REVIEW: 30 Under 30, edited by Blake Butler and Lily Hoang

Blanket statements are always stupid. So I’ll just make this stupid blanket statement and let you decide if there’s anything more than stupidity in it. This statement will be about 30 Under 30: An Anthology of Innovative Fiction by Younger Writers, edited by Blake Butler and Lily Hoang. It will also be about the way short fiction is being written today, especially people by associated with the web site HTMLGIANT, which includes Butler and Hoang and a number of contributors to 30 Under 30. No doubt this blanket statement will expose my own hubris and biases and shortcomings as a reader. So what, right?

Kids today are writing defensively. They actively avoid articulating a worldview, defining an artistic sensibility, or confessing anything personal. Or at least, they want to prevent you from safely accusing them of those things. Instead they glorify the ways in which they are messing around with voice and technique. They’ll create a new hybrid genre for a couple of pages, then discard it. They’ll describe a sentimental protagonist and comment on how annoying he is. They’ll arrange a prose poem that makes the bare minimum of sense. But they won’t attempt any broad social observations, or paint a psychological portrait, or disclose anything about the author. Kids today want you to know that you don’t really know them. If you called them authoritative or predictable they would probably die.

Here’s what you’ll find in 30 Under 30.

The sword of Hephaestus arcing down from the sky to slice the narrator’s leg off, and the narrator’s father’s leg off, so that immortal children can spawn from their bloody stumps. The only thing more gruesome than this violence is the mortifying thought of sharing this painful, shameful, and confusing experience with one’s father. And Megan Milks, author of “My Father and I Were Bent Groundward,” makes things even weirder by suggesting that the reader has seen all this before. “As you might guess,” she writes, “we both hopped around screaming while blood gushed out of our hip joints and clotted the sand into crimson lumps.” Okay then! I was perversely thrilled by this story. It’s like having hot and cold flashes. Or eating a bowl full of ice cream, steak, and cloves.

My favorite story, aside from the one by Shane Jones—which, I don’t even know what to say—is “When Robin Hood Fell With an Arrow Through his Heart” by Todd Seabrook. The premise is exactly what it sounds like, except the arrow goes through Robin’s throat, not his heart. Or does it? The Merry Men are old, hunted, and miserable about Robin’s death. Alan-A-Dale is literally rotting into the base of a tree. Will Scarlett is firing arrows at the sky and waiting for one to strike him dead. And the language just collapses around them. Archaic words and outmoded spellings creep into the text, the page layout chips away, and the whole story returns to the earth, just like Alan-A-Dale. It’s wonderful.

Matt Bell offers a story about a guy with a red cap, overalls, and a moustache—wink wink—who’s trying to rescue a girl from an ape who’s climbing steel girders—wink wink—while jumping over barrels and fireballs. If you get the reference, you’ve gotten everything you can out of this story, which I liked better when it was called “Ziggurat” and Stephen O’Connor wrote it, without giggling over a Nintendo.

“A Short Story” by Devin Gribbons is the only one that feels overtly political. (Jaclyn Dwyer’s “Biography of a Porn Star” may be obliquely political, but who can tell with kids today?) It’s about the conflict in Israel and Palestine. And it doesn’t work, as a story. Which may be an indication that, kids today? Not really experts at whatever’s beyond the tips of their noses.

Although maybe that’s the wrong way to look at it, since Kristina Born’s “The Defining Work of Your Career” takes government speak and geopolitical platitudes and spins them into a kind of trance-like, choral prophecy about I-don’t-know-what. And it’s exciting, even though it does that overly precious HTMLGIANT thing where each section is numbered with a purposefully random digit.

Ryan Call’s story has an amazing title: “Somewhere Ahead Smoked the Wreckage of My Evening.” And it contains a passage that might explain what unifies these writers: “Back then, my girlfriend and I spoke in a backdoor-y sort of manner; we had discovered how certain words offered a way out of a conversation when another person tried to get in.” Precisely!

30 Under 30 offers an array of strategies for escaping the common story, for preventing most people, ideas, and styles from making it onto the page, while allowing a privileged few (people who appreciate Donkey Kong jokes, ideas both sick and beautiful, styles that won’t feel stale until tomorrow) in.

Kids today, man. If they’re not careful, this whole “you don’t really know me” thing might actually take off, and land them squarely within the Establishment, and they’ll become authoritative and predictable and just die.

– Brian Hurley


  1. A more complete version of this “kids today are writing defensively” theory would add some context, which is that the writing and publishing industry finds itself in a crisis (again? always?) of diminished readership, diminished cultural influence, etc., even though more people are getting MFAs and self-publishing. While other “generations” of writers have responded to this ongoing crisis in different ways, “kids today” are defiantly myopic. Rather than imitating or one-upping the broader culture, or even hearkening back to some kind of baroque, idealized writing of the past, they’re keeping their heads down and tunneling through to something personal and boldly artsy and a bit mystical. Mystical because they seem to believe that no matter how small the readership or how muddy their writing or how irrelevant their influence, they’re still making art, and that in itself is important. That’s the last line of defense.

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