Friday, September 1, 2017

Best British Short Stories 2017: Intro

I would like to make a couple of prefatory points about yearly collections of short stories that label themselves “Best of” before I begin my discussion of the 2017 editions of the three best-known such anthologies: Best British Short Stories, Best American Short Stories, and O. Henry Prize Stories.
First of all, you probably already know that such collections seldom get reviewed in the big circulation newspapers, e.g. New York Times, Washington Post, Guardian, etc. Why is that?
One of the reasons is that book review editors do not want to waste space on works of fiction that have been previously published in periodicals.  They want something new and newsworthy. Previously published stories are, after all, not really news at all.
Moreover, whereas reviewers can focus on some unifying theme or style when reviewing a collection of stories by a single author, they find talking about twenty different stories by twenty different authors a daunting task, and editors just don’t want to use precious space on unfocused thumbnail notices.
The best a reviewer can do is to try to find some “trend” in a collection of what is presented as the “best” stories in a given year.  And let’s face it, short stories are just not trendy—at least not since Raymond Carver.  And if some promising young author suddenly appears, editors and reviewers will wait until a publisher brings out a whole book of stories by said author and pumps enough money in promotion for readings, interviews, adverts, and NPR/BBC appearances to give book review editors and reviewers a news “story.”
I could go on about this for some time; indeed, I have gone on about this for some time—at least for forty years of my career as a professor/critic. But enough whining.
The second prefatory point I want to make has to do with the issue of “Best of.”  Says who? What makes a story one of the “best” twenty stories published in a given year? Who decides and on what basis does that judge decide?
I won’t go into the history of the top three “best of” collections. The Best American Short Stories has been around for over a hundred years.  And since 1978, each issue has had a series editor and a guest editor.  The series editor is now Heidi Pitlor, who, she says, reads thousands of stories every year and then picks 120 of those she considers the “best.”  She then turns those over to a guest editor—always a fiction writer—who then chooses those he or she thinks are the best twenty stories, which then appear in the yearly volume, usually in the fall of the year.
The O. Henry Prize Stories, which has been around almost as long as BASS (1919), has one editor only—currently Laura Furman—who chooses all twenty stories in the yearly volume and then sends them to three different fiction writers who choose their favorite and write a brief essay about it that appears at the end of the volume.
The new kid on the block is Best British Short Stories, now in its seventh year, which is edited by Nicholas Royle, who chooses all twenty stories in each yearly collection. (There once was a series called Best English Short Stories that ran for about ten years between 1986 and 1995, edited by Giles Gordon and David Hughes.)
One of the main problems the editor of these three volumes must face, that is, beyond the task of trying to read every short story published in America, Canada, or England in a given year, is balancing between choosing what he or she thinks are the very best stories out of all the stories published, and then making a book out of them. The two demands are often  not the same.
Choosing the “best” stories necessitates, we assume, some understanding and appreciation not only of fiction in general, but the unique characteristics of the short story in particular. It does not necessitate, we assume, depending on personal taste, obsession, or author collegiality. It means choosing the very “best.”
However, making a book out of twenty stories depends on giving the reader some variety.  I mean, the editor would risk alienating his or her reader were he to choose twenty stories that were all similarly realistic or surrealistic, experimental, traditional, etc., even if he or she thought those were the very “best” stories he or she had read that year.
I have read all twenty stories in this year’s Best British Short Stories twice, as I always do, and I find that Nicholas Royle has, as he has in the first six volumes (all of which I have discussed on this blog), put together a book with a variety of different kinds of short stories. I cannot make a judgment on Royle’s judgment that these twenty stories are the “best” published in England this year.  No one can second guess Royle on this matter, for, I would wager, no one has read as many British stories as he has this year, and consequently no one is able to make the kind of comparative judgments he has.
However, during the month of September, I will offer some opinions about the stories in Best British Short Stories 2017 —what kind of stories they are, how significant they seem to be, how well they appear to be written, and what might conceivably have earned them a place as among the “best” stories published in England this past year. In some cases I might even say, “surely not,” and try to justify my judgment.
During the month of October, I will try to do the same for O. Henry Prize Stories: 2017, and during the month of November, I will make comments on the stories chosen for Best American Short Stories: 2017.
I hope you will purchase copies of all three books and join me.


Frances Pickard said...

I am looking forward to your posts - Thank-you!

Ann Graham said...

I've missed you these past couple of months!

Sil said...

Looking forward to read these alongside you.

Hope you don't mind me (too much, anyway) pointing out that British is not the same as English. All too often the two are used as interchangeable, but there is more to the U.K. than just England (although this is what England wants people to believe). Wales and Scotland and N.Ireland are rightfully part of the U.K. and of the British islands. If all the stories considered in the collection are published in England, or by English-born or England-living authors, then the collection is not British, but English - a note to the curators/editors, not you!

Anonymous said...

Yes, we would like to see such reviews on case-to-case basis. It means a lot of hard work for you, but still, we would like to see such educative appreciations from you. Thank you!