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The Best American Short Stories 2007

by and

The Best American Short Stories 2007 Cover

 

 

Excerpt

Introduction

The American short story is alive and well.

Do you like the sound of that? Me too. I only wish it were actually true. The art form is still alive — that I can testify to; I read hundreds of stories between December 2005 (when the first issues of 06 periodicals came out) and January 2007, and a great many of them were good stories. Some were very good. And some — you will find them in this book — seemed to touch greatness. Or so I felt, and in most cases Heidi Pitlor, my excellent coeditor, felt so too. But well? Thats a different story.

I came by my hundreds — which now overflow several cardboard boxes known collectively as THE STASH — in a number of different ways. A few were recommended by writers and personal friends. A few more I downloaded from the Internet. Large batches were sent to me on a regular basis by the excellent Ms. Pitlor, probably the only person in America who read more short stories than I did in 2006 (in addition to reading all those stories, The Amazing Heidi also published a novel and gave birth to twins: a productive year by anyones standards). But Ive never been content to stay on the reservation, and so I also read a great many stories in magazines I bought myself, at bookstores and newsstands in Florida and Maine, the two places where I spend most of the year.

I want to begin by telling you about a typical short-story-hunting expedition at my favorite Sarasota mega-bookstore. Bear with me; theres a point to this.

I go in because its just about time for the new issues of Tin House and Zoetrope: All-Story, two Best American mainstays over the years. I dont expect a new Glimmer Train, but it wouldnt surprise me to find one. There will certainly be a new issue of The New Yorker — thats the fabled automatic — and perhaps Harpers Magazine. No need to check out Atlantic Monthly; its editors now settle for publishing their own selections of fiction once a year and criticizing everyone elses the rest of the time. Jokes about eunuchs in the bordello come to mind, but I will suppress them. (And besides, the one fiction issue that Atlantic does publish is richly represented here.) So into the bookstore I go, and what do I see first? A table filled with best-selling hardcover fiction at prices ranging from 20 to 40 percent off. James Patterson is represented, as is Danielle Steel, as is your faithful correspondent. Most of this stuff is disposable, but its right up front, where it hits you in the eye as soon as you come in, and why? Because money talks and bullshit walks. These are the moneymakers and rent payers; these are the glamour ponies.

Bullshit — in this case that would be me — walks past the bestsellers, past trade paperbacks with titles like Who Stole My Chicken?, The Get-Rich Secret, and Be a Big Cheese Now, past the mysteries, past the auto repair manuals, past the remaindered coffee-table books (looking sad and thumbed-through with their red discount priced stickers). I arrive at the Wall of Magazines, which is next door to the childrens section. Over there, Story Time is in full swing. I sort of expect to hear “Once upon a time there was a poor little girl who wanted to be a pop singer,” but Goldilocks is still dealing with the Three Bears rather than prepping for American Idol. At least this year.

Meanwhile, I stare at the racks of magazines, and the racks of magazines stare eagerly back. Celebrities in gowns and tuxes, models in lo- rise jeans, luxy stereo equipment, talk-show hosts with cant-miss diet plans — they all scream Buy me, buy me! Take me home and Ill change your life! Ill light it up!

I can grab The New Yorker and Harpers Magazine while Im still standing up. Theres that, at least, although New Yorker fiction is almost always at the back of the book, hiding in the shadow of an Anthony Lane movie review, and the Harpers short story will be printed in type so small that by the time I finish it, Ill feel like my eyeballs have been sucked halfway out of their sockets. Still, I can make these selections without going to my knees like a school janitor trying to scrape a particularly stubborn wad of gum off the gym floor.

For the rest of what I need to complete this months reading, I must assume exactly that position. I hope the young woman browsing Modern Bride wont think Im trying to look up her skirt. I hope the young man trying to decide between Starlog and Fangoria wont step on me. I also hope some toddler bored with Story Time wont decide I want to play horsie and climb aboard.

So hoping, I crawl along the magazine sections last display module, making my selections from the lowest shelf, where neatness alone suggests few ever go. And here I find fresh treasure: not just Zoetrope and Tin House (both with wonderful covers those browsers unwilling to assume the position — or incapable ooooof it — will never see) but also Five Points and The Kenyon Review. No Glimmer Train, but theres American Short Fiction . . . The Iowa Review . . . even an Alaska Quarterly Review. I stagger to my feet (the prospective modern bride gives me a suspicious look) and limp toward the checkout, clutching my trove and reaching for my wallet. I will gladly take my Frequent Shopper discount; the total cost of my six magazines runs to over eighty dollars. There are no discounts in the magazine section.

So think of me crawling along the floor of this big chain stores magazine section with my ass in the air and my nose to the carpet in order to secure that months budget of short stories, and then ask yourself whats wrong with this picture. A better question — if youre someone who cares about fiction, that is — what could possibly be right with it?

Well . . . the magazines were there, at least. Theres that.

We could argue all day about the reasons for fictions out- migration from the eye-level shelves — people have. We could hold symposia, have panel discussions — people have done that too. We could marvel over the fact that Britney Spears has become a cultural icon, available at every checkout, while an American talent like William Gay labors in relative obscurity. We could, but lets not. Its almost beside the point, and besides — it hurts.

Instead, let us consider what the bottom shelf does to creative writers — especially the young ones, who are well represented in this volume — who still care, sometimes passionately, about the short story. What happens to a writer when he or she realizes that his or her audience is shrinking almost daily? Well, if the writer is worth his or her salt, he or she continues on nevertheless — be- cause its what God or genetics (possibly they are the same) has decreed, or out of sheer stubbornness, or maybe because its such a kick to spin tales. Possibly a combination. And all thats good.

Whats not so good is that writers — even those who claim to spurn Shakespeares bubble reputation — write for whatever audience is left. In too many cases, that audience happens to consist of other writers and would-be writers who are reading the various literary magazines (and The New Yorker, of course; the holy grail of the young fiction writer) not to be entertained but to get an idea of what sells there. And this kind of reading isnt real reading, the kind where you just cant wait to find out what happens next (think “Youth,” by Joseph Conrad, or “Big Blonde,” by Dorothy Parker). Its more like copping-a-feel reading. Theres something ucky about it.

In 2006 I read scores of stories that felt . . . not quite dead on the page, I wont go that far, but airless, somehow, and self-referring. These stories felt show-offy rather than entertaining, self-important rather than interesting, guarded and self-conscious rather than gloriously open, and — worst of all — written for editors and teachers rather than for readers. The chief reason for all this, I think, is that bottom shelf. Its tough for writers to write (and editors to edit) when faced with a shrinking audience of readers-for- pure-pleasure. Once, in the days of the old Saturday Evening Post, short fiction was a stadium act; now it can barely fill a coffeehouse on Saturday night, and often performs in the company of nothing more than an acoustic guitar and a mouth organ. I read dozens of short stories that felt airless, and why not? When circulation — to use a word particularly apropos when discussing magazines — falters, the air in the room gets stale.

And yet.

I read plenty of kick-ass stories this year. There isnt a single one in this book (or in the Roll of Honor at the end) that didnt delight me, that didnt make me want to crow “Oh man, you gotta read this!” to someone (last year that someone was Heidi Pitlor; this year its you). I knew it would be that way. Thats why I took the job. Talent does more than come out; it bursts out, again and again, doing exuberant cartwheels while the band plays “Stars and Stripes Forever.” I think of such disparate stories as Karen Russells “St. Lucys Home for Girls Raised by Wolves,” John Barths “Toga Party,” and “Wake,” by the late Beverly Jensen, and I think — marvel, really — They PAID me to read these! Are you KIDDIN me???

Talent cant help itself; it roars along in fair weather or foul, not sparing the fireworks. It gets emotional. It struts its stuff. In fact, thats its job. And if these stories have anything in common — anything that made them uniquely my Best American stories — its that sense of emotional involvement, of flipped-out amazement. I look for stories that care about my feelings as well as my intellect, and when I find one that is all-out emotionally assaultive — like “Sans Farine,” by Jim Shepard — I grab that baby and hold on tight. Do I want something that appeals to my critical nose? Maybe later (and, I admit it, maybe never). What I want to start with is something that comes at me full-bore, like a big hot meteor screaming down from the Kansas sky. I want the ancient pleasure that probably goes back to the cave: to be blown clean out of myself for a while, as violently as a fighter pilot who pushes the eject button in his F-111. I certainly dont want some fraidy-cats writing school imitation of Faulkner, or some stream-of-consciousness bullshit about what Bob Dylan once called “the true meaning of a peach.” So — American short story alive? Check.

American short story well? Sorry, no, cant say so. Current condition stable, but apt to deteriorate in the years ahead.

Measures to be taken? I would suggest you start by reading these stories, part of a series that is still popular and discussed. They show how vital short stories can be when they are done with heart, mind, and soul by people who care about them and think they still matter. They do still matter, and here they are, liberated from the bottom shelf.

Stephen King

Copyright © 2007 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Introduction copyright © 2007 by Stephen King. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

What Our Readers Are Saying

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arose4454, November 9, 2008 (view all comments by arose4454)
Don't let this book get away from you. There is a gem within its pages called, The Bris. This short story is my 2008 best pick read of the entire year. I have reread this short story a dozen times this year and each time I am left stunned. It is a love story between a son and his father that surpasses love's boundaries. It is written with such clarity and smoothness it is a treat to read. It is a keeper. I will read this story every year for the rest of my life. As a father and a son I only hope I can love this well.
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Product Details

ISBN:
9780618713486
Author:
Stephen King and Heidi Pitlor
Publisher:
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH)
Selected by:
King, Stephen
Selected by:
Pitlor, Heidi
Selected:
Pitlor, Heidi
Selected:
King, Stephen
Introduction by:
King, Stephen
Introduction:
King, Stephen
Editor:
King, Stephen
Editor:
Pitlor, Heidi
Editor:
Pitlor, Heidi; King, Stephen
Author:
King, Stephen
Author:
Brooks, Geraldine
Author:
Pitlor, Heidi
Subject:
Anthologies (multiple authors)
Subject:
American fiction
Subject:
Short stories, American
Subject:
Short stories, canadian
Subject:
Anthologies-General
Copyright:
Edition Description:
Trade Paper
Series:
Best American R
Publication Date:
20071031
Binding:
TRADE PAPER
Language:
English
Pages:
448
Dimensions:
8.25 x 5.5 in 9.99 lb

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The Best American Short Stories 2007 Used Trade Paper
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Product details 448 pages Houghton Mifflin Company - English 9780618713486 Reviews:
"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "King admits in his introduction that he prefers 'all-out emotionally assaultive' stories to those that might appeal to his 'critical nose.' Yet King's selections are right at home among those of recent BASS editors Lorrie Moore, Michael Chabon and Walter Mosley: John Barth's darkly comic take on aging and mortality; a child's unforgiving view of her alcoholic parent from T.C. Boyle; an exploration of the grief of a crystal meth addict by William Gay (a writer King notes is a relatively obscure 'American talent'); Lauren Groff's piece about a polio survivor learning to swim during the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic (based loosely on real-life Olympian Ethelda Bleibtrey); Roy Kesey's imagining of an airport terminal as microcosm of global politics; and Karen Russell's halfway house for the human children of werewolves ('their condition skips a generation'). Stories drawing on horror and on Maine add a personal King touch to this year's cull of 20, taken from among the 4,000 that series editor Pitlor read last year in periodicals. The book reflects the variety of substance and style and the consistent quality that readers have come to expect from the series, now in its 30th year." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Review" by , "This magnificent array should reawaken interest in the American short story."
"Review" by , "[N]oteworthy are Richard Russo's 'Horseman,' an intriguing campus story that's asubtle illustration of the saying that good teachers teach themselves, and Joseph Epstein's 'My Brother Eli,' a juicy if superficial portrait of the artist (a thinly disguised Saul Bellow) as a bastard."
"Review" by , "Flavor-filled, literate, and textually complex...a heady treat for lovers of short fiction."
"Review" by , "If you buy one book this year, [you will] ensure a little bang for your buck with this journey through the vibrant worlds of twenty authors."
"Review" by , "A short-fiction juggernaut."
"Synopsis" by ,
Edited by the award-winning, best-selling author Geraldine Brooks, this years collection will be another "sure bet for gripping, emotional challenging reading" (San Diego Union-Tribune). With Brooks picking the best of the best, Americas oldest and best-selling story anthology is sure to satisfy this year.
"Synopsis" by , Pop-culture icon Stephen King serves as the guest editor of this popular anthology, which includes such contributors as Richard Russo, John Barth, Jim Shepard, Alice Munro, William Gay, and Mary Gordon.
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