My motivation for reading this book was the same one I had for reading the recent collection of best science fiction stories edited by Gardner Dozois: I write and submit to the magazines, so I wanted to be familiar with what was considered the best in the field. I have to admit that I write and publish a lot more of what is considered science fiction and fantasy (for those who must categorize such things)than what is referred to as mainstream fiction. As yet I have sold but one story to a literary magazine. But I submit to such mags and I was curious. I chose the anthology edited by Stephen King because I trust the man’s judgment. His book “On Writing” is one of the most brilliant on the craft that I have ever read. I don’t agree with everything therein, but so what? King is an expert and a success at what he does by anyone’s standards, and his advice is worth heeding.
In my review of the Dozois collection I said that overall I was disappointed in the quality of the stories. I was not so disappointed in this collection, but I believe that part of the reason at least was that my expectation was not so high. As in the other collection, there were some duds, some so-so stories, and some that shone. But it seems to me that the three or four real duds were even worse than the mediocre science fiction stories because they had nothing to commend them, not even a sense of wonder; they were boring, flat, lifeless. The so-so stories were okay to read but okay to not have read. But the best stories in the collection, the ones that shone, the ones that left me with a WOW feeling – I have to say that these stories impressed me more than the best stories in the science fiction collection. Perhaps it was because they spoke of real things happening to real people and there was more emotional resonance, but I don’t think that was it, at least not completely. They were just brilliant stories. In fact, there were a few fantasies in this collection, but to my mind they fell into the mediocre category. No, the stories that touched me did so because they were great stories, and I wish that literature were not so boxed in according to genre – that literary magazines would accept more science fiction and fantasy, and that genre magazines would accept more stories that didn’t rely so much on quick-start action adventure but slow-paced character buildup.
Anyway, to give credit where it is due, these are the stories in the collection I enjoyed most: “Toga Party” by John Barth; “Balto” by T. C. Boyle; “My Brother Eli” by Joseph Epstein; “L. DeBard and Aliette: A Love Story” by Lauren Groff; “Wake” by Beverly Jensen; “The Bris” by Eileen Pollack; and “Horseman” by Richard Russo. That’s in alphabetical order, not order of quality.
Would I recommend this book? Sure, why not? Overall it was a good read, and even the so-so stories – even the duds for that matter – had their moments.
As a bonus, at the end, there are brief paragraphs about the authors, and also author’s comments on each of the stories. I gleaned a few gems from there too. For example, the Groff story was pulled out of the slush pile of “The Atlantic Monthly” and it is one of her first published stories. The Jensen story was published posthumously, the first of several sent out by friends after her death. Little snippets of reality like these encourage struggling writers like me; they tell me that each and every published piece of work has a history and a human heart behind it, and that none are merely cogs in a great publishing machine.