I feel disappointed, and the feeling is tenacious; it won’t go away; so rather than stew in my own juices and wait for it to pass, I have to write about it. Just to clarify, there are other disappointments and frustrations in my life right now, but what I am going to focus on in this essay is a book I have been reading.
I’ve been looking forward to reading it for a long time. When I was looking for “The Best American Short Stories 2015” on Amazon, this book came up in the search results as well. As of 2015, it’s a brand-new book that commemorates the 100th anniversary of the Best American Short Stories series. I’ve read several volumes in the series, and I’ve always found them a mixed bag: a few great stories, some good, some readable, and some unworthy. This book, though, I expected to be different. After all, it’s the best of the best; its contents include some of the greatest American short story writers. Interesting indeed. On my next trip to the Amazon physical bookstore here in Seattle, I took a look at the volume: a big impressive hardcover with over seven hundred pages of fiction. When I got home I ordered it from the online bookstore and waited anxiously for it to arrive.
I had my first foreboding while reading the introduction. First of all, it didn’t seek to provide more information about the stories and the authors and the evolution of short story writing in America, which I would have liked, but rather tried to define what a short story is in metaphorical or anecdotal terms. The introduction also warned that John Updike had recently edited a similar volume of a century of short stories and the editors of this volume had decided not to duplicate selections. That meant that any of the stories that Updike felt were the best of the best were automatically excluded from this volume.
Still, there should have been plenty of gems to choose from. We’re talking about one hundred years of literary effort, after all. Of course, only stories that made it into the Best American Short Story series were considered, and as the introductions to each decade of stories attest, the series was long edited by first one editor and then another who had decidedly singular, idiosyncratic opinions about what constituted the best in literature. This left out many stories, among them some of my personal favorites, that other editors would have selected as the best of various years.
So far I’ve only made it through the stories that represent the best of the years 1915 to 1950, and I have to say that most of them have been mediocre. A few have been good, notably “Those Are as Brothers” by Nancy Hale. One was unreadable, and I reluctantly skipped the rest after reading halfway through. The Hemingway and Faulkner stories were definitely not representative of their best work. The Fitzgerald story, “Babylon Revisited,” was all right, but he did better work too. Overall, my impression of the volume up to this point was the sort of reading experience you’d find in a textbook that you had to study for school, not something you’d read because you want to. This is what disappoints me. I really did expect more.
I think there’s a dynamic at work here that asks the question: For whom is a writer writing? Is it for a literary elite or is it for the mass of world readers? Many writers write for themselves, and that’s fine as far as it goes – and ultimately correct. Henry Miller once said he’d be happy with one true reader. Too often so-called literary works, though praised by reviewers, appeal only to a few people. That accounts for the rise of so-called genre fiction, which has a broader appeal. There’s room in the universe of books for both, but one – that is, literary fiction – appeals to a niche readership, whereas genre fiction has a much more diverse audience.
I want to keep reading, to give this book more of a chance. I know there are some good stories coming up. Maybe the problem is the evolution of style of modern short stories. Some of the older stories are simply slow and ponderous. As I was reading, I wondered why editors and readers of popular magazines would go for this sort of literary fare. I considered the stories of Jack London, which predate the stories in this volume, and how much more lively and exciting the best of them are. Some of Hemingway’s best stories, such as “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” have this vitality that makes a short story hard to put down, but nothing approaching the quality of these works appears in the early pages of this volume.
I like most of the writers and editors that I have corresponded with and met; I know that it’s not easy to work in a field that involves such a great amount of subjectivity. For this reason I hesitate to bring up the negative quality of books that I have read. In this I suppose I am unlike many reviewers whose caustic wit comprises the main substance of their reviews. I know that many people would disagree with my opinions and my analysis of this volume, and that’s fine. One person’s classic novel is another person’s recycled waste. That’s just the way it is. Don’t get me wrong, though – I am speaking generally. I’m not ready to give up on this volume yet. I will read on and let you know how the situation develops.
* * *
Update a week later: After 1950 the stories have a sharp upturn in quality. Stay tuned.