One of the things that I enjoy about guest-edited magazines and anthologies is the opportunity given to the guest editor to say something about short fiction. Or the process of winnowing four or five hundred pieces down to twenty. Or about the arduous task of crafting short fiction. Or something original. Anyway, it is for this reason I enjoy Ploughshares .
In any case, the selections are secondary for me as I am lucky to have access to Tin House, Open City, Glimmertrain, A Public Space and, of course the New Yorker—which I am sure is not the case for many readers and thus the utility ofBest American Short Stories which has established itself in the market place, having a long and honorable tradition (going back to 1915). This year’s edition was guest edited by Richard Russo who is not only an able and wonderful novelist (and screenwriter) but for many years was a university professor. It is from that wellspring of experience that Russo draws for his introduction to the 2010 anthology.
It seems that when Russo was teaching at the University of Southern Illinois Isaac Bashevis Singer came there as a guest lecturer. Russo writes:
..the students were awarded seats at the table, whereas their professors, chafing visibly at the arrangement, were consigned to an outer ring of folding chairs and reminded that the purpose of the session was to mallow students to enter a dialogue with the great man, that their questions got priority…
The first student question was obviously a plant. “Mr Singer,” said one of the undergraduates…”Mr Singer could you tell us please, What is the purpose of literature?”
Mr Singer smiled broadly at the question,as if this were the first time he had ever heard it and was delighted to know the answer. “The purpose of literature.” He said clearly, meeting the student’s eye, “is to entertain and to instruct.”
He let his voice fall. Next question.
The undergraduate students looked at the graduate students, who looked at the outer ring of faculty. Clearly everyone expected more. The question after all was the sort likely to generate whole classes of heated , unresolved debate but here was a Nobel Prize winner who seemed to think that ten words sufficed to put the matter to rest…
And with deft narrative skill Russo shows with this short piece the validity of Singer’s prounouncement.