  • Maria Reva. “Letter of Apology” from Granta – One of the strangest stories in the collection about a communist party official who must get a letter of apology from a poet who made a politically incorrect joke. You end up feeling sorry for the oppressor.
  • Karen Russell. “Black Corfu” from Zoetrope: All-Story – Now this is the strangest story of the collection – a horror story no less – about a doctor to the dead. Russell must be a fan of Edgar Allan Poe and George Romero.
  • Saïd Sayrafiezadeh “Audition” from The New Yorker – Son of the boss secretly works construction and practices his acting skills by pretending to be one of the regular dead-end guys.
  • Alexis Schaitkin “Natural Disasters” from Ecotone – Another top favorite about a young wife from New York getting a part-time job Oklahoma when her husband had to relocate. The job she finds is writing home descriptions for a real estate agent, requiring her to visit all kinds of people and their houses.
  • Jim Shepard. “Our Day of Grace” from Zoetrope: All-Story – An epistolary tale about the civil war. Good story but felt out of place in this collection. Of course, that’s not fair to writers who like to write historical fiction. See the comment below.
  • Mona Simpson. “Wrong Object” from Harper’s – A psychiatrist has a pedophile for a patient.
  • Jenn Alandy Trahan. “They Told Us Not to Say This” from Harper’s – Another favorite story because it’s about young Filipino girls who admire a white basketball player. Even though the story is set in the 1990s, it still feels contemporary to an old reader like me.
  • Weike Wang. “Omakase” from The New Yorker – Another vivid story of cross-culture dating. Read the interview with the author about this story.

I enjoy The Best American Short Stories anthologies most for those stories feel contemporary. I want literary fiction to be realistic portraits of what the authors have experienced. That’s very old-fashion of me and unrealistic. Roman à clef writing is not very fashionable anymore. To me, genre writing is all about creatively making things up, while literary writing is about reporting on thoughts and emotions of real people. Writers can’t always write what they have actually experienced, but they can infuse their stories with observations of themselves and others.

The stories by Berry, Shepard, and Le Guin felt totally made up. They were very creative, but still, they lacked what I’m talking about. What these writers are good at is faking what I’m talking about. The Eugenides story felt in between like he might have remembered something from the 1970s, but he’s such a good writer he could have made it up entirely.

Obviously, the stories with fantastic elements have to be made up. These stories, even though extremely well-written feel like genre stories to me. In recent years we’ve been seeing more genre included in the annual BASS collection. That’s not bad, but just not what I enjoy most in a BASS volume. Even my favorite story “Hellion” by Julia Elliott is probably all made up, but it rings true as if she lived it or saw it. It has such a wonderful collection of colorful details that I want them to have existed. Elliot knows the caliber of a BB gun – what a wonderful realistic detail.

I hope the 2020 edition of BASS is produced on audio again. Another reason I read literary fiction is to get insight into people and cultures that aren’t like me and mine. Hearing the stories read by professional readers makes those stories feel like I’m actually hearing the person talk to me in person. And that makes their stories feel even more authentic.

JWH

The Stories I Want To Remember

by James Wallace Harris, February 20, 2020

I have no idea how many stories I’ve consumed in my lifetime. I’m sure the ones I encountered watching television runs into the tens of thousands. Movies, books, and short stories add unknown thousands more. Then there are the countless stories people have told me — some made up and others reported accurately as best they could. And finally, the combined number of all those sources is dwarfed by my own ability to make shit up inside my head.

We all build a model of reality by matching the data we gather with our senses to fictionalized versions of reality. I don’t know why fiction is so important in our lives, but most of us process hours of make-believe every day. However, like the meals we eat, the craps we take, we forget those stories. Evidently, we need a healthy amount of storytelling in our psychic diet every day to remain sane. Like the atoms our body extracts from food for its nourishment are invisible to our conscious minds, so are the essential elements of fiction that our brain craves for its RDA.

Some people are very good at remembering stories. They can regale others by repeating tales at parties or to spice up their political speeches or sales talks. Some people are good at understanding stories, able to interpret a story for all its intended and hidden meanings. I’m bad at both. When I was young I could see a movie and then bore family and friends with long monologues describing all the details of the show. I haven’t been able to do that for decades. Maybe my hard drive became filled and I lost my ability to transfer my mental notes into my working memory.

For some reason in my late sixties, I’ve been craving the ability to remember stories again. The year before last I started a project to read all the annual anthologies that collected the best science fiction short stories of the year. I started with 1939 and I’m currently reading through three anthologies of stories from 1952.  I’m getting a big-bang kick out of this — but it depresses me that I forget the stories I read so quickly. And it really irks my existentialism that I forget the best stories.

Up to now, I’ve been very faithful to read every story in every volume, even if I didn’t like them. But I’m now having doubts about that dedication. I wonder if wading through two or three so-so stories after experiencing a wonderful story isn’t just erasing the memory of that great story.

What is my real goal for this project? Is it just a mega-marathon of reading? I sat out to study the evolution of the science fiction short story. I wanted to see how concepts emerged and were spread and reused. I wanted to see how certain ideas were repeated in each new generation. However, along the way, I started noticing more and more about how infrequent great stories are produced every year.

Stories worth remembering are rare. But I have this trouble remembering them, and that’s starting to bug my sense of being an old man who is running out of time. I know at my age I’m fighting an uphill battle to remember anything and I wonder if I need to pick the ground to make my last stand.

Some of the stories I’ve read I want to remember in detail. And that urge is getting stronger. I’m even at the point where I’m willing to consume less fiction just to hang onto a tiny amount of it in my mind. I need to binge-watch less, and binge-read less.

I’ve been thinking about changing my reading strategy. Instead of racing through all the annual best-of-the-year volumes to have the satisfaction of completing another year, I think I need to focus on finding the stories I love best and then reread them. Instead of finishing every story, quit any story that doesn’t resonate after giving it a fair try. Then go back and reread all the stories I did finish. And finally, decide which stories are worth remembering before going on to the next year.

However, I’m going to have to go well beyond that effort if I’m really going to put those stories into my long-term memory. I need to start a list of stories I want to work at keeping at my mind’s fingertips. I’m not sure how long that list can be, but I need to start tracking the best stories and periodically reread them. I’m sure I’ll thin out that list too as competition to get on the list grows. I won’t know the manageable size of the list until I’ve worked at the project for a while. And like a tontine, I expect the list to shrink at I close in on dying. Who knows, as I pass from this world into nonexistence I’ll be thinking about that last story. (That’s an odd thing to say, isn’t it. Why wouldn’t my last thoughts be of a real experience? I need to psychoanalyze that.)

When I started this project, my goal was to identify the stories that were most important to the genre of science fiction. Now I realize I need to identify the stories that are most important to me. And I need to branch out beyond science fiction.

In the long run, I want to create an anthology of stories that I want to remember, but also the ones that best explain my view of reality.

JWH

 

 

 

Should I Forget Dorothy?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, February 17, 2020

Being part of history is the gold standard for being long remembered. Pop culture fame can also get you remembered, but not as long. Geneology is probably the common way we ordinary folks will be remembered, especially if we’re neither historical or famous. Writers and artists often like to believe they will achieve immortality through their works, and that was certainly true for Homer, Shakespeare, Austen, and Dickens. Sadly, being published today usually proves a poor bet at avoiding literary obscurity.

Through some weird accident of circumstances, I have become the repository for the memory for Dorothy Rachel Melissa Walpole who wrote under the name Lady Dorothy Mills. I maintain the website ladydorothymills.com. Last year it got a total of 175 visitors, but most of them leave almost immediately. It’s a very static site because I seldom find new information about her. I used to get a query about her every year or two, but it’s been years now since I’ve heard from anyone asking about Lady Mills.

Lady Dorothy Mills wrote fifteen books from 1916-1931, nine novels, and six nonfiction books, all long out of print. I own all of them except her first novel Card Houses and the last Jungle!. She is most famous for writing five travel books capitalizing on the idea of an aristocratic European woman traveling alone in Africa, South America, and the Middle East in the 1920s. She achieved a minor amount of fame. As far as I can tell only 26 used copies of her books are for sale right now, and most of those are the nonfiction titles. Of the 5 copies of her novels, two are the German versions of The Dark Gods. Most of these volumes have been on the market for years. There is little interest in her work.

I’m trying to decide if it’s worth my effort to convert her books into digital texts so I can submit them to Project Gutenberg. It would be a terrific amount of work and its doubtful anyone would read them. But I’d hate to see Lady Mills become completely forgotten. I’ve been trying to come up with reasons to convince people to try her books. Right now it’s almost impossible to get ahold of any kind of edition to read. I’ve wondered if there were free ebook editions available would a few readers give her a chance?

I’m currently reading The Laughter of Fools from 1920. It’s about a young woman living with her aunt and uncle after her father dies. I’m not sure of the time period yet, but you have to imagine a Downton Abbey type of setting. Lady Mills was the daughter of an Earl and grew up in a manor house on a country estate. I assume her life was somewhat like Crawley girls, as Lady Mills was about their age. She would have been 23 in 1912, the year the story began. Lady Mills’ mother was also a rich American woman. However, Lady Mills married a poor American man, and from what I can infer, her father wasn’t as forgiving as Lord Grantham. Lady Mills went out into the world to make it own her own.

The girl in The Laughter of Fools is named Louise, and Lady Mills’ mother was named Louise. I have to wonder how much of herself she put in this character. Louise finds life with her aunt and uncle boring and eventually gets permission to go on a vacation for her health. Her guardians believe she is being supervised by a proper English lady, but Louise gets to run around with an arty bohemian crowd. This opens up a whole new world for her. I imagine the same thing happened to Lady Mills.

I wish I had a copy of Lady Mills’ first novel, Card Houses published in 1916. That was the year she married Capt. Arthur Mills. It might reveal more about her early life and personality. I get the feeling her first few novels were about the life she knew and that social set, and her later novels were fantasy or science fiction. Her travel books were about becoming an independent woman.

I can’t say that The Laughter of Fools is good literature. I only find it interesting for four reasons. First and primary, I’m looking for clues about Lady Mills. Second, I enjoy the Downton Abbey resonating vibes. Third, it tells about life in England during a very literary period — the book adds a few details that I don’t find in Woolf, Huxley, Forster, and others of that era. Finally, it’s about a woman breaking free in a time when few did. But mostly the novel’s appeal is trying to figure out what Lady Dorothy Mills was like and why she became a writer.

I still don’t know what kind of person she was. Would I have liked her? Or was she a weirdo, or even a Lady Asshole? Does she deserve to be remembered or is there a reason why everyone is forgetting her? I feel like I’ve fed a stray cat and now I’m responsible for its care.

Small items about her come up for sale every once in a while but they can be expensive. And if I really wanted to pursue this project properly I’d need to travel to England and do some real research. That is almost not going to happen. Still, I might try converting one book, The Laughter of Fools and see if anyone reads it. It would be nice to see if anyone else gets anything out of her. Sooner or later, I’d like to find a younger person to inherit the caretaking of this strange cat.

JWH

 

 

What Do the TV Shows I’m Addicted to Say About Me?

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Have you ever wondered what our lives would be like without television? Television is like the proverbial sixth that lets us see and hear across space and time. We could have used television technology to extend the reach of our eyes and ears to real-time events in reality. My wife spends endless hours watching an eagle’s nest in Florida, but few people watch live cams. Most of us watch recorded shows. Either fiction or nonfiction. And as much as I love documentaries and news programs, my real TV addiction has been to fictional shows.

When you think about it, isn’t it rather odd that we have this technology to spy on reality across the globe but we prefer inputting make-believe into our eyes and ears instead? I can only assume watching our favorite television shows is a rejection of reality.

Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not about to tell you to stop watching television. I’ve had a lifelong addiction to television and there’s little chance I’m going to give it up now. I do feel I’ve gotten my TV habit under control though. I only watch 2-3 hours a day, and one of those hours is my routine of watching the NBC Nightly News and Jeopardy with my wife Susan. For the first ten years of our marriage, we spent primetime together every night, but we’ve slowly drifted apart preferring other shows.

Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s I remember watching television every evening with my family. I had my favorite shows I looked forward to each week, but I wasn’t obsessed with watching every episode. Beginning this century with complete seasons on DVD or streaming an entire series from the first episode to last, I’ve developed the habit of binge-watching completed series from the past. Now that feels like an addiction. Looking back I realize my TV viewing habits have changed many times since 1955. That’s when I remember watching my first TV show.

I’m realizing what I’ve been doing recently is going back over a lifetime of television watching and picking out certain shows to watch every episode in order. Here’s are the shows I’m currently working my way through:

Now, this does not cover any of the dozens of TV shows from the 21st-century that I’ve watched every episode as they came out.

I keep asking myself why I’m drawn to those old TV programs when we have the latest shows on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, HBO, CBS All-Access, The Great Courses, Curiosity Stream, and Acorn TV to watch.

I keep thinking I need to psychoanalyze myself. I accept TV watching as my addiction, but I keep wondering why I pick the stories that I do. Most nights I flip through all the new offerings and end up watching either Perry Mason or Route 66. These shows give me the most pleasure at the moment. And it’s not necessarily nostalgia because I didn’t watch them when they first ran. Oh, I saw a couple episodes back then, but I was too young to appreciate them. My ten-year-old head was into Dobie Gillis and The Flintstones back then.

While Susan is in the living watching her shows late at night, I’m watching old black and white TV shows from the late 1950s. There’s a certain surreal quality to that. I feel like I’m channeling my parents who would have been in their forties at the time. These were their favorite shows. Or maybe I’m channeling the whole era from when I was growing up.

If watching TV is rejecting reality, then watching old TV is rejecting modern reality and the alternate reality of modern TV shows. There’s a weirdness to that. Think about it, TV is how we turn off our senses to the present and provide an alternative input. Why am I feeding my brain 60-year-old TV shows? What does that say about myself? And if I also admit to focusing on reading science fiction short stories from the 1940s and 1950s, I’ve got to wonder about my connection to the present.

It’s telling we prefer fiction to reality, but isn’t it also revealing what kinds of fiction we prefer for our substitute of reality?

Last night Susan and I made a Spotify playlist to share where we only added songs we both loved. Most of them were from the 1960s and 1970s. Tomorrow night we’re going out on the coldest night of the year and pay for high-priced movie tickets to watch The Wizard of Oz from 1939 on the big screen, a movie I got addicted to as a kid from its yearly showing on TV.

(By the way, I’m not completely out of touch with modern pop culture. I’ve already seen 6 of the 8 Best Picture Oscar nominations for this year, and will probably see the other two before the Oscars are revealed. I’ve lost touch with modern music, but I’m going to be really worried about myself when I no longer keep up with movies too.)

JWH

 

 

Mindfulness Inside Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Probably most people picture mindfulness as the act of sitting on a beach crosslegged meditating on existence. The word mindfulness connotates an aesthetic living alone in the desert or on a high mountain monastery in Tibet. But it also applies to you washing the dishes, taking a crap, and even being fully aware while you’re reading a book or watching television.

BE HERE NOW is an important lesson of eastern philosophy. Our minds wander all over our distractions. Mindfulness is the ability to live fully in the moment being aware of what each sense is telling us and how we process it. One of the first things you should observe is there are more than five senses. Mindfulness is the ability to keep our model of reality in sync with reality. We are not little beings peering out our heads through sensory windows at reality. Our senses recreate a model of reality inside our head which our observer assumes and acts upon as if it was the objective reality. Subjective thoughts distort the flow of data from the external reality. Mindfulness is the skill of observing all of this happen.

Many of us spend a good portion of our day inside fiction. How can we be mindful when we’re lost in reading a novel, watching a television show, or out at the movies? We substitute our cognitive model of reality with a fictional model that someone else has created. We fool ourselves into believing we are someone else, being somewhere else, doing something else. Fiction by its very nature is anti-mindfulness.

Fiction is sometimes how we communicate our models of reality. Other times, fiction is intentional replacements for our model of reality meant to entertain or provide us temporary vacations from reality. When we’re inside fiction, we’re at least two dimensions away from the external reality. The only way to be truly mindful is to constantly recall our immediate place in reality, but that spoils the magical illusion of fiction.

Is it possible to be a bookworm and be mindful at the same time? Is it possible to be mindful while inside fiction? Especially when it requires forgetting who and where we are to fully experience a work of fiction.

While I’m at the movies watching Colette, I must juggle the sensation of seeing an illusion of 19th-century Paris while sitting in a dark room in Memphis, Tennessee. I must accept Keira Knightley pretending to fool me that she is Colette, a woman who spoke another language in another time and is long dead. This is when fiction is a tool for communicating what reality might have been like for another person. Being fully mindful of the experience requires observing my memories of history and knowledge of movie making as it reacts with experiencing the film in a darkened theater.

To be mindful in such a situation requires grasping the gestalt of a complex experience. That’s why people usually pick a quiet empty room to work at mindfulness. It’s much easier to observe our mental state of the moment when not much is going on. Being mindful inside fiction requires our observer watching a symphony of mental activity and understanding how it all works together.

Generally, we consume fiction to forget our observer. When I was listening to The Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky I was imaging being thousands of years in the future and many light years away. This new model of reality was generated by whispering words into my ear. I never completely forgot the input from my senses because I listened to the audiobook while eating breakfast or walking around the neighborhood.

I believe part of being mindful while inside fiction is to observe our psychological need for that particular kind of fiction at that moment and how I’m reacting to it. I want and get something much different watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel than when I watch Get Shorty. What I experience while reading Friday by Robert A. Heinlein is much different from what I experience reading Swords and Deviltry by Fritz Leiber. The lack of mindfulness inside fiction lets us consume fiction in the same way we can eat a bag of potato chips without noticing that each chip was different.

If I don’t explore why my mind is entertained by stories of a 1959 housewife becoming a standup comic in New York City and a low-life thug wanting to become a movie producer in modern-day Nevada, then I’m not totally being here now.

The purpose of mindfulness is to be fully aware of who you are in the moment. So, it’s almost oxymoron to ask if we can practice mindfulness inside fiction because most people use fiction to escape who they are in the moment. But then, most people aren’t fully in the moment when they are getting dressed or even sitting in a lotus pose in front of a sunset. In the west, mindfulness is taught as a cure for the stress of living. We are told if we meditate five or ten minutes during the day it will help us handle the stress of the rest of the day. Of course, meditation is not mindfulness, but all too often they are confused as one.

One reason I’m bringing up the topic of mindfulness inside fiction is that I believe some types of fiction are polluting our minds. I have to wonder if all the violence in fiction isn’t programming our minds in subtle ways. Is there not a correlation between the mass consumption of violent fiction and the violence we’re seeing in everyday life? The other day I saw a short documentary on the history of the video game. In the 1950s video games were just blips on the screen. Today they almost look like movies. It startled me to see sequences from first-person shooters because I realized those video games were creating the same kind of scenes that mass shooters must see as they walk around blowing real people away.

I have to wonder if the rise of overblown emotional rhetoric we encounter in real life is not inspired by dramatic lines from characters in fiction. Everyday people can’t seem to express their feelings without putting them into harshest of words. Too many people can’t object to a philosophy without claiming they will kill the philosopher.

I  believe its time we extend moments of mindfulness beyond quiet empty rooms or restful respites in nature. We need to observe what fiction is doing to our minds, especially at the subconscious level. We need to be mindful why we seek fiction. We need to understand the purpose of fiction in our lives. We need to know why we turn our own lives off in favor of fictional lives. We need to know what our minds bring back from our fictional vacations.

When I first took computer courses back in 1971, I was taught an interesting acronym, GIGO. It stands for Garbage In, Garbage Out. It meant if you put lousy code and data into a computer you’d get crap for output. I believe it also applies to fiction.

JWH

We Need a New Frontier Because the Final Frontier is a Bust

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, September 10, 2018

Are you jaded with science fiction on television? Have you stopped seeing every new Sci-Fi flick at the theater? I have. On Wall Street, investors always assume a bull market won’t last. I’m wondering when the current science fiction bubble will burst?

During the pulp era, there were more western titles than any other genre. In the 1950s, there were more westerns on television than other types of shows. Then the genre all but disappeared. Could that happen to science fiction?

Westerns disappeared as western frontiers faded, and science fiction replaced westerns in popularity because it offered new frontiers.

Mars

If this observation is true, then science fiction won’t go away until a new genre offers an alternative frontier. Today, science fiction is often dystopian. The final frontier is tarnished by the reality of science. A few million still hope to run off to Mars to escape the looming apocalypses on Earth, but most know the Martian frontier is a destination only robots could love.

Science fiction has failed at convincing Earthlings to colonize other worlds. Instead, we stayed home and trashed the only sustainable planet for our species. Are there any frontiers left to offer new hope? Back when the Space Age was dawning, science fiction also envisioned colonizing the oceans. That idea never caught on and we’ve only sent our plastics to dwell there instead.

Oceans

Are there any frontiers left for our dreams? We need a new genre that inspires us to clean up the Earth. We need stories where a sustainable ecology/economy is the new frontier. We need fiction that depicts healing of the Earth. We need optimistic tales that aren’t fantasy. We need practical utopias.

And, this is very important, we need to stop using fiction to escape. Hasn’t fiction become the frontier that’s replaced science fiction? Aren’t we all trying to live in the imaginary worlds of books, movies, television shows, comics, computer games, and virtual reality? I have to wonder if we don’t all believe we’re passengers on the Titanic and fiction is our heroin.

JWH

Remembering and Rating Pop Culture

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, July 11, 2018

I began keeping a reading log back in 1983 where I record every book I finish reading. I wished I had started this log in the third grade when my mother read me Treasure Island. That was 1960, I was eight, and the first book I remember. The first book I read myself, was Down Periscope, but in an abridged version for kids. That was probably 1961. I figured I finished over a thousand books that I don’t remember between 1961 and 1983.

As you might guess, I’m hung-up on memory. Just remember, this blog is called Auxiliary Memory. My memory has never been great, and now it’s in obvious decline. My reading log has proved valuable on countless occasions and in many ways. Over the years I’ve often regretted not maintaining a movie log.

Recently I began a Pop Culture Log, where I record the short stories, essays, albums, TV shows, movies that I finish each day. In the sixties we had a phrase, you are what you eat. Well, I believe we are the pop culture we consume.

I keep my new pop culture log on a Google spreadsheet online. I now wish I had logged every pop culture work I consumed in my lifetime. Recording all my brain food takes a bit of effort, but is revealing. More and more when I tell my friends about shows or stories I enjoyed I can’t recall their titles. That’s very frustrating.

Aging and struggling with memory reveal details about my identity in those logs. In Westworld season 2 they show different approaches to creating artificial immortality. One method involves teaching an android all the memories and habits of a person until the android can’t be distinguished from the real person. Who we are, often comes from our attitudes towards the pop culture we’ve experienced in our lifetime. On Facebook, I see more and more groups formed around pop culture memories with tens of thousands of baby boomers participating in each. My identity can be partially defined by those groups I joined. (That’s why Facebook is so powerful to advertisers and political pollsters.)

Here’s a snippet of the last couple days. If I tried to record them from memory the day after tomorrow all of them would have been forgotten except maybe The Admirable Crichton. That’s the work that’s given me the most pleasure this week, but it would only take another couple days and I’d forget it too.

Pop Culture Log

 

I’ve tried to devise the most useful columns. I added a link column, something I don’t have on my reading log of books. That gives me actual details about the work, and is very educational, often expanding my reaction to the work.  Just collecting the entries for the spreadsheet helps me remember more.

My friend Janis recently gave me a box of vinyl LPs she had stored away at her father’s house for decades, mostly from the 1970s and early 1980s. I’ve been playing a couple each day. As you can see, I’ve rated them all three stars. But I wonder what I would have rated them back when they were new. Most stuff from decades ago seems kind of mediocre and blah, but I bet some of those albums sparkled when they first appeared. I know I liked some of them much better then than I do now.  I’ve decided to rate my current reaction rather than trying to discern absolute artistic quality, it’s context in history or its lasting value. The links do that. It would have been enlightening to see how my ratings changed over time.

Rating Systems

There’s all kind of rating systems. The classic school grade (A+ through F). The test score (0 – 100). The 10 scale (0 – 10). Various 3-star, 4-star, and 5-star ratings. I liked what Rocket Stack Rank uses, a 5-star system that’s less judgmental and more practical. I’ve amended their system for my use:

  • 1-star (*) – Technical flaws that annoy. Can’t finish.
  • 2-star (**) – Storytelling flaws ruin the flow. Can’t finish.
  • 3-star (***) – Average. Good. Competent. Even well done. Once is enough.
  • 4-star (****) – Will recommend to friends. Would reread/rewatch. Hope to remember probably won’t.
  • 5-star (*****) – Should win awards, be remembered, and become a classic. Would buy to have permanently. Would want to study and remember.

This system avoids judging art by objective criteria. A graph counting all the ratings should show 80% falling into the 3-star rating, 18% for 2-star or 4-star, and 2% for 1-star and 5-star. Because I only record what I finish, I shouldn’t be listing 1-star and 2-star titles.

The Admirable Crichton - 1957

Of the works rated above only the English film The Admirable Crichton (Paradise Lagoon in the U.S.) based on the J. M. Barrie play (he also wrote Peter Pan) is rated 4-stars. I gave it 4-stars because it’s one I’d recommend to my friends. It was so much fun that I’ve ordered two other film editions of the story, one a silent, Male and Female (1919) that stars Gloria Swanson directed by Cecille B. DeMille, and 1934 pre-Code screwball comedy starring Bing Crosby, We’re Not Dressing.

Rating a work is hard. Janis, who is also my TV watching buddy, and I, both greatly enjoy Glow, a show about lady wrestlers in the 1980s. It gets good reviews, and I know other people who like it too. However, the quality of streaming TV is so great compared to the older broadcast TV that it’s hard to say when a show is worthy of 4-stars. I would definitely say Breaking Bad, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Marvelous Mrs. MaiselThe Crown, Downton Abbey are 5-star shows. And I would say Anne with an E, Humans, FargoWestworld, The Duece are 4-star shows. But really good shows like Glow and Killing Eve aren’t in their class. A 3-star rating includes a lot of very entertaining shows because there’s really a great number of entertaining well-made shows. 3-stars doesn’t mean something isn’t very good. Well-made entertainment is very common today.

My concern is more about memory than artistic judgment. I want just enough information in my logs to trigger hidden memories. I’ve never been sure if bad memory is due to lost memories or poor memory retrieval. If I had kept logs of all the artistic works I consumed in my lifetime it would help me remember, but also it would also describe who I was, something I’m still learning myself.

JWH