At the heart of Dzanc Books’ anthology Best of the Web 2008 sits a quiet essay titled “Thirst and the Writer’s Sense of Consequence” by David Bottoms. In the essay, originally published in the Kennesaw Review, Bottoms takes for his starting point Walt Whitman’s poem “A Noiseless Patient Spider,” the language of which inspires him to explore “the whole question of artistic sensibility, more specifically, the sensibility that gives impulse to poetry and literary fiction.” Although it is a change of pace from the poetry and prose of the surrounding pages, for example, Christina Kallery’s poem “Swan Falls in Love with Swan-Shaped Boat” and R.T. Smith’s story “What I Omitted from the Official Personnel Services Report,” the essay gives the anthology a solid center from which the other pieces might develop.
The poet or the fiction writer who wants to touch readers on the deepest level is constantly seeking out those dots and trying to connect them, acting against desperate odds on the impulse of yearning to know. In this way, literature becomes a record of the ways the world moves us toward a sense of significance.
Here Bottoms likens the creation of art to the act of solving a connect-the-dots puzzle, perhaps not the cleanest of metaphors, but one that places great importance on connection. It is this idea that leads me to expand Bottoms’s cast of literary types to include Dzanc publishers Steven Gillis and Dan Wickett, Best of the Web series editor Nathan Leslie, and guest editor Steve Almond. Dzanc Books’ Best of the Web 2008 is the result of their efforts to connect the Internet's writing scene into a single, significant record of online literary writing.
What makes this particular anthology so exciting is the fact that it seeks both to improve upon previous anthologies and to begin what Dzanc hopes will become one of the most important and longest lasting series of online writing anthologies ever published. Leslie is especially clear about this goal. After politely nodding to other anthologies, such as the past efforts of Carve Magazine and the ongoing Million Writers Award run by Jason Sanford, editor of StorySouth, Leslie writes:
This is a wide-ranging anthology, eclectic, various and sundry. This anthology is built to, we hope, stand the test of time year in and year out. After all, this is the point of an annual anthology. It should be an eagerly awaited arrival, something to look forward to.
And Leslie is right. The anthology is expansive in its scope. In its three hundred or so pages, you will find poetry, fiction, and essays, all of which represent many different sensibilities and online journals, ranging from the widely popular Blackbird and failbetter.com to lesser known publications, such as the Danforth Review and The King’s English. Add to that Leslie’s introduction, a rather odd introduction by Steve Almond, four short author interviews, a list of notable pieces, contributors’ notes, and an index of online journals, and you have an ambitious overview of online literary writing.
A few of my favorite pieces include David Willems’s short short “A Girl Made of Glass,” Ron Tanner’s story “My Small Murders,” Justin Taylor’s short short “The Jealousy of Angels,” Garth Risk Hallberg’s essay on James Wood’s misreading of Don DeLillo, and Andrea Cohen’s poem “Still Life with Childhood.” These pieces deserve mention because they embody what I really like about online writing: its defiant and reckless energy in the face of what Leslie calls the “sometimes prissy, stuffy [. . .] print world.”
I was surprised by a few of the selections (and omissions) on the part of the editors. I recall reading several fantastic online stories this past year that did not make the anthology. The work of Kim Chinquee comes to mind. Equally surprising was the absence of a few journals. For example, despite receiving three nods in the Notables section, elimae did not have a piece in the main pages and the writing in DIAGRAM went completely unmentioned.
Despite my minor complaints, Best of the Web 2008 successfully does all that its publishers and editors could have hoped for. The book both recognizes a wide range of quality online writing, and gives its readers a comprehensive look at the field from which its contents come – two characteristics of a good anthology. As for the fate of the series, I do not doubt that it will continue to appear each year, given the tremendous success that Dzanc has had since its founding in 2006. Such a development could not have come at a better time for online literary publishing.