Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Best American Short Stories 2008: "The Sense That It Had to Be Written"

Every year I dutifully buy a copy of the new Best American Short Stories, and every year my experience pretty much goes like this:

--First, of course, I go through a period of bitterness when I don’t find my name—or the names of my friends—anywhere in the book.

--Then I glance through the Table of Contents and recognize at least half (usually more) of the authors as “famous” (by writers’ low-bar terms)

--I recognize about half of the stories as ones I’ve already read in The New Yorker

--one or two stories I remember reading with immense fondness; the rest are sort of, "huh?"

--The non-New Yorker stories are virtually all from a handful of “big” journals or The Atlantic

--I read some of the stories by authors I haven’t heard of, and have more of the “huh?” reaction

--I find one, maybe two, transcendent stories and make a note to remember those authors and actively seek out their work

This year, however, I had a slightly different experience. I thought the choice of Salman Rushdie as guest editor was interesting…after all, as he notes in his introduction, he isn’t even American! And I’m no expert on his work, but surely he’s better known for novels instead of short stories. I worried that there might be too many of those stories I am weary of, in which the colorful, “exotic” international setting is the only quality the editor seems to have considered in selecting the story, the plot and characters of which wouldn’t pass muster if the story were set in the boring old U.S. So I was curious to see what sort of spin Rushdie might bring to the process.

One immediate difference I noticed is that of the twenty selected, there are only three stories from the New Yorker (one I remember with fondness, George Saunders’ “Puppy”). And yes, Harper’s Magazine and The Atlantic are well-represented, but the other journal choices seem more diverse than usual: Ecotone, Crazyhorse, Shenandoah, The Antioch Review, and some other familiar ones.

Eight writers are what I consider “famous” (a subjective term, of course), so it seemed there were more newcomers than usual, and I started with their stories. It’s all subjective, obviously, but I thought the stories I read for the most part were incredibly well-crafted and remarkable in terms of unique subject matter and voice. These were not your stereotypical “MFA stories,” and it was inspiring to read them. Instead of one or two authors to watch for, I have a list. After dipping around in the book, I would happily recommend this edition, and I don’t often feel that way.

Here are my favorite stories thus far, and I have a few more dog-eared to read:

--“Man and Wife,” by Katie Chase, from The Missouri Review

--“Virgins,” by Danielle Evans, from The Paris Review

--“The Worst You Ever Feel” by Rebecca Makkai, from Shenandoah

--“Quality of Life,” by Christine Sneed, from New England Review

--“Straightaway,” by Mark Wisniewski, from The Antioch Review

Also of note, series editor Heidi Pitlor says that they will be considering online fiction for inclusion. And of the twenty stories, ten were written by men, and ten by women.

Is the lesson for me to read more journals and maybe less of The New Yorker? Or is it to thank Mr. Rushdie, who culled through 120 stories to get to these (can’t even imagine how many stories the series editor reads!!)?

And what about my own writing; are there lessons for me to take away as I work on my own stories? As Rushdie noted in his introduction to the collection:

“Old-fashioned naturalism was the dominant manner this year, and creative writingese, I have to say, was often in evidence. There were so many stories that were well observed, well crafted, full of well-honed phrases; so many rhythmic, allusive, technically sophisticated stories that knew when to leave matters unresolved and when it was right to bring events to a dramatic climax; so many stories that had everything one could wish for in a story…except for the sense that it had to be written, that it was necessary. This was what I had expected and perhaps feared: a widespread, humorless, bloodless competence.

“But there were many compensating treasures, and, in the end riches to choose from….”


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.