Book Review: The Best American Short Stories 2015 Edited by T.C. Boyle and Heidi Pitlor; Part Two: Imbalance in Story Anthologies

Today is Sunday, and I do laundry for my son and myself on Sundays.  I make sure that I am in the laundry room with our two loads at eight o’clock in the morning, which is the earliest permissible time according to the rules of the apartment complex, so that I can get it started before other people start coming and commandeering the machines.  The washing machines are old and do not always work well.  If you overload them only a little, the cycle stops before the final spin, and when you open the door, you find a soggy mess of clothes that you either have to divide in half and wash again or run through two turns in the dryer.  The problem, say the instructions on the wall, is imbalance.  If you put too many clothes in or too many bulky items, the machine can’t spin properly because it is imbalanced.

Why am I digressing into this fascinating description of our Sunday laundry habits, besides the fact that I am even now typing this while waiting for our loads to finish?  Because I am just completing the reading of “The Best American Short Stories 2015” edited by T.C. Boyle and Heidi Pitlor, and one of the biggest problems of the anthology is its imbalance.  One of the editors made the decision that, instead of taking the trouble to balance the stories throughout the anthology according to subject matter, theme, style, length, and so on, that it would be easier to place them alphabetically according to the authors’ last names.  That may work sometimes, but it doesn’t work in this collection.  What they ended up with is a string of abstract, mediocre stories all in a row, then a number of decent ones.  It just doesn’t work that way.  The first part of the anthology is weak, and I began to wonder, as I read, if 2015 was a very bad year for short stories, or if perhaps the selection process this year was amiss.  As I read on, though, I realized that for the most part the stories in this anthology were not better or worse than the stories in other similar anthologies, but that they were just badly placed.  You have to get halfway through the book before you start to hit the truly superlative stories.

Although it’s been decades since I’ve read the book, I recall that in one of the extensive introductions to the stories in “Dangerous Visions,” Harlan Ellison explains that he puts the strongest stories in a collection at the beginning and the end: at the beginning to draw readers in, and at the end to close with a flourish and make the book unforgettable.  This is sound advice.  To leave the thematic balance of a collection of otherwise unrelated stories up to chance does not seem like a wise alternative.  You might hit it, but then again, you might not.  The editors might argue that it doesn’t matter because all the stories are equally brilliant, but that’s never so.  As I explained in the previous essay, best of the year collections, just like any other anthologies of short stories, are made up of subjective choices of only a few editors, unless they happen to be awards anthologies in which the stories are decided upon by the ballots of a large number of eligible voters.

There was another problem with a number of the stories in this collection.  Nothing happens.  There is no dynamism, no activity.  Although a focus on reality in a story is fine, that reality has to absorb and involve the reader in some way.  Several stories here fail to do that.  This is one reason I am more often drawn to speculative fiction rather than so-called mainstream fiction, because many mainstream writers seem to have no imagination.  Maybe what should happen is the dissolution of all genre distinctions.  Best of the year anthologies should contain the best stories written regardless of their subject matter.  Indeed, even in this anthology, one of the better stories is a near-future science fiction tale that somehow escaped “The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2015” and wound up here instead.  Recent best of the year anthologies in this series have typically contained several science fiction and fantasy stories, but now that the publishers have begun a series composed exclusively of science fiction and fantasy, I wonder if the mainstream best of the year collection will be weakened.  It certainly seems to have happened this time.  If the trend continues, I may look elsewhere for my dose of yearly mainstream short stories.

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