Nothing Sacred: Twelve Original Stories
Edited by Bernard Schweizer and James Morrow
Heresy Press, 280 pages, $19.95

Nothing Sacred is an anthology of short stories published this month by Heresy Press, a new alternative imprint devoted to “outspoken voices in contemporary fiction”—those supposedly shut out by the mainstream publishing establishment for crossing various ideological red lines. The book has some bright spots, but it also amply showcases the pitfalls of so-called dissident literature.

Heresy Press is the creation of English professor and fiction writer Bernard Schweizer, who felt the need for an alternative while shopping a manuscript that he believed was being rejected because it failed to pass the political litmus test imposed by mainstream publishers. Heresy has an impressive board of advisers whom its website describes as “freethinkers, artists, and critics,” including Joyce Carol Oates, Meghan Daum, and the science-fiction writer James Morrow. Nothing Sacred is the press’s first publication, and its jacket copy condemns publishers who consider their readers to be “easily offended, allergic to ambiguity, [and] afraid to venture outside their comfort zones.” Against this backdrop of literary pusillanimity, Heresy Press promises audacity and readability.

Audacity and readability are admirable, and Nothing Sacred includes strong stories by literary bad boy Alex Perez and emerging writers Michael Robert Liska and Lukas Tallent. The mainstream-publishing censorship apparatus, moreover, is as stultifying for readers as Schweizer suggests. But defining a literary project in opposition to it yields something muddled and reactionary—reactionary in the sense that the anthology too often reacts to mainstream orthodoxy, rather than putting forward a compelling vision of its own.

Almost everyone who has visited an independent bookstore or perused a January most-anticipated list can see the problems Heresy Press is designed to fix: mainstream publishing’s wholesale devotion to identity and diversity fiction; its hegemonic hitherto-oppressed-person-speaks-up formula; the dullness and paradoxical conformity that this generates; and the absence of some perspectives and alternatives. Stories can’t just be against this, though; stories have to be for something. But what? The mainstream formula, for all its flaws, is inspired by a compelling body of theory and ethics. Its opponents, by contrast, tend to tout vague mantras like “freedom of expression.” But freedom for what kinds of expression?

The opening story is “The Child Star,” by Michael Robert Liska, a writer I like and whose work I have recommended (including, full disclosure, for this anthology, though I have no relationship with the press). It is an immediately grabby piece in an antic voice about a drug-addicted and washed-up former celebrity whose life goes awry after an accident at his parents’ house. The story’s hero, “the child star,” is the type of maudlin, banal, and self-justifying white man we have been told we don’t need to hear from anymore, and its plot centers on his exploitation of two young women he picks up at a burger shack. One can imagine it (possibly) failing a litmus test for a major publisher in today’s climate. Yet Liska is a serious new talent: a satirical writer with a high degree of structural sophistication, whose fiction finds new ways to connect through the ever-rising tide of despair. By the end of the story, “the child star” moniker functions on several levels. The story’s stunted hero is the inheritor of a stunted American Dream (drugs, celebrity, lingerie), and his strange, tragicomic, transcendent ending is the book’s most complex and ambiguous idea.

The second piece, also among the volume’s more compelling work, is by Alex Perez, a Compact contributor well-known for his acerbic attacks on publishing pieties. Perez’s entry, “Independence Day,” is a well-executed realist story about two brothers in Miami unhappy about the arrival of a half-brother from Cuba who might take away their mother’s love and attention. Perez has written that the publishing industry, run mainly by affluent white women, imposes a formulaic single narrative that appeals to affluent white women—namely, “POC suffering”—on its supposedly diverse books. In response, Perez has made a kind of male, working-class brio part of his authentic cultural heritage, and he has made a name for himself by suggesting that readers would respond better to work that represents such people authentically. Perez’s story walks the walk: His two brothers exist in a gritty and unromanticized milieu and are truly teenage boys—insecure, brave, misguided, buffeted by bad influences, clueless about their feelings; their half-baked plot comes to a painful and unredeemed end.

Taken together, these two stories represent something of what Heresy Press could be as a home for good work that doesn’t fit the big publishers’ political and identity concerns. Yet there is a bothersome element of strawmanning to the project, as well. Liska’s story is critical of its character; an editor would have to be awfully obtuse to censor it (not that the Big Five are bereft of obtuse editors). Perez’s approach seems like a close cousin to the own-voices movement, a pillar of diversity fiction, which says that POC writers should write about their own communities in their own way, without reference to the white gaze. His point is that only certain minority types are allowed to do this, and that the resulting fiction is, in fact, tailored to white women’s gaze. Fair enough, but that isn’t contesting the basic premise of diversity fiction.

Two other good stories in the anthology seem like they might have been included merely because they involve graphic discussion of male sexuality: “Paul’s Ghost,” by Lou Perez, about a gay high-school boy, and the narcotically readable “Thrust,” by Lukas Tallent, about a bisexual college student. As good as these tales are, their addition is really pushing the premise, since no publisher discriminates against queer work these days. The publishing world can be all too myopic and risk-averse, to be sure. Yet a countercultural editorial strategy based on an exaggerated account of the mainstream’s flaws also wears thin.

“The project isn’t nearly as heretical as its progenitors might imagine.”

There are also problems with presenting fiction that is closely harnessed to the very discourse Heresy purports to critique. One way to push back against political orthodoxy is to speak about hot-button issues in an unorthodox way. The anthology tries. “Collateral Damage” by T.N. Eyer is a #MeToo story narrated by a #MeToo’ed man’s wife; “  “       ”  ,” by Miguel Syjuco is about a Filipina writer who says a word she isn’t allowed to say at a library event; and “Night of the Living Baseheads,” by Tia Ja’nae, is a Malcolm X fantasy narrated by a racist good ole boy. But again, the stories are controversial only from the perspective of the worst excesses of the censorship apparatus: The wife in the #MeToo story is also a victim of her husband; the woman writer who says the forbidden word does so critically and in context; the racist good ole boy loves Malcolm in the end, and the story was safely written by a black woman, anyway. Reasonable people in the fiction world fear taking even such mild positions—but that doesn’t make the positions new or interesting. The stories cited above also suffer from the over-literalness of addressing their topics head-on, without the sophistication of style or structure that might supply real insight or make them feel fresh.

In the end, the anthology presents readers tired of the orthodoxies with barely different versions of the same. It offers no unreconstructed religious, conservative, or Trumpian perspectives. It makes no moves to suggest the values of renewed nationalism or cultural assimilation that are commonly suggested as alternatives to diversity. It doesn’t defend heterosexuality, scrutinize the vilification of patriarchy, or reject the language of porn. Even the very watchwords of the press and anthology—“heresy” and “nothing sacred”—are foundational ones in the endless, brainless rebellion loop that traps our culture. Put another way: The project isn’t nearly as heretical as its progenitors might imagine.

Valerie Stivers, a Compact columnist, cooks from literature for The Paris Review.

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