BASS 2020: “Halloween” by Marian Crotty

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Menu: The Best American Short Stories 2020 Project

Evidently teenage lesbians can go just as girl crazy as other girls go boy crazy. In “Halloween” by Marian Crotty, seventeen-year-old high school senior Julie can’t control her impulses for college girl Erika and gets strategic dating advice from her thrice-married grandmother. “Halloween” is a nice little love story that moves from beginning to end in a linear progression. It does offer a small subplot about Julie’s jealousy for her mother’s growing transfer of affection for her boyfriend as Julie gets old enough to move out, and it digresses a delicious bit about the colorful grandmother, Jan. Maybe a little too much because Jan almost upstages Julie in this story.

Although “Halloween” is told with a decent concentration of embellishing details such as working at Yotopia, everybody else’s love life, bits of academic demands, and a few faint details about Tallahassee, Florida, the story is pretty much about Julie’s obsession with Erika. Sure, love stories dominate fiction, and its mildly interesting to learn about the sex lives of the latest generation, but it’s also a kind of ho-hum mundane love story. Because part of the story was set at Yotopia I couldn’t help compare it to John Updike’s classic teens at work story, “A&P.”

“Halloween” is an engaging story but won’t be memorable. Why is “A&P” still being taught in schools over a half century after it was first published and “Halloween” won’t? Why has “A&P” stuck with me ever since it was assigned to my English class back in the 1960s? How do you describe ineffable qualities?

There are milestones in the life of short stories. Getting written is a kind of conception. Getting published is a kind of birth. Getting selected for a best-of-the-year annual is a kind of graduation. Getting reprinted in retrospective anthologies is a kind of career. Becoming a classic is a form of longevity, even immortality. With every story I read that I like I have to ask if it has what it takes to keep living. And if I don’t think it will, I have to ask what would it take to survive.

“Halloween” needs something. Either more Julie, or more Erika, or more of both. If you compare Julie with Joy in “Godmother Tea” you’ll know what I mean. I wanted a lot more details about Julie’s inner world, and a lot more details about what she sees in Erika. For “Halloween” to survive we readers would have to feel what Julie feels when she can’t stop herself from going to the Halloween party. The story as is made me intellectually understand, but for it to reach the next level I’d have to feel it.

Jake Weber’s review. He found some comic elements that I didn’t. I recently wrote an essay about science fiction stories that could be read straight or as humor depending on your current perspective or mood.

Other Reviews:

Karen Carlson framed her insights around the three generations of women with relationship problems.

Jake Weber was fascinated by the questionable dating advice Jan gives Julie.


BASS 2020: “The Nanny” by Emma Cline

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, November 15, 2020

“The Nanny” by Emma Cline is available to read online at The Paris Review.

Have you ever dreamed of writing fiction? I have. I’ve even studied it in college. Writing stories is much harder than it looks. I don’t know if I fail because I’m a bad writer or because I don’t understand how stories are told or constructed. I’m reading and reviewing The Best American Short Stories 2020 (BASS 2020) this year to see if I can spot what good writers do that I don’t.

Even though I’m about to nitpick another story, I must reiterate that all these stories are well written and entertaining. However, I’m not sure what kind of reader will like them. Few bookworms read short stories, and I think that most that do are would-be writers. Getting short stories published is like making it onto farm team in baseball – but the real goal is to get into the show.

Emma Cline has already made it to the big time with The Girls in 2016, so I expect her short story production to fall off as she writes more novels. This makes “The Nanny” an important story to study because we know Cline has the knack for attracting readers. And as soon as I started reading “The Nanny” I noticed that her story is full of significant details. And “The accumulation of significant details is the key to great fiction” is the most important piece of advice I got at Clarion West in 2002, a six-weeks writing workshop.

However, writing techniques are not the only thing I’m studying with this BASS 2020 project. I’m also analyzing what do people like to read and why. And even more than that, why do people read short stories. There’s several answers to that. First and foremost, we naturally like the art form, but more specifically, we get hooked by the opening:

There isn’t much in the house,” Mary said. “I’m sorry.”

Kayla looked around, shrugged. “I’m not even that hungry.”

Mary set the table, bright Fiestaware on place mats alongside fringed cloth napkins. They ate microwave pizzas.

“Gotta have something a little fresh,” Mary’s boyfriend, Dennis, said cheerily, heaping spinach leaves from a plastic bin onto his pizza. He seemed pleased by his ingenuity. Kayla ate the spinach, took a few bites of crust. Mary poured her more water.

When Kayla asked for a beer, she saw Mary and Dennis glance at each other.

“Sure, sweetie,” Mary said. “Dennis, do we have any beer? Maybe check the garage refrigerator?”

I didn’t find this opening very enticing. Kayla appears to be our protagonist, and she’s being fed on the fly, maybe even an inconvenient or unwanted guest. I can vividly picture this scene though.

Cline gets down to business in the next hunk of description:

Kayla drank two over dinner, then a third out on the porch, her legs tucked up into the oversize hoodie she had taken from Mary’s son’s room. The wildness of the backyard made everything beyond it look fake: the city skyline, the stars. Reception was awful this high in the canyon. She could try to walk closer to the road again, out by the neighbor’s fence, but Mary would notice and say something. Kayla could feel Dennis and Mary watching her from inside the kitchen, tracking the glow of her screen. What would they do, take her phone away? She searched Rafe’s name, searched her own. The numbers had grown. Such nightmarish math, the frenzied tripling of results, and how strange to see her name like this, stuffing page after page, appearing in the midst of even foreign languages, hovering above photos of Rafe’s familiar face.

We really don’t know what’s happening. Evidently Kayla is hiding out because she’s become notorious on the internet with a famous person named Rafe. I do know what’s happening because I’ve already read the story, but at this point for first time readers, the motives of this paragraph are a mystery. And that bugs me. I don’t like stories that withhold information from the reader to create suspense. Of course, that’s a pet peeve of mine, and it might not be yours.

Everything that unfolds in “The Nanny” is a mystery because Cline doesn’t tell us upfront what’s going on. Now this might be a great technique for hooking some readers. Since I don’t think I should spoil the story for you, I can’t tell you why Cline is doing this.

But how can I talk about the story then? Can I trust you to go read the story and then come back? It is online. Should I just warn you to not read beyond this point until you’ve finished reading BASS 2020? I don’t think many people who are reading this blog plan to read these stories. In that case, any benefit you get from reading what I say comes from my observations, so I matter as well spill the beans.

Kayla is hired by Rafe and Jessica to nanny their son Henry. Rafe is a movie actor, and Kayla ends up having sex with him. Then Kayla is on the run from paparazzi and bad press. At first I wondered if this was going to be a #MeToo story, but it’s not. It’s really about Kayla attitude towards the world. Cline captures a young woman who flows along with an almost nihilistic outlook. At one point we are told:

The thing was, she was a smart girl. She’d studied art history. Her first class, when Professor Hunnison turned out the lights and they all sat in the dark—they were eighteen, most of them, still children, still kids who had slept at home all their lives. Then the whir of the projector, and on the screen appeared hovering portals of light and color, squares of beauty. It was like a kind of magic, she had thought back then, when thoughts like that didn’t feel embarrassing.

How mysterious it seemed sometimes—that she had once been interested or capable enough to finish papers. Giotto and his reimaginings of De Voragine’s text in his frescoes. Rodin’s challenge to classical notions of fixed iconographic goals, Michelangelo’s bodies as vessels for God’s will. It was as if she’d once been fluent in another language, now forgotten.

Evidently, Kayla once had academic ambitions, even hopes of having something to distinguish herself, or at least impressing her professor. Through the course of the story we learn she wasn’t smart enough. Her affair with Rafe might have been another hope for Kayla, but it was only out of boredom for Rafe. She thought the relationship made her special, but when everyone turned against her she had to run. She just goes through the motions as Mary and Dennis take care of her out of pity. In the end we are told the sad reality of Kayla’s dreams:

Dennis scanned Kayla’s face, her eyes, her mouth, and she could tell he was seeing what he wanted to see, finding confirmation of whatever redemptive story he’d told himself about who she was. Dennis looked sad. He looked tired and sad and old. And the thing was, someday, she would be old, too. Her body would go. Her face. And what then? She knew, already, that she wouldn’t handle it well. She was a vain, silly girl. She wasn’t good at anything. The things she had once known—Rodin! Chartres!—all that was gone. Was there a world in which she returned to these things? She hadn’t been smart enough, really. Even then. Lazy, grasping for shortcuts. Her thesis moldering in her college library, a hundred labored pages on The Expulsion of Joachim from the Temple. She’d messed with the margins and font sizes until she barely made the required page count. Professor Hunnison, she thought miserably, do you ever think of me?

Kayla lives in a society that admires people who create successful identities and she struggles to find anything at all to set herself apart. The story concludes in a way that turns even us against her:

At least he had given up on the idea of lecturing her. Convincing her there was some lesson in all this. That wasn’t how the world worked, and wasn’t it a little tragic that Dennis didn’t know that yet? No use feeling bad. There wasn’t anything to learn. Kayla smiled, sucked in her stomach, just in case—because who knew? Maybe there was a photographer hidden out there in the darkness, someone who’d been watching her, who’d followed her here, someone who had waited, patiently, for her to appear.

Would the story had been just as successful is Cline had told us right up front that Kayla was on the run for having sex with a married actor and the popular opinion was against her? What if we were told Kayla was a graduate school dropout at the beginning of the story and she was searching for any kind of recognition she could latch onto?

Was it fair of Cline to hide Kayla’s faults from us? Mary and Dennis hope to help Kayla, and see her as a good person – at first. We assume Rafe and Jessica did too. And haven’t we held out hope for Kayla too, also assuming she was a good person. Then how do we feel at the end when we learn she’s pathetically wants a paparazzi to find her?

Is it good storytelling to hold off a surprise until the end? Personally, I would have preferred to know the ending right up front, and then got to watch Kayla closely throughout the story to understand all the interactions of the characters. If we had known the ending at the beginning, then these paragraphs at the front of the story would have taken on different meanings.

Before Tuesday there had been hardly any record of Kayla: an old fund-raising page from Students for a Free Tibet; a blog run by a second cousin with photos from a long-ago family reunion, teenage Kayla, mouth full of braces, holding a paper plate bent with barbecue. Her mother had called the cousin and asked her to take the photo down, but by then it had passed into the amber of the internet.

Were there any new ones? She looked through the image results again, in case. They had dug up photos of Kayla lagging behind Rafe and Jessica, holding Henry’s hand. Rafe in his button-down and jeans, surrounded by women and children. Kayla had no photos of her and Rafe together. That was strange, wasn’t it? She came across a new photo—she looked only okay. A certain pair of jeans she loved was not, she saw, as flattering as she’d imagined it to be. She saved the photo to her phone so she could zoom in on it later.

Kayla made herself close the search results, then let her text messages refresh. A split-second reprieve where she could believe that perhaps the forces in the universe were aligning and aiming something from Rafe in her direction. She knew before they finished loading that there would be nothing.

Knowing the ending would change my attitude about the information given here. I wonder if Cline always saw Kayla’s faults and wrote the story thinking about them, and didn’t realize some readers might follow different assumptions before learning the truth?

It’s not that we eventually turn against Kayla completely, but it would have been more useful knowing her weaknesses sooner. I assume Cline wanted us to get to know Kayla slowly like everyone in the story. But then, we wouldn’t know the breadcrumbs Cline sprinkled throughout the story meant unless we read the story twice.

Of course, that brings up a whole other issue. So many of the stories I admire require two or three readings before all the author’s efforts are revealed. Should we always read short stories twice immediately? Should we write them assuming people will read them twice? That rarely happens.

Is it possible to keep the reader completely informed with one reading?

The point of “The Nanny” is to create a psychological portrait of Kayla, but is that what readers want from short stories? There is no plot. There is no ending. Nothing is wrapped up. I accept that in literary stories, but do most readers?

Menu: The Best American Short Stories 2020 Project

Jake Weber’s review


BASS 2020: “Sibling Rivalry” by Michael Byers

by James Wallace Harris,

Near the end of 1968, Connell and I were over George’s house and the three of us were having a passionate discussion about “And Then There Were None” by Eric Frank Russell. Connell and I were in the 12th grade, and George was in the 11th. We considered science fiction important because it was about the future. We were just back from seeing the launch of Apollo 8, and what could validate the importance of the future more than that?

Evidently, George’s mom was listening in on us. Mrs. Kurschner came in and said, “You know when you grow up you’ll realize that science fiction is childish crap, not even real literature. You won’t take it seriously at all.” We were stunned and insulted. I knew Mrs. Kurschner was well educated, world traveled, a sophisticated women, besides being a mom. We all argued with her at once, pleading she was wrong. Over the years, John Updike, and other famous literary authors would write essays that reiterated her opinion about how science fiction was crap written for adolescent boys. The genre got less respect than Rodney Dangerfield.

Well, I’ve outlived Mrs. Kurschner, John Updike, and many other literary snobs who put down science fiction. The fourth story in The Best American Short Stories 2020 is science fiction, “Sibling Rivalry” by Michael Byers. Oh sure, over the decades genre fiction has slowly snuck into BASS and literary writers began using science fictional themes in their hibrow works. There’s even The Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy Stories that are part of the growing BASS series of annuals.

The inclusion of science fiction in BASS has always been rather tentative, on the gentle side of science fiction, and that’s true of “Sibling Rivalry.” Back in the 1960s I knew damn few people that read or watched science fiction, especially before Star Trek. Now our pop culture is supersaturated with science fictional themes and ideas. I suppose few readers will be surprised to read about androids in the annual BASS volume, or even resent the fact. Does that mean that science is finally mainstream?

Nah, it turns out Mrs. Kurschner was right all along, and so was John Updike. Science fiction is not mature literature, and yes it’s targeted at our adolescent nature, which our culture glorifies. I’m much older now than Mrs. Kurschner was back then, and I’ve read a lot more science fiction and literature since then. But, don’t take me for a turncoat. I just see science fiction and serious literature as two separate art forms with uniquely different ambitions. Sure they both borrow techniques from the other, but for each to hit their defining targets they must fire their canons in entirely different directions.

“Sibling Rivalry” is a story that shoots at both targets, and misses twice. That’s not to say I wasn’t thoroughly engaged and entertained by this story, but if you’ve been reading my reviews of BASS 2020 so far you know I consider high quality writing and exceptionally entertaining stories to be the minimum qualifications for this anthology. My naggings and quibblings only deal with how these stories meet my jaded hunger for fiction. It’s an addiction, so I always need purer, more potent stories. In other words, any marketing data obtained here only applies to one buyer – me.

“Sibling Rivalry” on the surface feels like ordinary literary fiction, Peter and Julie Burkhart have two children, Matt, 11, and Melissa, 7, and the story is about their love and concern for raising their kids and loving each other. There are two differences in their suburban world. First, Melissa is a synth, an AI artificial person who looks exactly like a human seven-year-old, and second, instead of everyone having smartphones, they have cookies, which network their thoughts, allowing parents to spy on their children, and for grownups to gossip more easily.

In the science fiction genre both of those divergents from normal life are called What If ideas. What if we could buy children to order? What if we had technological telepathy?

One of the biggest challenges to writing science fiction is integrating a neat idea into a plot with appealing characters. Most science fiction fails because the characters feel like chess pieces acting out a neat science fiction idea. This isn’t true with “Sibling Rivalry.” Byers makes the story about the Burkharts, and you really feel for them, or at least I did. Thumbs up for the literary side of this story.

Science fiction often fails too because writers use retreaded plots about space warfare, overthrowing dystopias, repelling alien invasions, battling robotic overlords, and the romance and intrigued inside galactic empires. It’s a real challenge to write an original science fiction story. Byers is far less original here, because countless SF stories have dealt with robots that look just like people. Byers follow two well worn paths regarding androids, but I’ll up his grade for his exploration of cookies.

“Sibling Rivalry” is a kind of Sci-Fi Literary Lite, sometimes called Slipstream. Basically, it tries to merge regular literary characters and settings with a gentle intrusions of science fictional tropes. In this story Byers presents a near future where he introduces two disruptive technologies, like the iPhone did in 2007.

Back in the old days of science fiction, the common writing advice was to only introduce one science fictional change in a story and play it out to its logical conclusion. I guess they don’t give that advice out anymore because Byers bites off two at once, and he veers into two very tired SF trends – sex with androids and robot overlords. I thought this kitchen sink approach diluted the story, and wished it had only been about cookies. But I still liked the story very much.

With both technologies, Byers attempts to let his readers get a feeling for a future that’s very much like now, but slightly altered by the two technologies. Because Byers jumps around exploring different ideas the story is essentially plotless, and several interesting revelations go unexplored. That’s actually perfectly fine for literary writing, but it might disappoint genre fans. Nothing is resolved or tied up. Basically, Byers opens up Pandora’s box and we get to watch several fires start burning. However, all of them are intellectually amusing to contemplate. And that’s the value of science fiction, contemplating possibilities.

There are two types of science fiction fans: those that don’t care about the science and those that do. When I was growing up, some fans were like Connell, George, and I. We loved reading science fiction because so we could argue over whether the ideas in a story were realistic – were scientifically possible. The vast hordes of SF fans only care about stories, even if the science is at the level of comic books. Which is why most literary critics cringe at science fiction. Comic book science is idiotic to mature minds.

There is a faith in science fiction that’s no more logical than fundamentalists who believe the world is just six thousand years old and mankind once coexisted with dinosaurs. I’ve often been on online and said faster-than-light travel won’t happen and people reacted like I said God doesn’t exist at a Southern Baptist revival. Try being Mr. Skeptical Inquirer at any science fiction convention and you might get run through with a Bat’leth by a adolescent femfan.

I feel most readers, either literary fans or SF fans just want a good story. There are some literary readers who want characters to act realistically human, and some science fiction fans who want SF stories to be scientific. Most readers aren’t critical in either regard if the story is fun.

Michael Byers presents an idea that is almost universally embraced in modern science fiction – that technology will produce robots/androids/replicants that are indistinguishable from real humans. We see such AI creatures in books and movies everywhere. I say we’ll see them as soon as we see FTL or time travel. In other words, never. My opinion is atypical, a downer, to those who believe anything is possible.

In “Sibling Rivalry” laws prevent couples from having more than one child, so those wanting a big family buy extra synth children. They are identical to human children in all ways, including the ability to grow. This is an absurd What If to contemplate on so many levels. The basic premise of society outlawing children to save the Earth is believable, but allowing unlimited synths instead is not. They would also put a burden on the environment too, maybe even more than human children. Byers does say synth children are carefully crafted from analyzing the parents behavior, so I would have found it more believable if synth children were just a vanity fad, rather than a byproduct of trying to control overpopulation.

Even though I disbelieve in artificial humans, I will accept the idea for the story. I do believe we will create AI minds that are sentient and self-aware. I will assume Byers’ synth children are literary symbolisms, although I do believe Byers was not intending to be symbolic. But would parents love AI children if they looked like mechanical spiders, even if they mentally mirrored the parents? I don’t think so.

I believe Byers is the kind of SF writer that wants us to believe everything in his story is realistic just for the purpose of the story. When I ask SF fans if they object to unscientific things in SF they say they only judge stories for the storytelling. However, if I tell the same people those concepts don’t exist outside the context of fiction, they get bent out of shape. But analyzing the psychology of people who passionately believe in angels or hot girl robots is for another essay.

Insights into understanding humans is my yardstick for measuring literary fiction. “Sibling Rivalry” lightly touches on some issues I think are worthy of considering, especially about how much do we really want to know about what goes on in other people’s minds.

Imagining possibilities that time or science has yet to discover is my yardstick for measuring science fiction. Byers didn’t do anything with synthetic humans that hasn’t been done before, but some of his ideas about cookies intrigued me. I don’t know if they are scientifically possible. I tend to doubt it, but I’m less skeptical of them than the idea of creating artificial people we can’t tell from real people.

Menu: The Best American Short Stories 2020 Project

Be sure and read Jacob Weber’s review of this story because he chronicles the stages he goes through as he reacts to each new bit of information in the story. A neat technique.


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