Fat Books & Thin Women

The Best American Short Stories 2001
June 16, 2011, 11:57 am
Filed under: Book Reviews, short stories | Tags: , , ,

Surely it’s a sign of what the Peace Corps has done to me that I can celebrate finding a ten-year-old copy of The Best American Short Stories. The 2001 edition, guest edited by Barbara Kingsolver, offers as mixed a selection of stories as these collections usually do; though when I write that, I mean that the stories are only mixed in certain degrees and ways. There is often a startling and disappointing sameness to the stories, and though the Best American reading process is touted for being done blind, I find it difficult to understand how (or why) it is possible for such blind readings to have as their result a twenty-story anthology in which half the stories come from three publications. (Two from Tin House, four from Ploughshares, four from The New Yorker.)

This isn’t, then, so much a review of the anthology as me trying to express my confusion and sadness over how an anthology series like Best American can choose its winners from such a narrow pool. If the stories within the collection were extraordinary, where those stories were first published would be a matter of slight concern; but there are stories here by Ha Jin, Rick Moody, Alice Munro, John Updike, Dorothy West, that are middling in every sense of the word. And those are only the big names – though Roy Parvin contributes a fantastic story, “Betty Hutton,” with his character Gibbs possessing the best voice I’ve read in ages; and Trevanian’s “The Apple Tree” captures the feel of village life, rivalries, how stories are passed down; and Claire Davis in “Labors of the Heart” reveals the seemingly untouchable character of an obese man who is a virgin in his forties, and falling in love for the first time – they are the exceptions that highlight how dull many of the anthology’s other stories are.

There are other anthologies and other awards, of course, that pay greater attention to small presses and emerging writers, but there’s such a sameness to the Best American ethos that I wonder if making an effort to seek out the unknown, the young writer’s first extraordinary story rather than the great writer’s half-assed effort, would make a real difference to the quality of the collection. Maybe not.

There are good stories to be found here, and because I’ve come up with a few authors to look into (including Peter Ho Davies, who expanded on his story “Think of England,” here collected, for The Welsh Girl) I can’t really regret reading the anthology. There are too many tired stories here, though, too many stories that seem included for their authors’ names (blind reading or no, a story by Updike or Ha Jin or Andrea Barrett is easy enough to recognize without an author identification), too many stories that reflect the same-old same-old feel of so many New Yorker stories, to make me think this anthology is the best expression of the year’s fiction. If people claim to be uninterested in reading short fiction, perhaps it’s because their only source of that fiction is this sort of widely available annual anthology dedicated to fiction that is capable but unadventurous.

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Interesting. I haven’t followed the “Best American” series closely or given much thought to how they’re assembled. I like the concept as a way of dipping into short works, but I think I’ve read a total of three volumes in 10 years, so I’m not a huge fan. I always think about getting them when new ones come out though.

I didn’t know they had a blind selection process. I’m trying to figure out the logistics of that. Are all the possibilities submitted to the series editors and they start winnowing from there? If so, it could just be that the same old publications submit year after year. Or does someone look at multiple publications and make a list to start winnowing from? Maybe at that stage they’re not enough looking at enough low-profile publications. Interesting.

Comment by Teresa

For my Fiction Appreciation class last semester we read several short stories from the 2010 version of the Best American Short Stories. I agree that the stories were taken from a very narrow set of publications. The editor for the 2010 version even says in the introduction that she didn’t read nearly as many magazines as the editor 10 or so years ago did.

They claim that it’s the best short fiction, but they aren’t reading even a fraction of the short stories written and published every year. This edition seemed to have the same problem with half the stories from three publications (4 from Tin House, 3 from The Atlantic, and 3 from McSweeney’s, with 2 of these from one edition).

A couple of the stories were good (we read I think 10 for class, I haven’t read the rest yet) but some of the others were irritating. Most of the people in my class didn’t enjoy them either.

Comment by Book Nerd

[…] The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (06/11/11) Katie Atkinson – Case Histories (06/10/11) Barbara Kingsolver, ed. – The Best American Short Stories 2001 (06/05/11) Laurie Halse Anderson – Speak (06/05/11) Tom Robbins – Half Asleep in Frog […]

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