Monday, April 4, 2011

Authors on the Short Story--Part V--Best American Short Stories Introductions

The Best American Short Story collection has been around now for almost 100 years. It was started in 1915 by Edward J. O’Brien, who also wrote two pretty good history/discussions of the form: The Dance of the Machines: The American Short Story and the Industrial Age (1929) rants against machine-like standardization of the industrial age and argues that the short story of his time shares with the machine the characteristics of being impersonal, standardized, speeded-up and cheap. The Advance of the American Short Story (1931) surveys the development of the American short story from Washington Irving to Sherwood Anderson. O’Brien edited what was then called Best Short Stories of, and the Yearbook of the American Short Story for a quarter of a century.

Volume 7 of Critical Survey of Short Fiction, which I edited for Salem Press in 2001, includes the table of contents of all the Best American Short Stories volumes from 1915 up through 1999. It is interesting to note how few writers in the early volumes are still remembered, or are remembered as popular rather than literary writers, e.g. in the 1915 volume, Ben Hecht, Fannie Hurst, Wilbur Daniel Steele. But who today remembers Walter Muilenburg or Will Livingston Comfort?

Martha Foley took over the editorship in 1941 and continued in that position until 1977, sometimes co-editing with Joyce F. Hartman or David Burnett. In 1978, Shannon Ravenel took over, but that year also started the tradition of having someone else, most often a fiction writer, making the final choice. Usually, Ravenel would choose 120 stories and then send them to the guest editor who chose the final twenty. The titles of the remaining 100 were listed in the back.

Over the years, guest editors have included Joyce Carol Oates, John Gardner, Anne Tyler, John Updike, Gail Godwin, Raymond Carver, Anne Beattie, Margaret Atwood, Richard Ford, Louise Erdrich, Annie Proulx, and Amy Tan. However, in the last few years, Houghton Mifflin has chosen guest editors who are not short-story writers and do not seem to appreciate the form, for example, Alice Sebold in 2009, who does not write short stories at all, and Richard Russo in 2010 who does not write them well. Their introductions are rambling generalities and personal anecdotes that add nothing to our understanding and appreciation of the short story. However, many of the other authors who have guest edited over the years have made interesting and helpful comments on the short story, the best of which I include below with the dates of the volume.

I hope these five sets of authorial comments have been helpful to you. Over 100 different authors are represented. I have organized many of the comments in what I think are significant categories and tried to show their relationship to each other for my presentation in Angers, France later this month entitled “Why Many Authors Like Short Stories and Many Readers Do Not.”

I have raided my own copies of Best American Short Stories for the following authorial comments on the form to complete this series. Any comments or additions are appreciated. Not all volumes are represented because not all authors commented on the short story as a form.

1981, Hortense Calisher: “If poetry has the direct line to the highest laurel—or the noblest life—and the novel is sometimes cock-of-the-walk conversationally, then the short story, somehow frozen or immured between them, is everybody’s prize orphan, of whom one speaks tenderly, if not for long. It’s the chamber music of literature and has the same kind of devotee. Besides, it doesn’t sell well. There’s often that confusion between the commercial fact and the Parnassian one.”

1984, John Updike: “The suspicion persists that short fiction, like poetry since Kipling and Bridges, has gone from being a popular to a fine art, an art preserved in a kind of floating museum made up of many little superfluous magazines.”

1985, Gail Godwin: “The paradox I have discovered, in writing and in reading the writing of others, is that the more you respect and focus on the singular and strange, the more you become aware of the universal and the infinite.”

1990, Richard Ford: “Short stories, like lyrics, are invented new each time they’re tried, becoming attached to the name-made-form only as a convenience for would-be-students and syllabus makers.”
“Unarguably, writing short stories is something most people can’t do very well. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s harder than it looks, and wonderful stories do seem like little miracles.”
“Abstractable standards of form will not very reliably predict or often inspire a first-rate short story…a good short story is not good because it conforms to or rejects doggishly some pre-existing conceit.”
“Good stories perform what wonders they do using wise standards all their own, discovered often in the private vicissitudes of being written.”

1993, Louise Erdrich: “The best short stories contain novels. Either they are densely plotted, with each line an insight, or they distill emotions that could easily spread on for pages, chapters.”

1995, Jane Smiley: “The short story is an elusive, paradoxical form, not easily mastered, yet some of the best are written by beginning writers.”

1996, John Edgar Wideman: “Stories that don’t acknowledge the mystery at the center of things, don’t challenge the vision f reality most consenting adults rely upon day by day, are stories that disappear swiftly into the ever-present buzz of entertainment.”

1997, Annie Proulx: “The short story is a difficult literary form, demanding more attention to control and balance than the novel.”
“In the short story there lingers a faint sense of example, a trimmed, useful tautness implying a function for the reader beyond entertainment… The reader comes to the short story subliminally expecting enlightenment, that is, we accept the idea that there is some nugget of embedded truth in a short story, and this acceptance partially sponges off the label of fiction in a way that does not occur with the novel in its detailed examination of character.”

1999, Amy Tan: “For me the rhythm is in the beats of the first sentence, in the way the story’s pulse quickens or evens, lulls, or leaps. And by the end the story breaches and exhales with a certain tempo and force…. Disruptions can cause me to lose the story’s focus or its essence, and at the very least its momentum. For that reason, I feel the short story is more akin to a poem than a novel in how it should be read.”

2000, E. L Doctorow:”The story as a particular kind of fiction may not be definable by its construction or its length, but what is critical is its scale. Smaller in its overall dimensions than the novel, it is a fiction in which society is surmised as the darkness around the narrative circle of light. In other words, the scale of the short story predisposes it to the isolation of the self.”
“Here in the year 2000 we lack a proprietary critic of the short story as, for example, Professor Helen Vendler is a proprietary critic of the lyric poem.”

2001, Barbara Kingsolver: “I have often wondered why short stories are not more popular in this country. We Americans are such busy people you’d think we’d jump at the chance to have our literary wisdom served in doses that fit handily between taking the trash to the curb and waiting for the carpool…. Most Americans would sooner read a five-hundred-page book about a boy attending wizard school or how to make home décor from roadside trash or anything than pick up a book offering them a dozen tales of the world complete in twenty pages apiece…. It may be that most Americans don’t read short stories because…a good short story cannot be Lit Lite; it is the successful execution of large truths delivered in tight spaces.”

2004, Lorrie Moore: “There is no thoroughly convincing theory of the short story—it is technically a genre, not a form, but resists the definitions that usually cluster around both…in lieu of a truly winning overriding theory, we should rely perhaps on simple descriptions, in which case the more the merrier.”
“As for their oft stated affinity with poetry, short stories do have in common with poems an interest in how language completes one’s understanding of the world.”
“Unlike novels or poems, but more akin to a play, the short story is also an end-oriented form, and in the best ones the endings shine a light back upon the story illumining its meaning with both surprise and inevitability.”

2006, Anne Patchett: “The first thing the short story needs to think about is casting off the role of The Novel’s Little Sidekick, the practice run, the warm-up act.”
“Short stories are often better written and make fewer demands on our time than novels. Why haven’t we made a deeper commitment to them? I am afraid it has something to do with the story’s inability to cause a stir…. It doesn’t really matter what the short story chooses to do, but it needs to do something. Fast. The story needs hype. It needs a publicist. Fast

2007, Stephen King: “The American short story is alive and well. Do you like the sound of that? Me too. I only wish it were actually true. The art form is still alive…. But well? That’s a different story.”


Aunt Kim said...

A wonderful collection of observations...thanks for posting. My reaction: There certainly is an ever-replenished crop of brilliant, artful, compelling short stories to read. Perhaps the issue is that the readers are spread out, diverse, even invisible--no critical mass develops.

Charles E. May said...

Yes, Aunt Kim, I think you are right. Only once in a while--when a new writer appears that elicits a lot of attention, e.g. Raymond Carver, does the short story get any public response.