Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Best American Short Stories: 2014 and O. Henry Prize Stories: 2014--Some Preliminary Remarks

Heidi Pitlor, editor of Best American Short Stories, who reads hundreds of short stories each year to pick the 120 she considers the "Best," says she has moments when it seems there are more people in the U.S. who want to write stories than there who want to read them. She acknowledges what I have noted in this blog before—that many of the people who buy the annual Best American Short Stories (and the same is true for The O. Henry Prize Stories) are "writers in training," figuring that if they read the best fiction in the country, they will learn how to write better fiction. But Pitlor ponders "What happens when writing becomes more attractive than reading?  Will we become—or are we already—a nation of performers with no audience?"
Pitlor urges that editors, writers, teachers, publishers do whatever possible to enliven readers, to create communities for them, and by this, I don't think she means "book clubs." I share Pitlor's concern. But quite frankly I don't know what to do about it. Good short stories are not always "easy" to read; you certainly can't skim them or read them only for plot. The fact of the matter is, short stories are more appreciated by other writers than they are by non-writers. My experience last month when the Wall Street Journal made Alice Munro's The Love of a Good Woman their book club selection reminded me that most readers have no patience with, and therefore little appreciation for, short stories, even those by Nobel Laureate Alice Munro.
The reason that writers are the most appreciative readers of short stories can be seen in Francine Prose's 2006 book, Reading Like A Writer. Prose says, "I read closely, word by word, sentence by sentence, pondering each deceptively minor decision that the writer had made."  She says her high school English teacher had recently graduated from a college where his own English professors taught the New Criticism, adding, "Luckily for me, that approach to literature was still in fashion when I graduated and went on to college."
However when she went to graduate school, Prose says she realized that her love of books was not shared by her classmates and professors; in fact, she found it hard to understand what they did love, for the warring camps of deconstructionists, Marxists, feminism, etc. were all teaching students they were reading "texts" in which ideas and politics, not the work itself, were what was important. Prose believes that a close-reading course should be a companion, if not an alternative, to the writing workshop., I suspect that most writers agree with her. However, most readers are just not the close readers that writers are; and in my opinion, to appreciate good short stories, you must be a close reader..
I attended undergraduate school from 1960 to 1963 and graduate school from 1963 to 1966, so I too was schooled in the "New Criticism" that valued "close reading." After I began teaching in 1966, I schooled myself on structuralism and deconstruction during the 1970's and 1980's.  Indeed, I created the first theory of literature course in my department, but I never relinquished close reading.  In the 1990's, when "theory" became associated with cultural criticism, postcolonial criticism, and political correctness, moving even further away from attending to the work of fiction itself, I was glad I was near retirement. In the last year I taught, my graduate students actually resented my insistence that they pay close attention to the work they were reading; they preferred to talk about social issues and politics. The only students who paid any attention to style, language, metaphor, structure, and craft were those interested in becoming fiction writers themselves.
I have just finished reading this year's O. Henry Award Stories and am now reading the 2014 Best American Short Story volume. Over the years the two books have adopted two quite different selection conventions. After Heidi Pitlor, editor of Best, has chosen 120 stories she thinks best, she sends them to a guest author/editor to pick the top 20 that will appear in the book. However, Lucy Furman, editor of the O. Henry volume is solely responsible for choosing the 20 stories that appear in that book.  She then sends those 20 (with no identification of author or place of publication) to three guest author/readers, who pick their single favorite story and then write a brief essay on their choice.  This year the three "jurors" are:
Tash Aw, a Malaysian author whose first novel The Harmony Silk Factory won the Whitbread and the Commonwealth Writers prizes for best first novel. He had a short story in last year's O. Henry Prize Stories.
James Lasdun, a transplanted British writer now living in America, author of three collections of short stories, the most recent It's Beginning to Hurt.  I have posted blog essays on Lasdun's stories in the past.
Joan Silber, an American writer whose collection of story Ideas of Heaven was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Story Prize. She has had three stories in past O. Henry Prize Stories.
Although these three authors are called "jurors," as far as I can tell, they have nothing to do with choosing the 20 stories; they just pick out and write a short piece on their favorite one.
This year, the single guest judge who chose the final 20 in Best American, is Jennifer Egan, whose collection of linked stories, loosely parading as a novel, won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, and the Los Angeles Times Book prize.
In her brief introduction, Eagan argues that  Best American Short Stories "generates excitement around the practice of writing fiction, celebrates the short story form, and energizes the fragile ecosystem of magazines that sustain it."
In her longer and more detailed introduction, Lucy Furman says that the mission of the O. Henry Prize Stories since its beginning in 1919 has been to "encourage the art of the short story.  By calling attention to their gifts, we encourage short-story writers.  When we put a story between book covers, we give it a longer life and a wider readership." Furman talks a bit about what Eagan calls the "fragile ecosystem" of magazines that sustain the short story form, lamenting that those magazines funded by public and private academic intuitions are always in peril from shrinking budgets, for those in charge of  campus money doubt that a small magazine can be as much benefit to a university as a winning football team.
Eagan says one of the primary reasons she agreed to serve as guest editor this year is that she wanted to explore "systematically" what makes a short story great—"to identify my own aesthetic standards in a more rigorous way than I've done before."  Eagan says she wants to put her biases on the table at the outset, noting first of all that she does not care very much about "genre," either as a reader of a writer. She says he does not think about short stories any differently than she does about novels or novellas or even memoirs. However, she does admit that the distillation process, which she says must take place in any narrative, has to be more extreme than in a novel. "It also must be purer; there is almost no room for mistakes."
Eagan says she is biased toward writers who take risks—formally, structurally, even in terms of subject matter—over those who do the familiar thing even exquisitely. If there is a single factor that governed her choice of stories to include, she says, it was "the basic power to make me lose my bearings, to envelop me in a fictional world" by means of vivid specific language. After a compelling premise and distinctive language, she says the next factor is the story's pushing past obvious possibilities into something that felt "mysterious" or "extreme."
A few more general observations about the selections in the two books before focusing on specific stories in subsequent blog posts over the next few weeks:  If you follow the short story at all, you will see more familiar names on the table of contents of Best than the O. Henry: e.g. Charles Baxter, Ann Beattie, T.C. Boyle, Peter Cameron, Joshua Ferris, Nell Freudenberger, David Gates, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Joyce Carol Oates, and Karen Russell. It is no surprise then that more stories in the Best collection were originally published in the more successful periodicals: five from the New Yorker, ten from McSweeney's, Granta, Paris Review, Iowa Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Conjunctions, Zoetrope, and Glimmer Train
The O. Henry  collection has three New Yorker stories—by the three best-known writers in the collection: Louise Erdrich, William Trevor, and Tessa Hadley (who is always in the New Yorker). Most of the O. Henry stories are from such places as The American Reader, Ecotone, New Orleans Review, Cincinnati Review, Threepenny Review, Subtropics, Southwest Review, New England Review, and Southern Review—all prestigious places that any MFA student would love to appear in—even if the readership is less and the money negligible or nil.
Unless you read a great deal in small press periodicals, you may not know many of the writers in the O. Henry collection, e.g. Allison Alsup, Chanelle Benz, Olivia Clare, Halina Duraj, Rebecca Hirsch Garcia, Kristen Iskandrian, Dylan Landis, Colleen Morrissey, Robert Anthony Siegel, Kristen Valdez Quade, and Maura Stanton. No one story appears in both collections, although Laura van den Berg, a relative beginner, has stories in both.
I will finish reading all the stories—more than once--in both volumes before I begin posting essays on particular stories.  If you have not purchased your own copies of Best American Short Stories 2014 and O. Henry Prize Stories: 2014, you can pick up both either in paperback or eBook versions for around twenty bucks.  That's about 50 cents per story--the best bargain in publishing for those who love good fiction (And you have a much better chance of finding good writing in short stories than in novels; ask any writer.). 
It's too damn bad that practically nobody reviews these two books—just another example of the short shrift the short story gets from the publishing industry.


Anonymous said...

I'm eager to see what you have to say about BASS since I'm reading it now. Just used some of the themes you mention in your book in discussion of the Beattie story: "it’s the anti-story to 'Dancing After Hours'"… what happens when the magic fails.

Karen Carlson

H.S. Bajwa said...

The observation that writers make the best readers is spot on. Short story as an art form still remains under appreciated by the mainstream reading population.

H.S. Bajwa @ Short Stories