I assigned 100 Years of The Best American Short Stories for the Short Story Workshop in April. I don’t recommend the book, although I have several stories on the list from it. The book has some lovely features, including a history of the Best American Short Story volumes. Those of you who persist in thinking publishing has always (and continues) to discriminate against women might want to look at the essays here. Every series editor save one of the most influential volume of short stories for 100 years has been female. And there have been a lot of annual editors who were female as well. I hope to hell the myth that women can’t get published and never could will finally go away.
But overall, the volume disappoints. The stories by the Big Names are mostly also-ran stories. Not nearly their best. And more than a few have casual racism. (Meaning written by white people for white people, with some slur or assumption about people of color, made in passing, because none of the people slurred were part of thee story. I blame the editor for that. Those stories don’t need to be reprinted, ever.)
By the time I got to the 1980s & 1990s, we settled into sameness. Everything was written like everything else, in Serious Writer Voice. The stories were dreary, about incest and child abuse, and unhappy marriages. I ran out of time to read the rest of it, and I know I won’t assign it to the next short story class. I’ll have to keep searching for a good overview of American short fiction that isn’t labeled “genre.”
Still, I found some stories to recommend, particularly from the period before the writers’ workshops took over universities and deleted voice from stories.
Because I did have a workshop and read lots of good short stories in manuscript, I didn’t read as much other fiction. And I was dealing with COVID-19 related work, so I sometimes didn’t get to read much at all during a day, which was irritating to say the least.
But I still found good things to recommend. I hope you enjoy what’s below.
Baldwin, James, “Sonny’s Blues,” 100 Years of The Best American Short Stories, edited by Lorrie Moore and Heidi Pitlor, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015. This story is a classic and justifiably one of the best stories in the volume (at least of the part I read). Baldwin captures not only the essence of the blues here, but the rhythm in describing the relationship between Sonny, music, and Sonny’s brother. Heartbreaking, impressive, and oh, so marvelous. If you’ve never read this story, find a copy and read it now.
Baxter, Charlie, “Harmony of the World,” 100 Years of The Best American Short Stories, edited by Lorrie Moore and Heidi Pitlor, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015. Another music story, this one so brilliantly written that I could actually hear the music. It’s as if the story itself had a time signature. It was lovely to read, considering the sameness of tone in the stories before it. The characters are very much like the characters in the other stories from the late 1970s and 1980s, but the voice and prose here are brilliant, and a refreshing change from what came before.
Cep, Casey, The Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and The Last Trial of Harper Lee, Knopf, 2019. This is an odd book. It’s the story of a book that never got written. Harper Lee attended the trial of Robert Burns, who was accused of killing Reverend Willie Maxwell. The good reverend wasn’t so good; he killed a lot of people close to him for insurance money. Burns murdered Maxwell at the funeral of one of Maxwell’s victims, in front of about 300 witnesses…and ended up being acquitted.
Lee attended the trial, dug into all of the information about Maxwell, and was going to write a book about it all, but never did. So Cep did, using Lee’s notes, and then the final section was about Lee herself. It’s compelling and fascinating and weird, all rolled into one.
Denevi, Marco, “Esquina Peligrosa,” 1974. I’m finally getting to the point—or rather, returning to the point—in my Spanish classes where I can read fiction again. Ironically, the first novel I read in its entirety in Spanish was by Marco Denevi (Rosura a las diez) and the first short story I read when I get back into Spanish is by Denevi. This story is brief and effortless. I’ve seen many “magic realism” stories in English, and they’re all clunky. This one isn’t. With one sentence, he moves us to an uncomfortable place, and makes the story something that could be fantasy, memory, or daydreaming…or time travel. Lovely.
Faulkner, William, “That Will Be Fine,” 100 Years of The Best American Short Stories, edited by Lorrie Moore and Heidi Pitlor, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015. I have yet to read one of Faulkner’s novels, but every time I read one of his short stories, I’m impressed. Here he uses a technique that Harper Lee used to great effect in To Kill A Mockingbird—writing from the point of view of a child who has no real idea what the adults are doing. Faulkner’s story is brutal, and the gap between what the child believes is going on, and what actually is, is devastating. The story is breathtaking.
Ferber, Edna, “The Gay Old Dog,” 100 Years of The Best American Short Stories, edited by Lorrie Moore and Heidi Pitlor, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015. I remember reading an Edna Ferber novel in junior high. I had just seen the movie Giant, and in my completist fashion, decided to read the novel it was based on. I didn’t understand the movie back then, nor did I understand the novel, although I remember being surprised at how accessible it was.
That was the reaction I had to this story as well, first published over 100 years ago. It’s about a man who never married and finally comes into his own as he gets older. The voice is slightly off-beat. I thought the perspective would be one I had seen before, but it wasn’t. It was unusual, and it caught me. Memorable.
Hansberry, Lorraine, A Raisin in the Sun, Vintage, 1994. I had originally read this play in 1980 or so, in the award-winning print version. This is the unexpurgated version, with several scenes restored, cut for time (mostly) from the original production. They make the powerful play even more powerful. Heartbreaking and hopeful at the same time, filled with lots of wisdom and love, as well as a sense of dread—that “happy” ending comes with so much dread—and wow. Wow. This is brilliant every single time I read it. And more so with these pieces added.
Paretsky, Sara, Dead Land, William Morrow, 2020. Paretsky published a book in her V.I. Warshawski series on 9/11/01. Yep, right into that horrid tragedy. It took years for her career to recover, because her publishers blamed the low numbers on her, not on the circumstances. I fear for her again this time, since Dead Land came out in the middle of the bookstore closings for the pandemic.
I loved the book. It has the usual flaws with a Warshawski novel. V.I. isn’t the brightest beam. She misses obvious connections, and blunders in, alone, into situations any sane person would at least bring a friend to. But I love her fierceness and her compassion, even while her prickly nature annoys me. Yep, I treat Vic as if she’s an old friend, which she is. I’ve read this series from the beginning. Dead Land is middle of the road Paretsky, but middle of the road Paretsky is better than most writers could ever achieve. I enjoyed every minute of this book.
Roth, Philip, “The Conversion of the Jews,” 100 Years of The Best American Short Stories, edited by Lorrie Moore and Heidi Pitlor, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015. This story should not have worked. It’s a story about a stubborn boy who asks a question in Hebrew school that the rabbi disapproves of. The boy asks his mother, and she slaps him, and the events go from there, ending in a somewhat surreal manner. The story has a huge emotional gut-punch…which is unusual since, at its heart, this is an idea story. A philosophical discussion in 3,000 words. And a masterpiece of voice, storytelling, and point of view.