Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Best American Short Stories 20120 edited by Richard Russo

One of my favorite annual publications is the Best American Series, edited by Heidi Pitlor. In addition to fiction, the series also includes the best comics, essays, mystery stories, non-required reading, science and nature, sports, and travel. Each volume has a different guest editor, and the 2010 editor was Richard Russo, one of my favorite authors.

In his magnificent introduction, Russo discusses the purpose of literature. He writes, “The writer’s real job is not to court the affection of readers but to force them to confront hard truths” (xv). Furthermore, the artist “desires to show people a good time” and “comes to us bearing a gift he hopes will please us.” The writer “starts out making the thing for himself, perhaps, but at some point …realizes he [or she] wants to share it, which is why [an author] spends long hours reshaping the thing, lovingly honing its details in the hopes it will please us, that it will be a gift worth the giving and the receiving” (xv).

He goes on to say that writers and readers understand “how wonderful it is to lose the “self” in a story so that … for a time, the reader’s life, troubles … none of it matters” (xv).

These twenty stories fulfill that mission splendidly. The finest magazines publishing fiction today are well represented: The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Tin House, The Paris Review, and Ploughshares among others.

Some well-known authors, but just as many gems by new and young writers have found their way into this prestigious collection. Charles Baxter, author of Feast of Love, Jennifer Egan, author of the critically acclaimed Visit from the Goon Squad, Jill McCorkle, who write, Going Away Shoes, and Téa Obrecht, who wrote The Tiger’s Wife. Most of the authors in the volume teach at some of the finest writing programs in America today.

The advantage of this series comes in the form of exposure to the reader of many new and established writers in a wide variety of styles.

As an example, my favorite story from the collection is “The Cousins,” by Charles Baxter. Baxter received the Award of Merit for the Short Story by the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2007. In the story, Brantford is the ne’er-do-well younger cousin of Benjamin, or “Bunny” as Brantford calls him. Like all of Baxter’s work, the prose is sparkling and wonderfully phrased. Benjamin, the narrator, travels from party to party and from one relative’s house to another. He engages people in conversations which usually end badly. He approaches a “famous poet” but cannot ask him about his play. Benjamin pontificates about Yeats and Eliot, and the poet interrupts him with a vulgar insult as if from an “Old Testament style prophet” (49). This conflict between writer and reader hangs like a shadow over Benjamin.

The volume concludes with a handy list of U.S. and Canadian magazines publishing short stories. This annual series is a real treasure for anyone who loves the art of the short story. 5 stars

--Chiron, 5/19/12

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