Best Single Issue Ever?

by Posted on January 4th, 2011 at 12:17 pm

What is the best single issue of any literary magazine? We could spend paragraphs defining best: Is the word synonymous with favorite? (“Entropy” by Thomas Pynchon, one of my favorite short stories, appears in the Spring 1960 issue of The Kenyon Review, but is that enough to make the issue a classic?)  Should we treat the issue as a collective, a book, and does the best issue necessitate an overarching theme or symbolic connection? (I don’t doubt that most editors attempt to construct issues that feel coherent and unified, but the practicality of submissions make luck an essential element of any magazine’s completion?) Can a great issue of a literary magazine have a dud of a story, a misordered poem, or do copyediting errors mar the quality of the content? Does the designation of an “issue” automatically disqualify online magazines? (Some, like The Collagist, are carefully presented as complete issues, while others, like Abjective, are weekly presentations of single works; and is One Story denied entry because it contains, well, only one story?) Concrete definitions aside, here is my vote for the best single issue ever:

Granta 8: Dirty Realism. First published in Summer 1983. Bill Buford’s introduction to the issue is an indispensible and, as much as that word has capital in literary magazines, controversial preface to a packed issue. Buford’s designation of “dirty realist” writing is problematic—an American-born writer defining a sometimes pejorative literary “movement” through a British periodical—but Buford earns points for both vision and prescience. The writing in the issue certainly feels connected: refined prose pared to declarative perfection, often applied to represent destructive, complicated emotions and familial dysfunction. Work by Raymond Carver, Jayne Anne Phillips, Richard Ford, Frederick Barthelme, Tobias Wolff, Angela Carter, Carolyn Forche, Bobbie Ann Mason, and my favorite of the issue, “Why I Love Country Music” by Elizabeth Tallent.

Tallent’s story is a terse presentation of a recent divorcee’s half-hearted attempt at new love: Nod, a stout miner she brings to a Western bar. Tallent’s description shows that dirty realist writers were more than mere minimalists.  Here are her first sentences:

Nod is a miner. He has long dark hair and owns probably a hundred different pairs of overalls; he likes to go dancing in cowboy bars. Because he weighs about two hundred pounds and is no taller than I am–about 5’4” in my bare feet–the sight of Nod, dancing, has been known to arouse the kind of indignation in the hearts of cowboys which, in New Mexico, can be dangerous to the arouser. Cowboys in slanting hats–not only their Stetsons, in fact, but often their eyes are slanting, and the dark cigarettes stuck in one corner of their mouths, the ash lighting only with the brief, formal intake of each breath–watch Nod dancing with the slight contemptuous smiles with which they slice off a bull calf’s genitals on hot afternoons in July.

The writing and the influential context of this issue make it difficult to ignore. This wasn’t an easy choice—several issues of Ploughshares from the seventies have iconic stories shoulder-to-shoulder, and nearly any issue of The Quarterly warrants best-ever merit. But this issue of Granta feels necessary; something any and all literary magazines should aspire to accomplish.

What’s your vote for the best single issue ever?