ALTHOUGH ITS EDITORS do not seem to realize as much, The Random Review 1982 clearly aspires to be for the 1980s what New World Writing was for the 1950s, New American Review for the 1960s and American Review for the 1970s: an annual paperback anthology of what its editors believe to be, as the cover announces, "The Year's Best Fiction, Poetry and Essays." The difference between The Random Review and its predecessors is that the contents of the former are culled from magazines and journals, while those of the latter were solicited as original work. For reasons presumably having to do with either youth or self-deception, the editors commit a half-truth when they declare:
"Other anthologies have tried to collect the year's outstanding fiction or poetry or little-magazine writing, but until now no book has offered a critical survey of the best literary efforts--in short fiction, poetry, and the essay--from the full range of American periodicals."
I dwell on this not to belabor the editors, but to emphasize that The Random Review does indeed have ancestors and that they are honorable ones. The three above-mentioned journals played valuable roles, at times critical ones, in the literature of the decades in which they were published. They welcomed young, unknown writers and gave them the opportunity to be read by a considerably wider and more influential audience than the little magazines could reach; several issues of these paperback magazines sold around 100,000 copies, though the average was considerably smaller than that. The magazines, their laudable intentions notwithstanding, fell by the wayside after brief existences; the same is almost certain to happen to The Random Review, so let us pay attention while we can.
Gary Fisketjon and Jonathan Galassi could be speaking as editors of any of their predecessors when they declare: "The Random Review 1982, the first in an annual series, originated in our mutual conviction that there are many first-rate writers at work in America today, and that they too often remain secrets unto themselves and their kind. . . . The community of writers in this country, as this book demonstrates, is a boisterous and unmanageable one, and luckily so. The variety of themes and technique here displayed is representative of the pluralism of our society, as is the diversity of sensibilities and points of view. If some of these writers have little to say to one another, we feel that each of them offers honest value to the reading public."
Honest value, yes, but not quite as much diversity as the editors believe. The contents of The Random Review 1982 seem to me most usefully viewed as a reflection not of what is taking place in American literature, but as an indication of what is being taught and thought and written in our departments of creative writing. The writing is technically proficient at worst, unusually skillful at best; structure and internal logic are, if not always flawless, remarkably impressive for a collection of pieces done primarily by younger writers. Yet the principal impression the anthology conveys is that many of its writers have terrific skills but little or nothing to say with them.
The anthology is arranged alphabetically, so it is a nice twist of chance that the first story is by Ann Beattie, the novelist whose chief subjects are boredom, disconnection and confusion. She is such a talented writer --so adroit at quick characterization and blessed with such an acute ear for dialogue--that the fundamental emptiness of her fiction is all the more evident by contrast. No doubt the argument can be made that having nothing to say is in itself a message, but it produces fiction almost entirely devoid of energy; for more examples, turn to the stories by Stephanie C. Gunn, Amy Herrick and Jean Thompson--all of them dealing with young people, all of them executed with craftsmanship, none of them showing little more than perfunctory depth of feeling.
Three stories by older writers, on the other hand, have every bit as much to say as they have artistry with which to say it. Raymond Carver's "Cathedral" is a funny and unexpectedly touching account, told in a distinctive voice, of how the narrator's reluctant encounter with a blind man leads him to see the world in a new way. Peter Taylor's "The Gift of the Prodigal" examines the relationship between a prim father and an unruly son whose escapades bring a secret excitement into the older man's quiet life. And Patricia Zelver's "Unglued" is notable not merely for its solid prose and psychological truth, but for taking on a subject of great contemporary importance yet little-noticed so far in serious fiction: image and reality as presented by television.
When it comes to the poetry, I must borrow a line from Carver's narrator: "Maybe I just don't understand poetry. I admit it's not the first thing I reach for when I pick up something to read." But with that apology made clear, I must express my admiration for the poems by Jim Gauer, Thomas Lux, Howard Nemerov and--these two in particular--Mark Rudman and Charles Wright. A number of the other poems struck me as noteworthy chiefly for their obscurity; but I am happy to confess that the fault may be mine.
Two of the essays are first-rate. Emile Capouya, in "In the Sparrow Hills," employs "scattered memories" to explore the ways in which the mind can fool itself and in which fiction and reality can merge. "Listening and Making," by Robert Hass, is an intelligent and informative examination of the ways in which poets employ "rhythms and rhythmic play"; Hass manages the considerable feat of taking a difficult, elusive subject and making sense of it in a clear, uncondescending, good-humored manner.
The stories by Carver, Taylor and Zelder; the poems by Rudman and Wright; the essays by Capouya and Hass--these are the high moments in The Random Review 1982. That I have singled these out may be a reflection of my own age and bias, but I think not. These pieces have vigor and commitment, qualities too often absent elsewhere in the anthology. But its editors are to be commended for bringing this material together, and its publishers are equally to be commended for taking on a project that is most unlikely to enrich them. The tradition of New World Writing has taken on new life, though for how long remains to be seen.