I used to hate short stories. Well, “hate” is a strong word. But I really, really disliked them.
Short stories, at least to someone who loves Really Big Books, can feel like a gyp. Just when the tale is taking off and gaining momentum and you’re invested in the characters – bam, it’s over. You feel like you’ve been a victim of “bait and switch.” False advertising. Premature elucidation.
The few short stories I had read weren’t even very good. So for a long while, I steered clear.
Then my oldest brother (those boys crop up here often, don’t they?) went to Canada on vacation, and brought me back a short story collection written by the person who would become my Favorite Living Writer (more on her in a future post, I promise.) My mind was forever changed. Well-executed short stories ROCK.
When I became a Mommy four years ago, I no longer had enough time to tackle lots of big novels anyway, so I started working my way through my new Favorite Author’s collected works (she writes shorts, almost exclusively.) And in 2007, thanks to my newfound interest in Stephen King, I discovered The Best American Short Stories series. King was the guest editor for that year’s edition, so I bought it.
The series works like this: every year (since 1978), a B.A.S.S. “series editor” reads through all the American short-story publications for that year (there are a lot – I was surprised), and culls what they believe are the best 200, give or take. They present these stories to the “Guest Editor,” a different distinguished author each year, who then picks his or her twenty favorites from the list. Those twenty are published in a paperback book, after the first of the next year.
Past Guest Editors include: Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike, Margaret Atwood, Louise Erdrich, Annie Proulx, Garrison Keillor, and Ann Patchett. These guest editors write an introduction to their edition, and that alone is worth the price of admission; they talk about the art of writing and share a little about how they decided which stories to include.
Here’s what I’ve discovered: the best short stories, the cream of the crop, are even better than full-length novels. Why? Well, the writer has to overcome that gigantic problem I brought up at the beginning of this post: they have to craft a complete story that’s rich and full of detail, within a ridiculously few pages. The story has to be taut and sharp; it has to snatch you up from the first sentence, take you on the ride of your life, then deposit you twenty pages later, dazed and wobbly-legged, grinning like a fool and saying “Let’s do that again!” As in poetry, the writer has to make every single word count.
A note of caution, though: since I began reading B.A.S.S., I have gone “off the reservation” a couple of times, and picked up copies of Tin House or The Iowa Review, to look for more good, short stories on my own. These magazines are well-respected. I respect them.
I also barely understand a thing they print.
Most of the stories (and poems) in these magazines confuse me to no end. They sound as though someone threw a bunch of words into a Yahtzee cup, shook them up and let them fall, and wrote down the results. They’re vague. They’re weird. The editors of these publications seem to adore surrealism and obfuscation.
Or perhaps I’m just a big country bumpkin who doesn’t “get” literary nuance.
At any rate, for me, the regular short story publications don’t work. BUT, the stories that are picked for the B.A.S.S. each year – well, those work beautifully.
If (like me) you’re on a budget, just wait until the end of the year. At some point, bookstores will put the last year’s BASS edition on the bargain table (they don’t keep them in stock forever), and you can pick one up for about $5.00.
Then, read and enjoy.
You can thank me later.