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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Wednesday, July 22, 2015

State of the Story: What the selections in Best American Short Stories have in common

So what do the selections in Best American Short Stories 2014 (Jennifer Egan, ed.) have in common? First of all, for the most part the stories are by writers in relatively early career (Baxter, Beattie, Oates three exceptions) - and I think that's because so many young writers begin with short stories and even among those who continue the well begins to run dry and more mature writers begin to focus on novels. Maybe this is also in part because of the emphasis in writing programs on short stories, especially linked stories. It also made me think how so many of the great living short story writers have seemingly retired: Munro, Trevor (not eligible for this collection anyway, I think), Pearlman, Roth (though he hasn't written short fiction in decades). Second, these stories tilt toward the conventional: generally realistic narratives in straightforward narrative style - other than one or two told in fragments and one or two in which the narrative sequence is a pastiche, these are not experimental or groundbreaking stories: not a collection in which, among the established literati, Coover or Davis would find a comfortable slot. Third, the stories tend to be much longer than average - novels in miniature, in some instances. This may be evidence of Egan's taste (and mine, for that matter), but we don't see any of the abrupt, epiphanic, enigmatic, dreamlike stories that we often see in the New Yorker and in many of the lit mags reviewed for this collection. Many of the selected stories are novels in miniature. It's incredibly hard to place a story of any substantial length in a literary magazine, most of which are tight on space and hoping to publish many writers rather than many pages by a few writers, so the published stories of 20+ pages tend to be very good ones. Fourth, surprisingly, the collection is not NY-centric: I think only one, maybe two, of the stories takes place in NYC, which is a really nice break: though every living writer seems to have settled in Brooklyn, there are great stories to be told, and found, elsewhere, as this collection shows. I don't think this collection is exactly representative of the contemporary American story, but it's a strong collection. I liked some more than others but it seems to me that every entry was worthy of selection on its own terms - not based on author prestige or log-rolling (one year the editor, was it Mark Helprin?, judged the entries blind) but on the quality of the story and by a search for range and variety - in locale if nothing else - within a tight prescriptive field.

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