Book Review: The Best American Short Stories 2010 edited by Richard Russo

I’m going to let you in on a little secret of how I choose what I am going to read.  I knew I wanted to read a recent volume of “The Best American Short Stories”, just to get an idea of what others thought were best.  I have my own opinions and they are not really influenced by those of others, but I am a short story writer and like to keep my finger on the pulse of the national game.  So how did I choose which volume to buy?  Two considerations.  First, I checked out the editors.  That way I narrowed it down to two choices.  Then, I considered price.  This one was on special.  Nothing more complicated than that.

As I have found with most anthologies, whether they specialize in literary fiction like this one does, or whether they specialize in science fiction and fantasy, usually I like a few stories very much, I like some a little, some are so-so, and some I wonder how the hell the editor decided they were worthy of a volume that presumes to represent the best of the year.  Of course they are not the best of the year; they are best of the year in the opinion of the two editors of this volume.

One thing that bothered me was how exclusive the editors are.  They consider stories from literary journals, no matter how obscure, but do not give the same respect to genre journals, magazines, and anthologies, many of whose stories are far more interesting and well told than some of the stories herein.  This is an old story and an old problem, and one not likely to be remedied soon.  Interestingly enough though, two of the best stories in this volume, including the one I think is the very best, “The Netherlands Lives with Water” by Jim Shepard, are science fiction stories.  This story and “Raw Water” by Wells Tower, were both commissioned by McSweeney’s Magazine for a special edition with stories based in the year 2025.  Both, oddly enough, deal with global warming and rising sea levels, though the focus is on characterization, which should be true for any decent short story.  If these stories had appeared in science fiction magazines exactly as they are, they would not even be considered for this anthology, let alone chosen.  Yes, there is much unfairness in the world of literature, but this problem is not likely to be soon resolved.

Other good stories in this volume include, “Delicate Edible Birds” by Lauren Groff, a gripping tale set during World War II; “Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched” by Steve Almond, about a gambling addict who meets his match; and “The Laugh” by Tea Obreht, a chilling story of some people in a safari lodge being stalked by hyenas.  The very best stories, I noticed, at least those that appeal to me, are those which have a plot, a beginning, middle, and end, and do not just ramble on in some sort of obscure “character study” with no point, which some stories are guilty of doing.  I don’t mind if the writer experiments with style or person or point of view; I don’t mind Conradian story frames or flashbacks or flash-forwards; what I require is a story somewhere there in the mix.  Some of these delivered, and some did not.

As I said, I don’t expect all the stories in an anthology to be good.  Enough of these were, though, to recommend the anthology.  Who knows?  You might like completely different stories than I did.  Perhaps the ones I thought were the best you might find the most deficient.  You are entitled to your opinion.  But I speak from a writer’s perspective as well as a reader’s, and this is how it seemed to me.

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