Songs of My Selfie: An Anthology of Millennial Stories
The publicity copy for Songs of My Selfie: An Anthology of Millennial Stories explains it all:
“This collection features seventeen short stories by millennial writers about actual millennial issues, exposing this generation’s true ambitions and frustrations, humor and heartbreak, despair and joie de vivre.”
Let’s parse that rather Dickensian statement. (Best of times, worst of times, etc.)
What Selfie purports to give us is an array of fictional pieces, all created by authors under the age of 26, all of whom, like Joyce Maynard once did long, long ago at age 19 in her Looking Back: A Chronicle of Growing Up Old in the Sixties are explaining things to those of us who are just too old to understand.
Silly and pretentious then, silly and pretentious now, what with all that joie de vivre and all.
What we get in the anthology are stories that are often overwrought and way too often overwritten. All full of tsuris and pouty youths. We get more cigarettes than are good for us and blow jobs by the dozen (“Flora didn’t like the movie very much, but Jack was transfixed, even when Flora leaned over to give him oral sex.” From “The Lovesick Picture Show,” by Angela Sloan.) We also learn that the under-twenty-sixes are all out looking for work, or refusing to look for work, or working as personal assistants who smoke, drink coffee, and wait for the phone to ring.
All seem a bit dreary, a bit drab, with emotions that, as Dorothy Parker once put it, “range from A to B.”
What unites them seems to be their distain for their elders.
As Meagan Brothers puts it in her foreword:
“Some crusty old Gen-Xers like to complain about the kids today. All they do is text and take selfies while the world burns. But consider the selfie. To turn the camera on ourselves is to look at ourselves unflinchingly, but under our own direction. We take control of our own image when we take a selfie. And maybe there’s a certain power in that; an assertion of self-reliance that would do Emerson proud.
“Consider these stories as selfies. Seventeen tales, seventeen defiant, purposeful snapshots of life in a precarious world. Each of these authors is showing you something new, with a viewpoint that is uniquely their own. They are meting the challenges of this world head on, without fear, without looking away. No, they reveal these snapshots to you. Take a look.”
Having taken a good, long look, the reader can attest that the problem is that in the whole of the volume, none of the young authors has come up with anything new.
The stories contained within the volume share the traits common to youthful artists over the generations: they are, each and all, mirrors—some quite gilded, others partially unsilvered from the age and overuse of their content—distorted by self-absorption mixed with a certain lack of control of the authorial voice and the apparent need to be perceived as being both artsy and cool. They are, as stories, the products of creative writing classes in MFA programs in which others of the same sort discuss the output of the equally ambitious in the realm of the literary arts.
Which is not to say that there are not authors of promise gathered here and that some of the stories are not more successful than others—one, indeed, displays great promise—only that the whole has been oversold as something more than it is (that whole “unflinching” bit, and the sense that Ralph Waldo would have read and reread the whole thing up at Walden over the winter months).
Much of the problem seems to be the responsibility of the volume’s editor, Constance Renfrow, who not only places one of her own stories “The Edge of Happiness” among the anthology’s 17, but also gives her story the honored position of closing out the volume, something that the quality of the story itself most surely does not require.
More problematic, Renfrow apparently is also responsible for the author photos—all of which share common traits, including oversized glasses, lips so red that the color shows in the black-and-white photographs, and a certain overly-close relationship between the camera and the subject in which the subjects’ eyes tell more-or-less the same story: Get out of my way, fucker, I’m an artiste.
Worse, the editor has allowed the author’s bios to attain a level of Brooklyn Emo that suggests a level of parody not seem since The Lampoon threatened to shoot the cover model dog if you did not buy that issue.
And so we have one writer, whose picture shows him with what may likely be a white plastic spork in his mouth—perhaps the very one that figures into his story?—attesting to the fact that his poetry and fiction have appeared in Visceral Brooklyn (along with Those That This, Tempered Magazine, Tiger Train magazine, Marco Polo Arts magazine, and the 2013 Saint Paul Almanac) after having just shared with us that he is an editor at Brooklyn Visceral. And the reader wonders if he has given his work the honored position of appearing last in the pages/posts of the journal he edits.
Like the author’s photos, the authors’ bios reflect certain joint traits common to millennial writers, in spite of the fact that their editor refers to the as “unique little snowflakes.”
All have been published in various obscure literary journals.
Most have won an obscure literary award or two. Most are preparing for or working through graduate school.
And virtually all are in the process of completing either their novel or their first collection of short stories.
Which all works to the result that the reader, caught up in all their artsy hubris, wants to pinch their cheeks just like their grandmas would. They are all such puppies and kittens.
And yet, there are the stories themselves. Although not altogether “unflinching,” some do manage to entertain.
Some, like Suzanne Herman in “The Most Laid-Back Guy Ever,” show a control of narrative and a cool-headed humor that makes the reader want to see more.
And what others, like Stephanie Bramson’s “Becoming John Doe,” lack in organic logic they make up for with a festive sense of irony and an ability to convince the reader to keep right on reading.
And while editor Constance Renfrow’s “The Edge of Happiness” is not the strongest work, it does display a wonderful creative anger that could well grow to be the wellspring of something great.
And then there’s this one short story.
The one that contains this:
“All summer, we had walked these streets—our feet aching, our blisters breaking open, our makeup running down our face, and us ignoring them all. Our perfume smelled like cigarettes. Our cigarettes smelled like incense. All summer we had walked alone, together, whiskey-tainted shadows appearing in our corners one after another: in jaundiced vestibules of ninety-nine-cent pizzerias; in the neon stairwells of St. Mark’s.
“Youth kept us wandering.”
Okay, yes, there is that grammatical error in the first sentence. And, yes, the story does walk the tightrope between the poetic and the twee, but “Here in Avalon,” by Tara Isabella Burton, whose fiction has appeared in several obscure journals, and who has both won an obscure award for writing, and just finished her first novel, shows Burton to be the real deal. Someone whose name should be filed away in the back of your head so that you will recognize it one day when it appears on a dust jacket.
Kidding aside, all the authors whose work appears in this volume are doing what authors, young or old, must do in order to find their audience (as well as an agent and a publisher). They are writing, finishing what they started, and getting their work out into the world. And for that they are to be both congratulated and encouraged. While their intensity makes them seem, at times, sweetly funny, it also stands them in good stead as they learn what it means to be an artist in our modern culture.
Songs of My Selfie is sort of a literary journal itself. It takes itself way too seriously and thinks itself far more inventive than it is. But it does have value. And here’s hoping that, just as the writers whose works are celebrated within, those who put the project together will also gain from it the skills needed to bring many more projects like it to fruition.