Book Review: Best American Short Stories of the Century Edited by John Updike and Katrina Kenison

I picked this book up at a library sale. It was published in 1999 and represents the opinions of the two editors on which stories are the best from the yearly volumes of The Best American Short Stories from 1915 until 1999. Updike added other restrictions, as he explains in his introduction; among them is the stipulation that he would only include stories with North American characters that take place in the United States or Canada. I’m not sure why he insisted on Americans only, but I am sure that the restrictions on source material and content make it impossible for this book to really contain the best of the century. What about all the non-American authors? What about all the stories that take place elsewhere in the world by American writers? Anyway, it is what it is, and even within those self-imposed boundaries, great fiction was undoubtedly produced in the twentieth century. My question as I read most of the stories in this volume, however, was: where is it?

In short, I found most of the selections in this book to be tedious and boring – the type of stories you find as obligatory reads in high school literature classes. I hesitate to make such a negative statement and assessment. I admire many of the writers whose works are herein represented. Furthermore, I usually refrain from writing negative comments in my reviews. In the past, I have skipped writing reviews rather than trash a book. Here I make an exception because of several lessons we can draw from the material.

As I mentioned, I have read numerous stories from many of the writers in this volume, and I know that they are for the most part capable of much better work. For instance, instead of choosing “The Killers” by Ernest Hemingway, which seems the constant go-to favorite for anthologists, it would have been more compelling and exciting to include “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” a wonderful reflection on the writer’s life. Isaac Bashevis Singer’s story “The Key” is okay, but “Gimpel the Fool” is much more entertaining and fun. Apart from the mystery story “A Jury of Her Peers” from way back in 1917, Updike includes no short stories that could be called genre material at all: no other mysteries and no science fiction, fantasy or magic realism. This excludes some of the finest short fiction produced anywhere ever. In fact, even now, it is genre fiction that is keeping the short story alive and thriving. Many of the best literary magazines routinely include science fiction and fantasy, and many of the middle-tier literary magazines are failing. This is in part, I think, due to their practice of charging authors reading fees before they will even consider their work, effectively stifling voices that cannot afford to pay editors for a chance to be heard. I write about this at length in the essay The Egregious Practice of Charging Reading Fees, which first appeared on the website of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and is now available on this blog.

Once I start reading, I almost never skip over parts of a book or set it down without finishing it. Sad to say, I couldn’t finish this book. First I found myself skipping stories after a page or two of inaction, but I kept on through hundreds more pages, giving each story a try. There were a few noticeable shining lights – brilliant flashes in the midst of mediocrity – but at about six hundred out of eight hundred pages, I finally gave up and moved on to something else. And I love short stories. I go out of my way to seek out short story collections. I guess the editors’ tastes simply didn’t jibe with mine.

I read a similar volume a couple of years ago: 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories Edited by Lorrie Moore and Heidi Pitlor. I wrote a series of three reviews about that volume, which you can find here, here, and here. In reading back over those reviews, I notice that in the first part, I raise several of the objections that I have also brought up here about the boredom, the similarity to obligatory school assignments, and the editors not selecting the best of the writers’ work. Unlike The Best American Short Stories of the Century, 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories ends exceedingly strong. Part of the reason may be that the volume carries on fifteen more years until 2015, but I think that the main reason is that it has much more diversity in it. The later sections of the book have stories by immigrant and ethnic writers such as Junot Diaz, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Jamaica Kincaid. Additionally, it even contains a wonderful science fiction tale by George Saunders. In other words, it ventures into important territories that Updike’s volume completely ignores.

In conclusion, I have to say that I cannot recommend this book. Even the yearly Best American Short Stories volumes offer much more diversity, excitement, and fun. For a few years now I’ve been reading these as they appear in midyear, and they tend to have a good mix of exotic settings, science fiction, and fantasy as well as stories set on American soil and entrenched in American culture. It’s up to you, and it’s all a matter of taste, but if I were you, I would look elsewhere for my short story reading material.

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