The Masters Review Anthology Volume X is now available! To celebrate, we’re sharing Diane Cook’s introduction to this phenomenal anthology. Our biggest anthology yet, The Masters Review Anthology Volume X represents our ten years of dedication to publishing emerging writers. Inside, you’ll find our winning writers, their stories selected by Diane Cook, author of the novel The New Wilderness and the story collection Man V. Nature: Cherokee Space Camp, a bachelor party for a recovering alcoholic at a bar, a seance. Cats leaping to their deaths, a rat king, family legends. They’re all waiting for you, alongside an introduction by Diane Cook and essays from former Anthology contributors who’ve gone on to publish story collections and novels since their inclusion in our pages. Purchase a copy of Volume X on Amazon or Barnes & Noble today!
In graduate school, I was a slush reader for a literary journal. I thought this type of thing could be my calling—discovering buried gems, dusting them off and showing everyone their worth. I was given a packet of stories to read and then all the readers met to choose which stories—if any—to pass to the editor. During my first meeting, I was surprised to hear that a story I had disliked wasn’t just loved by everyone else, but loved SO MUCH that the question wasn’t about whether we would accept it for publication, but that we might be too late because certainly it had been snapped up by another journal by now. I listened and tried to learn something, but honestly I was floored. In some part of my brain I understood it was an accomplished story, but I didn’t understand what exactly that accomplishment was. A little later, a story that I loved came up for discussion. And I was floored again to find out not a single other person agreed. And perhaps it’s just my own insecurity but I’m fairly certain they not only didn’t agree, they kind of felt bad for me that I had liked this story and tried to advocate. I didn’t walk away worried I was wrong. I walked away realizing that my time would be better spent writing the kind of work I liked, and not trying to figure out what everyone else in the room would be into.
That lingering memory has meant I approach judging contests with some hesitancy. Who am I to say what is the best? And what if no one sees what I see? Of course, we all realize at some point that nothing is universally good. Some people love things and some other people hate those same things, and even the most classic writing can be ravaged and torn apart by a reader who wishes to do so. Which can make contests such a minefield for writers, especially emerging ones.
When asked to judge for The Masters Review’s annual anthology, I was excited that they weren’t asking me to pick a winner and runners-up. Instead, I would get to read and admire thirty excellent stories and then choose ten that could be combined to create something new. This wasn’t just about finding the best stories, but the best collection of stories. To find stories that stood on their own, but stood out even more in the right company.
It led to interesting conversations with myself about what writing I find good and why. What I want a story to do to me. And the story after it, too. How formerly standalone pieces could now relate to one another, become something more by being in conversation. This was a much more satisfying task than ranking stories. I thought it also might be more satisfying to the writers themselves to become a part of something new and not just become a number.
As I read through the thirty (excellent!) stories, I noticed some leaving me with this feeling. I couldn’t figure it out at first. I couldn’t find words to describe it. It wasn’t until I’d read all thirty that I realized that the stories I was still thinking about were the stories that had transported me. But that is a word that gets thrown around discussions of fiction, so what did I mean exactly? I mean that after reading them I felt like I had traveled. Not necessarily to a different or unfamiliar place, though some stories did that with setting. I mean that at some point between the first sentence and the last, I had been moved. Something in me changed because of what I’d witnessed. The reading had left me feeling altered. And I don’t just mean mentally or emotionally or intellectually, but physically. Often after reading one of these ten stories, I felt like I had spent energy, moved around, gotten lost and found inside the story. I felt the brain fatigue that sometimes accompanies real learning. Or the body exhaustion of trying to squeeze every last bit from an experience. Like I said, sometimes it was the setting that initiated this response. Other times it was the inner turmoil of a character. Sometimes the structure did it to me. Moved me around. Transported me. I realized I wanted to collect the stories that took me somewhere new, showed me the sights, and tired me out. Between the pages of a book I felt like I saw it all, and then I got to go home again.
Is anthology making my next calling? Probably not. But I love the work presented here and I feel grateful to each piece for shifting something inside me. These stories are their own worlds, with their own rituals, secrets, norms, sights, and even their own particular building codes. The writers are their own story’s local expert. Let them show you around.
by Diane Cook