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Book Review: 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories

By (October 3, 2015) One Comment

100 Years of the Best American Short Stories100 years

Edited by Lorrie Moore and Heidi Pitlor

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015

It was a century ago that frail, pasty, bookish Edward O’Brien, at the behest of a wonderfully smart book-critic named William Stanley Braithwaite at the dear old Boston Evening Transcript, assembled the first of what would end up being a venerable tradition of “Best American Short Stories” volumes, although you’d never know that from the table of contents in the big new volume 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories, edited by Heidi Pitlor under the guest-editorship of Lorrie Moore. The book is over 700 pages long, a beautifully-designed thing, but there isn’t even the pretense of parity in the stories it reprints. The first half of the century is represented here by thirteen short stories – indeed, the volume kicks off with a 1917 story by Edna Ferber, and the first two years of the series, including the inaugural year, are left back in the archives. Nothing to see there, we’re supposed to suppose.

Thirteen stories from the years 1917 to 1960, and 27 from 1960 to 2014. The 1920s – in many ways the golden decade of the form and a time positively rampant with great (though largely now forgotten) female practitioners of the art – are represented by three stories, one by Sherwood Anderson, one by Ernest Hemingway, and one by Ring Lardner. By contrast, the 1980s, that barren wasteland of the form, sports no fewer than six stories, only one of which, Robert Stone’s “Helping,” is worth reprinting. Were the 1980s really twice as strong a short story decade as the 1920s? Or do the proportions reflect an editorial slant toward some notion of “relevance” or “contemporaneity”?

The 2000-aughts likewise have six stories here, including three relatively strong items, “The Third and Final Continent” by Jhumpa Lahiri, “What You Pawn I Will Redeem” by Sherman Alexie, and “Refresh, Refresh” by Benjamin Percy. Good stories, but the 1930s have only three stories, “Babylon Revisited” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Cracked Looking-Glass” by Katherine Anne Porter, and “That Will Be Fine” by William Faulkner. Are 2015 readers expected to be completely sure that all of those excluded 1930 writers were less talented than the aught-writers included, writers like Edward P. Jones and ZZ Packer? And worse, are they expected to agree those earlier writers are less important, to the history and evolution of the form?

God help those readers if they look to Lorrie Moore’s Introduction for any help. Her 13 pages show her typical haphazard combination of egotism and incoherence, starting off windily spinning hand-waving nonsense that’s nominally “about” the short story as a form, although it might just as easily be about her second thoughts about her latest mortgage:

A story is a noise in the night. You may be lying there quietly resting in the international house of literature and hear something in the walls, the click and burst of heat through pipes, a difficult settling of eaves, ice sliding off the roof, the scurry of animals, the squawk of a floorboard, someone coming up the stairs.

There’s a good deal more of this drearily boring stuff, rounded off with vignettes from the book-tour of her Lorrie Moore stand-in anonymous short story writer – vignettes meant to underscore the writer’s ethereal, almost otherworldly realness when contrasted with the clueless stupidity of the oafish non-writers who tromp to her readings, meant to underscore that realness but in fact underscoring quite different things about that ersatz-Moore:

“Do you ever Google yourself?” someone asks.

“Do I ever Google myself?”

“Yes, that is the question.”

“That is the question?”

“Would you like another?”

“Would I like another?”

Why is she changing the subject? Why is she sounding defensive? Why can’t she answer a simple question? Why does she keep repeating the question?

“When you write, do you have particular people in mind?”

“Actual people?”

“Or hypothetical people.”

“Am I thinking of someone else?”

“Yes, is there someone else that you are thinking of?”

“Is there someone else?” There is always someone else. “Do you mean generally or specifically?”

“So there is someone else? I mean, where were you last night?”

“Do you mean generally or specifically?”

A short story is about love. But it is not a love story.

Sure thing, Special Guest Star. Whatever you say. It’s a house, it’s a wild animal, it’s a story about love – but not a love story. Check.

It ends up being a strange abdication of the duties you’d assume would attach to the volume commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Best American Short Stories series. It’s pretty much impossible for an open-minded (and especially history-minded) person to square the fact that a big volume like this could be completely silent about the years 1915 and 1916 but manage to find room for Lauren Groff and Nathan Englander from last week’s New Yorker. Since the deeper worth of stories often only reveals itself with the passage of time (a passage of time that hasn’t been at all kind to Edna Ferber but has done wonders for many of her contemporaries who poor sickly Edward O’Brien would have been shocked to find missing from this here), if anything the imbalance should work the other way in this centennial volume: the work of living 30- and 40-somethings should have been slighted in favor of the authors who created and shaped the American short story in the 20th century. But even if such an imbalance were not to be pursued (it would, among other things, render a volume very similar to many, many previous volumes, including the earlier landmark volume in this series, The Best American Short Stories of the Century, edited by John Updike and Katrina Kenison fifteen years ago), surely a more even distribution of space was the better thing to do? Maybe in 2115.