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The Best American Short Stories (Best American Short Stories) 2006by Ann Patchett
Introduction The short story is in need of a scandal.
The short story should proclaim itself to be based on actual events and then, after a series of fiery public denials, it should hold a press conference in Cannes and make a brave but faltering confession: None of it actually happened. It was fiction all along. Yes, despite whats been said, it has always been fiction and it is proud to be fiction. The short story should consider staging its own kidnapping and then show up three weeks later in The New Yorker claiming that some things happened that cannot be discussed. Or perhaps the short story could seek out the celebrity endorsement of someone we never expected, maybe Tiger Woods, who could claim that he couldnt imagine going out to the ninth hole without a story in his back pocket. They are just the right size for reading between rounds of golf. It doesnt really matter what the short story chooses to do, but it needs to do something. The story needs hype. It needs a publicist. Fast.
I can speak to the matter with great authority because Ive been reading a lot of short stories lately, and the very large majority of them have been shockingly good. They are better than the novels Ive been reading. They are more daring, more artful, and more original. Yet while I know plenty of people with whom I can discuss novels, there are only two people I know with whom I can swoon over short stories: Katrina Kenison (more on her later) and my friend Kevin Wilson, a young writer who reads literary magazines the way other people read pulpy spy novels, the kind of friend you can call in the middle of the night and ask, Have you read the latest issue of Tin House?” As valuable as these friendships have been to me, I am sorry to say they are not enough. Since I have recently given my life over to short stories I need to find a larger audience than two. I have the zeal of a religious convert. I want to stand in the airport passing out copies of One Story and The Agni Review. I want to talk to total strangers about plot and character and language, about what makes that Maxine Swann story so moving and the David Bezmozgis so surprising. How did that Kevin Moffett story manage to lull me into such a trance? Im more than willing to take the message to the people, but the short story is going to have to work with me here. It needs to be a little less demure.
The first thing the short story needs to think about is casting off the role of The Novels Little Sidekick, the practice run, the warm-up act. I was extolling the virtues of a particularly dazzling short story to an editor friend recently when she cut me off in mid-sentence, said she didnt want to hear it. Ill only fall in love,” she said bitterly, and then I wont be able to buy the book, and if I do buy the book I wont be able to sell it.” Short stories, it seems, are a dead-end romance in publishing. In the rare instance when a house finally does break down and buy a collection, the usual stipulation is that it must be followed by a novel, a.k.a. something that might sell. But must one think so far down the road as to how things will end? Love the short story for what it is, a handful of pages in a magazine. The short story isnt asking to be a collection, and it certainly isnt trying to pass itself off as a potential novel. Whos to say the short story writer has a novel in him? Is a sprinter accepted to the team on the condition that she will also run a marathon? Certainly many people do both, and some people do both well, but it always seems clear to me when a novelist has turned out a short story or a short story writer has stretched a piece into a novel. There are a handful of people who to my mind are equal in their talents, John Updike leading the list, but then John Updike could probably win a hundred-meter race as handily as he could run cross-country.
It was a genuine challenge to pick a mere twenty stories out of the more than one hundred twenty I received. I would have been happier turning in thirty or even forty, so many of them were excellent, and yet I know I couldnt put my hands on the twenty Best American Novels for 2006. So what accounts for so many successful stories? (Remembering, of course, that this is not actually a volume of the best short stories in America. These are just the stories that I like best, and I am full of prejudice and strong opinions. The genius of this series, and certainly the reason for its longevity, is that it relies on guest editors who arrive every year with all their own baggage about what constitutes a wonderful story, and as soon as they feel comfortable in their role as the arbiter of Best they are replaced by another writer who is equally sure of his or her own taste. Thats one thing you can say for writers — we know what we like when it comes to writing.) It could be that stories are easier to write than novels, but having taken a crack at both myself I am doubtful of this. I think it is more the case that short stories are expendable. Because they are smaller, the writer is simply more willing to learn from her mistakes and throw the bad ones and the only pretty good ones away. Knowing that something can be thrown away encourages more risk taking, which in turn usually leads to better writing. Its a sad thing to toss out a bad short story, but in the end it always comes as a relief. On the other hand, it takes a real nobility to dump the bad novel. The novel represents so much time that the writer often struggles valiantly to publish it even when it would be in everyones best interest to chalk it up to education and walk away. I know a lot of people who published the first novel they ever wrote. I can think of no one who published his first short story.
So why, if what Im telling you is true, and lets assume for the sake of this introduction that it is, arent more people running out to buy their copy of Harpers and turning directly from the index to the short story? Short stories are less expensive, often better written, and make fewer demands on our time. Why havent we made a deeper commitment to them? I am afraid it has something to do with the storys inability to cause a stir. As a novelist I would say I read well over the average number of novels (whatever that is) per year. It doesnt take much to get me to read something new. Ill pick up a novel based on a compelling review, the recommendation of a friend, even a particularly eye-catching cover. I troll the summer reading tables in bookstores to fill in the holes in my education. I am forever picking up something Ive always meant to read (Zenos Conscience is on the bedside table now waiting for me to finish writing this, and there is still so much Dickens). But everything I mean to read, and nearly everything I have read no matter how obscure, has had some means of catching my attention. The uncollected short story in its magazine or literary journal has nothing but the authors name and possibly a catchy title to flag you down. Only in its largest venues does a short story manage to score an illustration. It does not go out and get you. It waits for you. It waits and waits and waits.
Unless of course you have the brilliant good fortune to be chosen as the editor of The Best American Short Stories one year. Because while a single short story may have a difficult time raising enough noise on its own to be heard over the din of civilization, short stories in bulk can have the effect of swarming bees, blocking out sound and sun and becoming the only thing you can think about. So even though it goes against my nature to point out the ways in which I am luckier than you, I must say that in this case I am, unless you too have short stories mailed to your home. And even if you did have stories mailed to your home, you probably didnt get them from Katrina Kenison, and thats where my real advantage comes in. These arent just any short stories Ive been getting, the normal cross section of good and bad. These stories have been intelligently and lovingly culled from the vast sea of those that are published. Katrina does the part of this project that is work, hacking her way through all that is boring and poorly written in order to send me the gems. She reads everything so that I can read what is good, and I read everything that is good in order to put together everything that I think is best. Stories have been showing up on my doorstep in padded envelopes, a steady stream of fiction that I piled in strategic locations near bedsides and bathtubs and back doors. When you get enough short stories spread around the house, they gather a force of momentum. The more stories I read, the more I wanted to read stories, the more I recommended stories, the more the stories created their own hype simply by being so vast and varied and good. The stories offered me their companionship, each one a complete experience in a limited amount of time. No matter where I went, I did not mind waiting, seeing as how I was rich in stories. I went ahead and pulled into the endlessly long line at the touchless car wash on Sunday morning, took a story out of the glove compartment, and started reading. I was able to put other work aside in order to read because for this period of time short stories were my job. I did not have the smallest twinge of guilt about lying on the sofa for days at a time reading. Could there be anything better than that? I felt as if I had spent the year in one of those total-immersion language camps, and in the end I emerged fluent in the language of short fiction.
Of course I was no beginner. While I can trace the short story back to my earliest days as a reader, my true connection came when I was twelve years old, the year I read Eudora Weltys A Visit of Charity.” There had been other stories before this, stories I liked, The Necklace” and The Gift of the Magi,” the stock assignments that were the backbone of every junior high English class, but A Visit of Charity,” even though it was a story about a girl, seemed infinitely more grown-up to me. It didnt reward the reader with a plot twist at the end or present a clear moral imperative. Even more startling was the fact that this author, whose photograph and biographical paragraph preceded the text, had only one date after her name, 1909, and then a dash, and then nothing. Again and again I returned to that photograph to look at the long, gentle face of the author. She was both alive and in a textbook, a coupling I had never seen before. As sure as I was by the age of twelve that I wanted to be a writer, I was not at all sure that it was the sort of thing the living did. The short fiction market was cornered by dead people, and this Eudora Welty was, as far as I could tell, the first one to have broken the trend. I decided at the start of seventh grade to cast my lot with the living and chose Eudora Welty as my favorite writer, a decision that has served me well ever since. Four years later I was sixteen when Miss Welty came to Vanderbilt to give a reading, and I got there early and sat in the front row holding my big, hardback Collected Short Stories of Eudora Welty, which my mother had bought me for my birthday that year. It was the first reading I had ever been to, and when it was over I had her sign my book. I held it open to the wrong page, and she looked at me, and said, No, no, dear. You always want to sign on the title page.” And she took the book from me and did it right. For the sheer force of its heart-stopping, life-changing wonder, I will put this experience up against that of anyone who ever saw the Beatles.
The short story has made some progress since the dark ages of the middle seventies, and I do believe that the living are now taking up their fair number of pages beside Hemingway and Faulkner. With Alice Munro leading the way, a case could be made that we are living in the golden age of the short story this very minute. A golden age there for the taking.
The impressions we pick up as children, when our minds are still open to influence and as soft as damp sponges, are likely to stay with us the longest. Ever since I saw that picture of Eudora Welty alive and well in my seventh-grade reader, I havent been able to shake the notion that short story writers are famous people and that short stories are life-altering things. I believe it is human nature to try and persuade others that our most passionately held beliefs are true so that they too can know the joy of our deepest convictions. I was standing in my kitchen fixing breakfast the morning I heard on the radio that Eudora Welty had died. It was July 2001, and I remember that the room was full of light. I called my good friend Barry Moser, the illustrator who had worked with Miss Welty on that most memorable edition of The Robber Bridegroom, and told him I was going to the funeral. He said he would meet me there.
I spent that night in Meridian, Mississippi, with my mother-in-law, and in the morning I made the short trip to Jackson. There was a rainstorm on the way that made the last leg a harrowing drive, but just as I got to town the weather cleared and cooled. I picked up Barry and his wife, Emily, and the three of us went to the church together a full two hours before the service was scheduled to begin. We went that early because we were certain it was the only way we would ever get a seat. I expected people to be waiting in the streets. I was ready to stand in the street myself, but we were the first ones to arrive. And while the church was full, in the end there were still a few empty seats around the edges. The coffin seemed tiny to me, but then Miss Welty had been growing shorter over the years. There were plenty of stories about her being barely able to see over the steering wheel of her car.
If you have ever been to Mississippi in July, you will know there is no reprieve from the heat, and yet on this particular day the rain, which under normal circumstances only makes the situation worse, had somehow made it better. When we went to the graveside it was no more than seventy-five degrees, and thus the closest thing to divine intervention I have ever experienced. When the hero of my life was buried, I had a discreet cry among friends standing in the cemetery. A woman approached me and introduced herself as Mary Alice Welty White. I knew her, of course. My beloved collected stories was dedicated to her and her sister, Elizabeth Welty Thompson. I had seen her name every time I opened the book. Mary Alice Welty White asked me my name. She asked me if I was a friend of her aunts, and I said I was not. I told her I was a great admirer and had come to pay my respects. Then she asked me where I was from.
She took my arm. Theres someone I want you to meet.” We took small steps. The ground was soft, and we were both wearing heels. She led me to the line of cars that had driven over to the cemetery and to a group of teenaged boys who were leaning up against those cars. Their ties were loose, and their jackets were off. They were ready to get out of there.
She introduced me to one of the young men. He didnt seem as if he would have been especially interested to meet anyone. This is Ann Patchett,” Mary Alice Welty White told him. She drove all the way from Nashville to come to your aunt Dodos funeral. She didnt even know her, and she drove all this way. Thats how important your aunt Dodo was.” The boy and I exchanged an awkward how-do-you-do and shook hands. Mary Alice thanked me for coming.
Even at the funeral of the greatest short story writer of our time, a member of her own family needed to be reminded of her standing. The short story never was one for calling a lot of attention to itself, but in the face of so much brilliance I think its time we started paying our respects.
The Best American Short Stories is the short story Olympics. It is the short storys moment in the sun. I am grateful to Houghton Mifflin and to Katrina Kenison for making sure that at least once a year we put them front and center where they belong. As for their arrangement in this volume, I am partial to the democratization of the alphabet.
It seems to me the fairest way to line things up. However, this year the alphabet put Ann Beattie at the front of the line, and while she certainly deserves to be there as a writer, her story, which is not exactly a story but maybe some sort of novella, performance piece, massive example of creativity and nonconforming genius, seemed like the weight the book needed at the back end. By reversing the alphabet, Paul Yoons beautiful story Once the Shore,” which is the first story he published and the first story I picked for this collection, floated effortlessly up to the front. When I was a girl in Catholic school, the nuns were forever doing that to us, getting everyone in a line and then making us reverse our places so that the first should be last and the last should be first. It seems like a good lesson for the short story. Enough with the humility. Move to the front of the line.
Copyright © 2006 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Introduction copyright © 2006 by Ann Patchett. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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