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The Best American Short Stories 1999

by

The Best American Short Stories 1999 Cover

 

 

Excerpt

Introduction

Forty years ago, just before I turned seven, my father started

reading to me from a volume of 365 stories with an equal number of

pages.

The stories were supposed to be read in sequence, a tale a

day, beginning with a sledding caper on a snowy January first. They

concerned the ongoing activities of children who lived in lovely two-

story homes on a block lined with trees whose changing leaves

reflected the seasons. They each had a father and a mother as well as

two sets of grandparents, and these older folk conveyed simple truths

while taking cookies from a hot oven or fish from a cold stream. Each

day the children had small adventures with baby animals, balloons, or

bicycles. They enjoyed nice surprises, got into small troubles, and

had fun problems that they could solve. They made thingamajigs out of

mud and stone and paint, which wound up being the prettiest ashtray

Mommy and Daddy had ever received. Within each of those five-hundred-

word stories, the children learned a valuable lifelong lesson, which

they promised never to forget.

By the middle of the book, I had learned to read well enough

to finish a book in one day. And being impatient to learn what

happened to the children in the rest of the year, I polished off the

remaining stories in one sitting. On the last day of the year, the

children went sledding again, completing the happy circle. Thus, I

discovered that those children, between January first and December

thirty-first, had not changed much.

I was glad, for that was the same year I accumulated many

worries, which I numbered on my fingers. One was for the new home we

had moved to, the fifth of more than a dozen I would occupy during my

childhood. Two was for the dead rat crushed in a trap, which my

father showed me, believing that this would assure me that the rat

was no longer lurking in my bedroom. Three was my playmate, whom I

saw lying in a coffin while my mother whispered, "This what happen

when you don't listen to Mother." Four was for the operation I had,

which made me think I had not listened to my mother. Five was for the

ghost of my playmate who wanted me to come live with her. Six was for

my mother telling me that when she was my age her mother had died,

and the same sad fate might happen to me if I didn't appreciate her

more. Eventually, I ran out of fingers.

That year, I believed that if I could make sense of my

worries, I could make them stop. And when I couldn't, I would walk to

the library. I went there often. I would choose my own books. And I

would read and read, a story a day.

That girl from forty years ago has served as your guest

editor for The Best American Short Stories 1999. I felt I should tell

you about my earliest literary influences, because I'm aware that if

you scan the table of contents, you might suspect that I have been

reactionary in my choices. You may wonder if they are a vote against

homogeneity, a vote for diversity in preordered proportions.

This collection holds no such political agenda. The stories I

have chosen are simply those I loved above all others given to me for

consideration. This is not to say that my literary judgment is

without personal bias. I am a particular sort of reader, shaped by

all kinds of influences - one of them being those bedtime stories of

long ago, for I still do most of my reading in bed.

I also now realize that I dearly loved those stories. In

fact, I regret that I finished them so quickly that my father no

longer had to read them aloud to me each night, for what I loved most

was listening to his voice. And what I love most in these twenty-one

stories is the same thing. It is the voice of the storyteller.

At the beginning of 1998, the year these stories first appeared in

magazines, I found myself in an airport lounge in Seoul, waiting for

a connecting flight to Beijing. For reading material, I had brought

with me The Best American Short Stories 1992, the volume whose guest

editor was Robert Stone. I remember settling in with a cup of ginseng

tea, then glancing up and seeing, with a shock of recognition, a

woman who seemed like a younger version of me. She was Asian, I would

guess even Chinese American, and she was with a husband who looked

quite similar to mine in height and build and coloring. But more

striking than these superficial similarities was what she held in her

hands: the same teal-blue volume of The Best American Short Stories.

Did she notice me as well? She gave no indication that she

did. Meanwhile, I had an urge to run up to her and ask all kinds of

questions. Was she a writer? What story was she reading? Why had she

picked this book to bring on a long flight to Asia?

But I remembered those times my mother used to embarrass me

as a child, going up to strangers in public places just because they

happened to look Chinese. So I stayed put, reading from my book, then

wondering how she could not notice me, our similarity. After all, it

wasn't as though we were reading the same blockbuster novel of the

year. It wasn't a travel book on Asia. It wasn't even the most recent

volume of The Best American Short Stories. So what was it about our

lives, our tastes, our choices that had brought us to this literary

meeting point in Seoul?

Shortly after I returned home, I was asked to serve as guest

editor of The Best American Short Stories 1999. And from October 1998

until February 1999, I read stories, manna from heaven, or wherever

it is that Katrina Kenison makes her home. And after I had made my

selections and sat down to write this introduction, I thought about

that woman at the airport. I wondered if she would one day read the

stories in this volume and find compatibility with my choices. Or

would she pose the hard-nosed literary question "Huh?"

That is the response I sometimes have after seeing certain

movies or plays that others have raved about. In fact, my husband and

I have friends we have long associated with a particular film,

Babette's Feast. We recalled their saying it was subtle and

unpretentious, artless in the way pure art should be. So we went to

see it. Huh? We found it tedious, interminable. And so we avoided any

future recommendations for movies by these same friends.

Babette's Feast had me thinking the other day that the same

avoidance principles might apply to people who take on the role of

literary arbiter for others - reviewers, critics, panels for prizes,

and yes, even guest editors. Such people may have an eye for literary

conventions and contrivances, allusions and innovations on the art.

But what are their tastes based on? What are their biases? Is part of

it the common prejudice in the arts that anything that is popular is

by default devoid of value? Do they tend to choose work that most

resembles their own? Perhaps those critics who publicly declare "this

is good and that is not" ought to present a list of more than just

the titles of their most recently published works.

I, for one, would like a résumé of habits, a précis of

personality. What movies would they watch twice? Do they make clever

and snide remarks, but mostly about people who are doing better than

they? When recounting conversations, do they imitate other people's

voices? When sharing a meal with friends, do they offer to pick up

the tab, split the bill evenly, or portion it out according to what

they ordered and how little wine they drank? When a friend of theirs

has suffered a terrible loss, do they immediately call or wait until

things have settled down a bit? What are their most frequent

complaints in life? What do they tend to exaggerate? What do they

downplay? Do they think little dogs are adorable or appetizers for

big dogs? And, of course, I would want to know the names of books

they love and loathe and why.

In other words, if you ran into this person at a party, would

you even like him or her? I am being only half facetious. I do think

the answers would say something about a person's sensibility

regarding life and human nature, and hence his or her sensibility

regarding stories, beyond the surface of craft. I think the stories

we love to read may very well have to do with our emotional

obsessions, the circuitry between our brain and our heart, the

questions we thought about as children that we still think about,

whether they are about the endurance of love, the fears that unite

us, the acceptance of irreversible decay, or the ties that bind that

turn out to be illusory. In that context, I also think that if

Babette's Feast was your all-time favorite film, then you might not

like the stories I picked.

Anyway, for the woman at the airport, for our friends whose

taste in movies serves as a reverse indicator, and for anyone now

taking a flyer on my judgment, I want to reveal what kind of tastes I

developed between the stories I read forty years ago and the stories

I read this year.

As a worrisome child, I developed an osmotic imagination, and I loved

fairy tales for their richness in the grotesque. I read them all:

Hans Christian Andersen, the Brothers Grimm, Aesop's Fables, Little

Red Riding Hood - whatever was on the library shelf, a book a day,

many of them devoured at bedtime, which my mother said is why I

ruined my eyes and had to wear glasses at such a young age.

Because my father was a part-time Baptist minister, I also

read Bible stories, which I thought were quite similar to fairy

tales, for they too contained gory images, gut-clenching danger,

magical places, and a sense that things are never as they first

appear. By the end of these stories, much had always changed.

Kingdoms and seas rose and fell. Humble creatures turned into

handsome princes or prophets. Straw became gold, a crumb a thousand

loaves. And a lot of bearded giants lost their heads.

I loved these stories because, along with the horrific, they

contained limitless and amazing ways in which people, places, and

circumstances changed. It gave me a sense of instability, distrust,

and wonder that mirrored my own life. I remember a particular

Halloween, being lost on a dark street, then finally seeing my

mother, her red swing coat. I flew toward her, hugging the back of

her coat, crying for joy because I was no longer lost, only to see a

stranger's startled face looking down at me. As a child, I thought it

was a kind of terrifying magic that my mother transformed into a

woman with blond hair. She changed quickly in other ways as well.

Sometimes she was happy with me, the next moment disappointed, wild

with anger. And in her eyes, I too had changed, and she was ashamed

beyond belief that I had strange, bad ingredients inside me that

neither she or I had suspected were there until my awful behavior had

leaked out like a stench. And I would wonder, who am I really? A

fairy? An evil sprite? A good princess in the temporary form of a

rotten Chinese girl?

With fairy tales, you could immerse your imagination like

your big toe in a tub of hot water and retract it if it didn't agree

with you. Part of the thrill was seeing what you could take, guessing

what might happen, delighting if you were surprised, decrying if you

were unfairly fooled. Kind creatures turned into genies. People who

died, fell down holes, or became lost later might be transformed into

happier beings. They could wind up in lands that nobody else knew

existed. In stories, you could hide or escape.

Since my father was a minister and my mother a believer in

bad fate, I used to wonder: What are the reasons that catastrophe

happens? Is calamity a lesson, a curse, or a test? Is it a punishment

for evil? Does it occur because of blind luck or blind revenge? Or

does it simply happen for reasons we can never know or would not want

to know? I was a child who rode a whirligig of questions and flew out

in all directions.

Whatever the case, I was addicted to stories about the

morbid: the beheadings, the stonings, the man who was three days dead

and already stank when he came back to life. These were people with

fates worse than mine. So far, at least. But just in case, I wanted

to prepare for other dangers that might still await me.

Around this same time, I discovered a book at home that was

also useful to me in this regard. It was a medical textbook my mother

was studying so she could become a licensed vocational nurse. The

textbook concerned medical anomalies. Inside were descriptions and

photographs of people with acromegaly, elephantiasis, hirsutism,

leprosy, and superfluous or missing appendages - all kinds of

deformities that vied with Ripley's Believe It or Not for open-jawed

disbelief.

I tried to imagine the lives of these people, how they felt,

their thoughts as they stared back at me from the photographs. I

imagined them before they had their disease. I imagined them cured. I

imagined taking them to school and all the kids screaming in terror,

while I alone remained calm, a true friend. I imagined them changing

into genies, princes, and immortals. I imagined I might become just

like them, now plagued and miserable, soon to be transformed into

someone else. These people were my imaginary playmates. Their

consciousness, I believed, was mine. And those notions, I think, were

among the first stories I made up for myself.

Like many children, I read to be scared witless, to be less

lonely, to believe in other possibilities. But we all become

different readers in how we respond to books, why we need them, what

we take from them. We become different in the questions that arise as

we read, in the answers that we find, in the degree of satisfaction

or unease we feel with those answers. We differ in what we begin to

consider about the real world and the imaginary one. We differ in

what we think we can know - or would want to know - and in how we

continue to pursue that knowledge.

One story can be a different story in the hands of a

different reader.

I believe that now, although in college I allowed myself to

believe otherwise. Back then, I believed good taste was an opinion

held by others - namely, the designated experts. I was an English

major, and I remember that in my sophomore year I wrote a theme paper

(as they were then called) on Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. I

thought the story was well written, but I did not like it much: the

cynicism, the fact that by the end of the story the characters had

not changed, which was the point, but one that I did not find

interesting. I said so in my theme paper, and the following week my

professor chose to read it aloud. He said it was remarkably different

from the rest of the papers he had read in all his years of teaching.

I blushed, thinking this was high praise. And then he started to read

my sentences in a tone that became increasingly less benign. Soon his

face was livid as he gasped after each of my paragraphs: "Who is this

writer to criticize Hemingway, the greatest American writer of our

century? This writer is an idiot! This novel deserves a better

reader!" If this writer had had the means, she would have killed

herself on the spot.

The following year, I was in another English class at another

college, and the same novel was assigned. This time I wrote a theme

paper that noted the brilliant characterization - how, despite the

panorama of events and the opportunities afforded these characters,

nothing much had changed in their lives, and how this so convincingly

captured the realism of ennui. It represented the pervasive American

sense of a lost generation whose lives, singly or together, held no

hope or direction. My paper received high praise.

By the time I graduated, I was sick of reading literary

fiction. My osmotic imagination had changed into one with filters,

lint traps. I thought that literary tastes were an established norm

that depended on knowing what others more expert than I thought was

best.

For the next twelve years, I read an occasional novel. But I

did not return to my habit of reading a story a day until 1985. By

then I had become a successful but unhappy person, with work that was

lucrative but meaningless. This was one of those moments that cause

people to either join a religious cult, spend a lot of money on

psychotherapy, or take up the less drastic and more economical

practice of writing fiction.

Since I was a beginning writer, I believed that the short

form was the easier one to tackle. It was the IRS approach to

writing: use the short form if you have less to account for and the

standard amount to withhold. Perusing a remainders table at my local

bookstore, I picked up The Best American Short Stories 1983, the

volume edited by Anne Tyler. Well, I was raised by a Chinese mother

who taught me to aim high. This was the book for me, the best. With

suggestions from my more literary-minded friends, I also began

reading short story collections, and the ones I targeted first were

by women - Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty, Lorrie Moore, Amy Hempel,

Alice Adams, Jamaica Kincaid, Louise Erdrich, Jane Smiley, Mary

Robison, Molly Giles, Alice Munro, Mary Hood, Ann Beattie. Of course,

I also read fiction by men - John Updike, Gabriel García-Márquez,

Donald Barthelme, Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Ethan Canin, Lee

Abbot, Tobias Wolff, Chekhov, Flaubert, and even Hemingway, whom I

reread with new appreciation but mostly for his clean prose style.

But I was particularly interested in fiction by women, because almost

all the literary works I had read as an English major had been

written by men, the one exception being those by Virginia Woolf. I

discovered that stories by women included more stories about women,

and I was startled to read, for the first time perhaps since Jane

Eyre, voices that felt so intimate, that brought up questions,

ambiguities, and contradictions common among us, yet I had not seen

them expressed elsewhere.

Being a new writer, I was also intrigued by the craft of it,

the art of the short story. I joined a writers' group. I think that

is where I ceased being a typical reader. I started looking at the

parts and not just the whole story, which is a terrible habit, in a

way. It's like being Dr. Frankenstein, seeing how life can be created

from previously inanimate parts. The Dr. Frankenstein in me would

sometimes act as cosmetic surgeon, determining where the excess fat

of the story was, how a little lift here, a tuck there could improve

the whole. But what did I really know about the essence and bliss of

the story? After all, hadn't another writer in the group criticized

my work for its garrulity, its needless blather?

As a beginning writer and reader, I was still trying to

figure out what qualified as a proper short story versus a prose

poem, an anecdote, a character piece, a novella. I actually thought

there were agreed-upon answers to questions like these: What is

voice? What is story? Does voice determine story or vice versa? How

should characters develop? What are the elements of a good ending?

What are the virtues of short stories in general?

Along with these big abstract questions, I had pragmatic

worries over craft. Why do so many writers these days use the present

tense? Is it supposed to sound like dispassionate stage directions?

What are the pros and cons of using first person, third person, or,

for that matter, second person? Should the narrative follow a

chronological sequence? Or is it more admired (that is, more

intelligent-looking) to jump around, fracture it up a bit, so it

resembles more realistically the way our poor memories actually work?

Then there was this: What is the existential meaning of the

big white space between paragraphs? What is being said by not being

said?

I truly thought that expert answers to these questions would

help me become a better writer. I remember thinking that if someone

could help me deconstruct the stories,figure out what works, I could

then use those principles, tried and true and judged the best, to

methodically write my own stories.

So I read piles and piles of short stories in those early

years of learning to write. And I confess that with some stories I

would arrive at the end with that same sense of epistemological

wonder I have with depressing Swedish films: "Huh?" In other words,

sometimes I just didn't get it. And this led me to believe that my

former professor was right: I was missing some finer aesthetic sense.

Perhaps I was too much of a realist and did not understand

abstractions and fragments. Or perhaps the problem was that I was a

romanticist, and certainly not a postmodernist, or whatever it was or

was not that also made me unable to appreciate, say, a dollop of

paint on a white canvas in a museum of modern art. Maybe I didn't get

the stories because I was trying too hard to understand them. I was

trying to analyze them instead of just reading them, experiencing

them for all the many ways that art can appeal.

Of course, I did get some stories right away, too soon, too

handily, with a herald of French horns and a boink on the head. They

were weighted with epiphany, beginnings and endings that resonated

too neatly or were boldfaced with the import of hindsight.

And with other stories, I noticed a trend of sorts - the

ending that, like those bedtime stories of my childhood, showed that

nothing much changed between the first page and the last. The stories

concerned ordinary people doing ordinary things with just a bit of

inner unease, and an omniscient narrator who provided the precise

details that proved their lives were moving at glacial speed. They

were a Chekhovian type of tale, except that they took place in more

ordinary places and were about more mundane moments. Or perhaps they

weren't Chekhovian after all, since Chekhov always included some

casually observed detail at the end that made the whole story

transcendent, whereas these stories sort of petered out, as if they

had run out of energy. But wasn't that like life itself, or The Sun

Also Rises - this realism of ennui? Maybe that was the effect the

writers were going for. Either that or I just didn't get them.

Whatever the case, ennui was the arty way I ended one of the

first short stories I wrote. I sent it off as an application to my

first writers' workshop at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers.

When my manuscript came up for critique, Elizabeth Tallent, my

assigned leader, asked me in front of eleven other writers why my

story ended with a bank of fog rolling over the coastal mountains as

the narrator is headed for the airport. Naturally, I could not say to

a New Yorker writer that the deadline for submission was May 15 and I

had run out of time and ideas as well as interest. So I said the fog

was a metaphor for confusion, which it was: mine.

I experienced more fog in my reading and writing. But by

continuing to read and write, I gradually changed. It was not through

deconstruction. It was through an awareness that each writer has a

different consciousness, an attentiveness, inventiveness, and

relationship to the world, both real and fictional. I discovered that

the short story is a distillation of the personality of a whole

world. The way a particular writer chooses to experience, edit, and

express that is a matter of taste. And what I liked to read was not

necessarily what I wanted to write. In fact, my reasons for writing

had to do with what wasn't yet there.

I became a much better reader and, I think as a consequence,

a better short story writer, or so I thought. In 1988, I completed my

first work of fiction, The Joy Luck Club, which I wrote as a

collection of short stories. When the book went out into the world,

however, the reviewers called it a novel.

Last October, I was having an awful time writing my fourth novel when

the first batch of forty stories, photocopies of tearsheets, arrived

in the mail for my consideration. Naturally, I worried that my bad

writing might affect my reading. Conversely, I worried that reading

excellent stories would depress me and further undermine my writing.

I worried that my fluctuating estrogen levels would impair the

consistency of my judgment. I worried that I would overlook a

masterpiece and that everyone, including my former professor, would

gasp with rage: "Who is this writer to ignore our country's greatest

writer?" I am still the same worrier I was as a child. I still try to

sort out my worries, categorize them, organize them, find possible

solutions to contain them or make them go away. And they still sit in

my brain like a blood clot waiting to dissipate or explode.

I decided to set up a process that woud enable me to be as

fair as possible. With a hundred and twenty stories to read over four

months, that worked out to a story a day, quite doable and also the

correct way to go about this, I thought. If I read too many stories

at once, I might be comparing them one to the other for the wrong

reasons. So I decided I would read one story each evening, while

sitting in bed. To ensure that I was not susceptible to distractions,

such as a ringing phone or my dogs barking at ghosts, I would wear

headphones and listen to an environmental tape of rainfall. Per the

series editor's recommendation, I would read the stories blind - that

is, with the names of the writers and magazines blacked out. Using

this method, I would keep an open ear. I would not be swayed by

whether the writer was male or female, new or well established, or of

a racial background that one could check on a marketing survey. Not

that I would have such specious biases, but why worry that they might

creep up unconsciously?

After a week, I worried about other biases. That by listening

to rain, I was apt to choose only stories set in stormy weather,

overlooking those with more sun-baked settings. That on days when my

mind was cluttered with crisis, the stories I read were either better

or worse than they really were.

At times, I also found myself trying to scratch beneath the

surface and guess who the writer might be. I was a kid before

Christmas, shaking the gifts to see if I could tell what was inside.

I believed that certain writers' voices were as distinctive as

fingerprints, and I had detected six of them (I was wrong in half the

cases). And if I couldn't guess their names, I thought I could at

least figure out their gender. But then I looked back at a pile of

stories I had already read, and when I tried to discern what traits

might be marked more male or female, I found that in most cases, my

hunches were based only on whether the narrator was a man or a woman

(and later this proved half the time to be a flawed way to guess).

So I broke nearly all the rules, or tried to. My proposed

schedule to read a story a day? That lasted one day. Some rainy

weekends I could not stop myself from reading five or six at a

sitting. It was like eating a box of truffles. The next week I might

go days without reading a single one, caught up in my own work.

But one rule I did abide by, and it was one I did not set for

myself initially. I wound up reading each story from start to finish

without interruption, so that I could sense its rhythm. For me, the

rhythm is in the beats of the first sentence, in the way the story's

pulse quickens or evens, lulls or leaps. And by the end, the story

breathes and exhales with a certain tempo and force, as do I,

depending on how I feel about the story. The act of reading has

qualities similar to those of meditation, aerobic exercise,

lovemaking. Disruptions can cause me to lose the story's focus or its

essence, and at the very least its momentum. For that reason, I feel

the short story is more akin to a poem than a novel in how it should

be read. Its overall effect on me depends on my breathing along from

beginning to end.

I kept this principle while reading in bed, on the plane, in

doctors' waiting rooms, on long car rides in all those places where

most people take time to read a short story in a magazine. But if I

fell asleep before finishing a story, when I awoke I started that

story from the beginning. If the nurse said the doctor was ready to

see me before I was ready, I started the story again after my

appointment. And in January, like fifty million other people

suffering from holiday bloat, I joined a gym and took these stories

along. There I discovered that this is where much of the magazine

reading of America goes on in compressed blocks of time. If I did not

finish a story within the twenty-five minutes I was programmed to be

on the undulating machine, I kept pumping and sweating until I read

the last word. Thus, between reading the first and the last story, I

discovered that good fiction can change you in beneficial ways. I

lost five pounds.

I also found that reading short stories helped my writing. It

sprang me out of the doldrums, and I had the same fervor and

compulsion toward writing that I had had when I started reading

massive amounts of fiction back in 1985. By reading so many stories,

so many voices, I unleashed what propelled me to write fiction in the

first place: finding my own voice and telling my own story. As in

conversation, one story begets another.

But what a curious experience, to read so many stories in a

concentrated period of time, grabbing them in no particular order,

for randomness in fiction can generate its own cosmic connections. A

story about a dying parent would be followed by another story about a

dying parent, a difficult mother by another difficult mother. Pizza

Huts and Domino's Pizzas popped up in clusters like mushrooms after

rain, as did references to the color cranberry and barking dogs,

tourists in India and people falling under ice, reunions after sexual

indiscretions and alcohol-addled sons. There were also many, many

thoughts before dying. Bound together, they might be a codex on the

collective unconscious. Or is that just a result of the kind of

person I am? I tend to connect the dots and find patterns. The

patterns, of course, could be meaningless. In any case, in reading

the stories together, I was conscious that certain ones had similar

images and circumstances, and some appealed to me much more than

others.

In many of the hundred and twenty stories, I also found

elements of fairy tales, the grotesque. Here is where an actual bias

does come in. I was delighted to find these qualities, stunned that

so many stories had them - not so much in the structure, but in the

imagery: the underground worlds, a woman stumbling upon a much darker

version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, a secret place that no

one else knows exists, ghosts in the attic, a tractor that talks. I

saw a similar fairy tale quality in how characters transformed: the

narrator discovers that others are not who they appear to be. The

change occurs not through the wave of a wand, however, but through

death or danger or despair.

There was one other worry I had as a reader. I looked at the

stories I had placed in my pile of favorites. Many had an exotic

flavor to them. Either the narrators were ethnic or the settings were

outside America. I could imagine readers smugly nodding and

saying, "Well, of course she would pick those, mm-hmm." I then looked

at the larger pile of stories I had already decided to eliminate.

Many of those had exotic settings and ethnic narrators as well. And

then I noticed there were a fair number of stories in both piles

about hunters and cowboys and gritty-teethed people living in remote

parts of North America. So what was it about me that would account

for that? I guess I am the kind of reader who has less of a fondness

for the ordinary. Maybe I'm still that kid who wants to see things

I've never seen before. I like being startled by images I never could

have conjured up myself.

By their nature, these were stories with distinctive voices,

voices with interesting things to say. I imagine that was why certain

magazine editors chose them in the first place. Having read a hundred

and twenty stories, I know how quickly stories can blur into sameness

and fall away from memory. The splendid ones are left standing. But

in the end, only the vivid remain. Different does not always equal

vivid, but the converse is certainly true.

For those hoping I might make some observations on the

demographics of this collection and its significance to literary

trends or diversity in American culture or the year 1998, I am sorry

to disappoint. I don't think most literary fiction writers

deliberately set out to write stories that are topical or

representative. Great stories resist generalizations and categories.

For me even to try to guess at how the subconsciouses of twenty-one

writers followed certain patterns would be presumptuous, and I would

likely be wrong. And think how embarrassing it would be if I ran into

these writers at a literary seminar.

So I will leave it to the writers themselves to tell you what

their intentions might have been, if they choose to reveal them.

So why do I think these stories are the best? What do they say about

my tastes? Will they find harmony with yours, the woman in Seoul, my

friends with the movie recommendations?

I love stories that have strong storytelling qualities. By

this, I mean the kind of stories that have a narrative thread pulled

taut by tensions, and this leads to some thought or emotion or clear-

eyed perception. In each of these stories, when I reached the last

page, I felt a change. I did not say, "Huh?" But the stories did not

present their endings with the clang of gongs either. There is

nothing preening or preachy about these stories. Rather, by the end,

each story quietly but perceptibly lifted itself and me out of our

skins. I'm not saying that every story was uplifting like a birthday

balloon let go. The weightlessness was sometimes more akin to a bed

of static, a sudden loss of gravity, a tiny aphid tumbled upward by

wind. Sometimes this began to occur in the last few paragraphs. In

certain instances, it was the last sentence. But always by the end I

found myself suspended just a moment longer by a sense of wonder over

the story's ability to make me feel what I felt. Every single story

in this collection did that for me.

I am also an ardent admirer of prose style. That does not

mean that I always want it to be as fancy as Humbert Humbert's,

though Lolita does count as a favorite of mine for language. Whether

seemingly simple or fancy, the prose I like is one in which

everything is there for a reason - every word, every image, every bit

of dialogue, is needed, adds, builds - and its dexterity is also, in

a way, transparent. Yet it has a generosity to it. There's no

skimpiness. That's the craft part of it for me. While the prose may

seem offhand and effortless, it is imbued with a particular

intelligence and purpose. That higher sense permeates the story, and

only when you leave the story at the end do you realize how palpably

it is still felt. All the stories here gave me that sensation.

What I look for most in a story, what I crave, what I found

in these twenty-one, is a distinctive voice that tells a story only

that voice can tell. The voice is not simply the language, the prose

style, the imagery. It is that ineffable combination of life and lore

that creates a triangulated relationship among the narrator, the

reader, and the fictional world. It may have an intimacy or a

distance, a certain degree of trustworthiness or edginess. The voice

is this hour's guide to eternity and will immerse me in a particular

consciousness, which observes some nuances of human nature and

overlooks others. It is the keeper of forgiveness and condemnation.

It will order perception and juxtapose events and rearrange time,

then deliver me back to my consciousness slightly off-balance.

By the end of the story, what I've witnessed and experienced

as a reader is so interesting, so intense, so transcendent that if

someone were to ask me what the story is about, I would not be able

to distill it into an easy answer. It would be a sacrilege for me to

say it is about survival or hope or the endlessness of love. The

whole story is what the story is about, and there is no shorthanding

it. I can only say, Please read it yourself.

If this collection holds a common thread with regard to my

tastes, it is what I think the best of fiction is by its nature and

its virtues. It can enlarge us by helping us notice small details in

life. It can remind us to distrust absolute truths, to dismiss

clichés, to both desire and fear stillness, to see the world freshly

from closer up or farther away, with a sense of mystery or

acceptance, discontent or hope, all the while remembering that there

are so many possibilities, and this is only one.

The best stories do change us. They help us live interesting

lives.

Amy Tan

Copyright (c) 1999 by Houghton Mifflin Company.

Introduction copyright (c) 1999 by Amy Tan. Reprinted by permission

of Houghton Mifflin Company.

Product Details

ISBN:
9780395926840
Selected:
Tan, Amy
With:
Kenison, Katrina
With:
Kenison, Katrina
Selected by:
Tan, Amy
Selected:
Tan, Amy
Editor:
Tan, Amy; Kenison, Katrina
Author:
Tan, Amy
Author:
Kenison, Katrina
Publisher:
Mariner Books
Location:
Boston :
Subject:
American
Subject:
Short Stories (Anthologies)
Subject:
Canadian fiction
Subject:
American - General
Subject:
Anthologies (multiple authors)
Subject:
Short stories, American
Subject:
American fiction (collections)
Subject:
American fiction
Subject:
Short stories, canadian
Subject:
Short stories
Subject:
Anthologies-General
Copyright:
Edition Description:
Trade Paper
Series:
Best American Short Stories
Series Volume:
192
Publication Date:
October 1999
Binding:
TRADE PAPER
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Pages:
448
Dimensions:
8.54x5.54x1.06 in. 1.24 lbs.

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The Best American Short Stories 1999 Used Trade Paper
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Product details 448 pages Houghton Mifflin Company - English 9780395926840 Reviews:
"Synopsis" by ,
In choosing this year's best American short stories, guest editor Amy Tan found herself drawn to fiction that satisfied her appetite for the magic and mystery she once loved as a child, when she was addicted to fairy tales. The result is a vibrant collection in which truth and fantasy coexist in new works by writers such as Rick Bass, Annie Proulx, Lorrie Moore, and Pam Houston, as well as in startlingly accomplished stories by new writers. The Best American Short Stories is the only volume that annually offers the finest works chosen by a distinguished best-selling author.
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