One of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s greatest works is a short story call “The Artist of the Beautiful”. A blacksmith builds a mechanical butterfly as beautiful and fleet of wing as the real thing, only to watch it destroyed by an infant. Hawthorne’s object lesson in the futility of artistic pursuit has always made me think of the short story writer, whose creation of a beautiful thing is regularly confronted with indifference.
There are very few who make a living as a short story writer. Many of the best of them write novels, of course — that’s where the money is. Successful authors who write nothing but short fiction — Alice Munro, George Saunders, David Means, and a few others — are a rarity, and most of them teach to make ends meet.
With the exception of The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Paris Review, and a few others, most magazines publishing short fiction — and there are a great many of them — do not pay. The only chance at remuneration is when your stories are published as a book, and it’s the rare short story collection that makes the bestseller lists. (Other than Stephen King’s books, I can’t recall a short story collection on the New York Times bestseller list since Lorrie Moore’s fine Birds of America.)
And yet the growing library of American short stories, from the early days of Washington Irving and Hawthorne, to the present day, is one of this country’s great artistic accomplishments.
One of the ways this library is indexed is the annual series of anthologies called The Best American Short Stories. Launched in 1915 by Edward J. O’Brien, the series has continued without pause ever since. Martha Foley took over the editorial duties in 1942 and the series enjoyed decades of uniform excellence. (I happen to own every edition back to 1942 — a nine foot shelf! — and have read widely from it over the years with pleasure and awe.) On Foley’s death in 1978, the publisher Houghton Mifflin opted for an annual guest editor format featuring major writers, with the assistance of, first Shannon Ravenel, then Katrina Kennison, and now Heidi Pitlor. Typically, they read literally thousands of stories each year and recommended to the guest editor several hundred, from which only 20 were chosen for the final publication.
The 2009 edition is novelist Alice Sebold’s editorial selection, and it’s a mixed bag. In her somewhat disingenuous introduction (has anyone ever made a convincing case for not having really wanted to win a major award?), she suggests that inclusion in The Best American Short Stories anthology can boost the careers of unknown authors.
Are the merits of some stories arguable? Certainly. But I promise you this: every story in the final selection deserves to be read. Deserves to be published. Deserves, in the case of some newer or lesser-known authors, to help lift these authors out of the slush pile when they submit again, and to help these authors — and here is what a prize or a best of can do — find a larger audience in the world.
I found at least five of the stories here to be competent, but far from satisfying as an artistic whole. Each one indicates promise, but that’s hardly the point, or this would be The Best Emerging Authors series. A stunning work of art, like Rivka Galchen’s “The Region of Unlikeness”, and three stories by Alice Munro (to name only a few), were relegated to a “100 Other Distinguished Stories” list in the back of the book, in order to make room for lesser works. What a waste.
Oh well, enough of Sebold’s misguided use of at least some of these pages. The book also contains five truly great stories, which I’ll get to in a minute, and a handful of other worthy stories, four of which take place in foreign countries. (When John Updike edited The Best American Short Stories of the Century in 1999, he excluded any story that did not take place in the US) I found these four non-US stories fresh and exotic, and they give the collection depth and diversity.
Daniel Alarcon’s “The Idiot President” tells the story of a guerilla theatre troupe’s memorable performance for a mining community during a power outage with only the miners’ hats for illumination.
In Karl Taro Greenfield’s “Now Trends”, a writer for a Chinese equivalent of People magazine tries to help a former friend, a brilliant TV producer, whose defiance of the political authorities has come back to haunt him.
Similarly, the abuses of a repressive regime are exposed in Rebecca Makkai’s “The Briefcase” — the story of a political prisoner who escapes while he’s being marched off to prison, only to watch his guards, fearful of punishment for misplacing a prisoner, grab an innocent man off the street to replace him. He recovers the man’s briefcase and clothes and attempts to take over his unintended victim’s life.
Also set in China, Yiyun Li’s “A Man Like Him”, is about a young woman’s public campaign against her father for committing adultery and a schoolteacher’s attempt to offer moral support, not to her, but to her father.
The five best stories are found in the last two-thirds of the collection. Adam Johnson’s “Hurricanes Anonymous” — one of two fine stories here about New Orleans — is a bitter and funny look at the attempts of a UPS driver to come to terms with his infant son’s abandonment by his mother in the aftermath of Katrina.
In “Magic Words” (a story so intricate and moving I thought I might be reading the next Alice Munro), Jill McCorkle interweaves the stories of several characters, all revolving around a wife and mother’s tentative attempts to consummate her first adulterous affair.
Richard Powers’ “Modulation” — typically for him grounded in the implications and dangers of science and technology — imagines the consequences of a hacker’s virus capable of creating a universal “ear worm”, a melody that nobody can get out of his head.
In the ghostly first-person narrative “The Peripatetic Coffin”, by Ethan Rutherford, a crew member describes his submarine’s attack on a Yankee battle ship during the last months of the Civil War.
The finest story here is Annie Proulx’s “Them Old Cowboy Songs”, which could make as good a movie as her “Brokeback Mountain” did earlier this decade. I used to find her prose overwrought, but in her recent three collections of “Wyoming Stories”, she’s found a pure and limpid style that is perfectly suited to her subject matter. “Them Old Cowboy Songs” is the story of a young couple’s attempt to make a life on a barren Wyoming homestead in the late 19th century. The husband is forced to find work as a cowhand far from home during the wife’s first pregnancy, with tragic consequences for both. This lovely passage conveys the natural violence and loneliness that the young couple encounters on a daily basis.
She woke one morning exhausted and sweaty, and went down to the Little Weed hoping for night-cooled water. There was a dark cloud to the south, and she was glad to hear the distant rumble of thunder. In anticipation, she set out the big kettle and two buckets to catch rainwater. The advance wind came in, thrashing tree branches and ripping leaves. The grass went sidewise. Lightning danced on the crest of Barrel Mountain, and then a burst of hail swallowed up the landscape in a chattering, roaring sweep. She ran inside and watched the ice pellets flail the river rocks and slowly give way to thrumming rain. The rocks disappeared in the foam and rising water. Almost as quickly as it started the rain stopped, a few last hailstones fell, and against the moving cloud the arc of a double rainbow promised everything. Her buckets were full of sweet water and floating hailstones. She stripped and poured dippers of goose-bump water over her head again and again until one bucket was nearly empty and she was shaking.
As I read The Best American Short Stories 2009, I rated every story on PopMatters’ one to 10 scale — the average came out to slightly better than a seven. But, the best of these stories — more than half the book — are not to be missed, so, grading on the curve ( I’m sure Alice Sebold would approve), I’m going with an eight.