Book Review: Best American Short Stories 2017 Edited by Meg Wolitzer and Heidi Pitlor

I look forward to reading best short stories of the year collections because I don’t have time to seek out and read all these stories otherwise. I always read them hoping that as a short story writer, apart from the entertainment value, I can glean some helpful tips on style and language use. I also tend to wonder how these stories manage to pass the gatekeepers and get published while numerous others, also probably excellent, do not.

The stories in this collection are all at least readable. In the past, stories in some collections were so boring that, despite my reluctance to do so, I had to skip over them. None of these, though. I read them all through and through and had no major problems with any of them. With the collection as a whole, yes. But not any of the individual stories.

The best in the bunch, interestingly enough, are genre stories. One, called “Are We Not Men?” by T.C. Boyle, is a science fiction tale on the effects of extreme genetic enhancements on suburban America. Since the same publishers have another volume devoted to the best science fiction of the year, I kind of wonder why this story didn’t qualify for that anthology. Another, called “Telemachus” by Jim Shepard, is a historical adventure set during World War II. Other interesting stories are set in Cuba and in India, but many of the rest have a sort of blandness to them. In saying this, I don’t mean to demean the authors or even the editors. The stories are fine, well-written tales on interesting topics. When I speak of blandness, I am referring to the social milieus of the characters. Most of them are from the middle or upper class, have plenty of money and good jobs, and face no real life and death crises. Their difficulties are personal and internal or deal with material things or their jobs. Again, nothing wrong with this, and I don’t fault the authors or even the editors. I think the problem runs deeper.

I have written about this before, in fact, in my essay “The Egregious Practice of Charging Reading Fees.” More and more literary magazines are adopting the practice of charging writers fees to submit their stories. In effect, they’re constructing a pay wall to keep out disadvantaged writers. There’s a list of magazines in the back of the book that the editors culled their selections from, and from my own research I figure that well over fifty percent demand money from writers before they’ll read their work. The figure might even be more like eighty or ninety percent by now. They’re probably not doing this intentionally. They’re probably struggling to support their magazines and figure that culling money from writers is a good financing ploy. What they don’t realize is that they’re slamming their doors on writers that can’t afford to pay them. This is most likely to be, of course, those from the lower class, those who struggle to make ends meet, those on welfare, those who live in slum-like conditions, minorities, the desperate, the homeless, and single parents like me. I can’t afford to pay three to five dollars or more for every story I send out. I just can’t. I have a child to support. I barely make the rent and bills each month. And so you cut all these people out, and what are you left with? A certain blandness of content because you’re leaving out most of the population of the world. This is wrong – so wrong. If there are gatekeepers at the doorways of artistic expression, they should not require money payments as the price of admission. It would take me too long to give you a list of writers who began in poverty who never would have been able to pay such fees. As I remember, I give some examples in the essay I mention above.

So that’s the main problem with this collection. Many of the most desperate artistic voices in America are excluded because they can’t afford the entry fees. I hope these magazine editors wake up and start getting their money from readers instead of writers again. That’s one reason why genres like science fiction and fantasy are so vibrant and lively. The magazines and anthologies with open submission calls are free, all-inclusive and do not discriminate against the disadvantaged. If this dreadful practice of charging reading fees is abolished, it’s probable we’ll get much more diversity and life in contemporary short stories.

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