Friday, November 09, 2007

Best American Short Stories 2007, edited by Stephen King

Short stories are hot right now. Or rather, talking about short stories, specifically their commercial and artistic viability, is hot. For SF/F fans, this is a familiar discussion. Perhaps because of the greater importance that short fiction enjoys within these genres, discussions of the future, or lack thereof, the the print SF magazines and the form they peddle are a semi-annual tradition within the community. The most recent iteration (sparked by Warren Ellis noting that the circulation figures of the 'big three' SF/F magazines have once again dropped, though as usual the debate has ranged all over the SF litblogosphere), however, came shortly after a analogous debate was sparked in literary fiction circles. Lighting the fuse on the powder keg was Stephen King, guest editor of this year's entry in the Best American Short Stories series. In his introduction to the collection (reprinted in the New York Times in a somewhat reduced form on September 30th), King lamented that literary magazines were increasingly being relegated to 'the bottom shelf' of most bookstores' magazine racks (that's if they're even in the store to being with) wondered what effect short fiction's loss of popularity has had on the final product:
What’s not so good is that writers write for whatever audience is left. In too many cases, that audience happens to consist of other writers and would-be writers who are reading the various literary magazines (and The New Yorker, of course, the holy grail of the young fiction writer) not to be entertained but to get an idea of what sells there. ... Last year, I read scores of stories that felt ... not quite dead on the page, I won’t go that far, but airless, somehow, and self-referring. These stories felt show-offy rather than entertaining, self-important rather than interesting, guarded and self-conscious rather than gloriously open, and worst of all, written for editors and teachers rather than for readers. The chief reason for all this, I think, is that bottom shelf. It’s tough for writers to write (and editors to edit) when faced with a shrinking audience. Once, in the days of the old Saturday Evening Post, short fiction was a stadium act; now it can barely fill a coffeehouse and often performs in the company of nothing more than an acoustic guitar and a mouth organ. If the stories felt airless, why not? When circulation falters, the air in the room gets stale.
King's diatribe made the plight of short fiction front page news (for those of us who follow the litblogosphere, that is. The rest of the internet, and the world at large, remain, I suspect, blissfully ignorant), and spawned numerous responses. Most of them are either variations on 'but I still like short fiction, so there!', which, given that their authors are usually writers, publishers, or reviewers, seems to be making King's point for him, or the more sensible comment that things are not so different, if perhaps less dire, for novel-length literary fiction, both in terms of sales and cultural importance. The next highlight of the debate came on October 16th, when Jeff VanderMeer, who along with wife Ann guest-edited the first volume in a new series, Best American Fantasy (though the series's title is obviously meant to recall the Houghton Mifflin Best American books, the Fantasy series is not affiliated with it and is published by Prime), posted an entry to his blog titled 'The Triumph of Competence,' in which he offered his response to a year's worth of slogging through dross to find a bit of gold:
the more I’ve thought about it, the more I feel that my general apathy when reading a lot of fantasy short fiction today comes from finding in it a profoundly disturbing, if sturdy, middle class professionalism. The magazines and anthologies are dominated by what I’d call centrist fiction that simply drowns in competence. It’s good–it’s just not great. It’s clever–it’s just not trying to do more, or it does reach for more, but in familiar ways.

As I thought about this further, I visualized an endless churning sound as thousands of writers typed and handwrote the first drafts of stories destined from conception to be good enough. Good enough for publication. Good enough to pass muster. Good enough to earn an appreciative nod. It was a depressing thought.
VanderMeer's post, as can be imagined, has churned the waters even further and elicited even more responses, some supportive and some critical, and at this point the sheer volume of 'whither the short story' blog posts is prohibitive. Which may be the reason why, in spite of a good hour and a half's work this morning, I was unable to track down the two responses to King's introduction which I found the most interesting and illuminating (or possibly my Google-fu is just weak, and I will of course be eternally grateful to any AtWQ reader who can provide me with actual links). The first discussed the history of the short story, and tried to track the economic reasons for its artistic stagnation. The author's argument is that short stories used to be popular entertainment, with authors like Arthur Conan Doyle becoming extraordinarily wealthy and even more famous based solely on their short fiction. Even some way into the 20th century it was possible for a writer to earn a living wage--a very good one, at times--writing stories for magazines. Then the audiences were lured away by movies and later television, causing the market to shrink and turn inwards, and the stories became self-referential, consciously artistic, and downright hostile to the notion of entertainment (a comparison was made, if memory serves, to the similar effect that the popularization of photography had on the graphic arts).

The second essay, a response to the first one, argues that the events described happened in the opposite order--the stories didn't change because the audience went away; the audience went away because the stories had changed. The reason, the author argued, was modernism, and more specifically, James Joyce's Dubliners, which has exerted something of a choke-hold on literary short fiction since its publication, mandating an emphasis on character and psychological realism over plot and event.

Even within literary fiction circles, the discussion of art versus entertainment, and of the importance or lack thereof of commercial viability, as they pertain to short fiction, is a habitual occurrence. The last iteration I remember, though I'm sure there have been several in the interim, is Michael Chabon's experiment with short fiction for McSweeney's, which resulted in two anthologies, McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales and McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories. The concept for both of these anthologies was that Chabon had commissioned mainstream literary authors--people like Rick Moody, Roddy Doyle, and Joyce Carol Oates--as well as some genre authors and others whose work straddled the divide, to write genre shorts that would harken back to the Saturday Evening Post and pulp novel era. In his introduction to the first volume, Chabon unsurprisingly gets into the plight of the American short story:
Imagine that, sometime about 1950, it had been decided, collectively, informally, a little at a time, but with finality, to proscribe every kind of novel from the canon of the future but the nurse romance. Not merely from the critical canon, but from the store racks and library shelves as well. Nobody could be paid, published, lionized, or cherished among the gods of literature for writing any kind of fiction other than nurse romances. Now, because of my faith and pride in the diverse and rigorous brilliance of American writers of the last half-century, I do believe that from this bizarre decision, in this theoretical America, a dozen or more authentic masterpieces wold have emerged. Thomas Pynchon's Blitz Nurse, for example, and Cynthia Ozick's Ruth Puttermesser, R.N. One imagines, however, that this particular genre--that any genre, even one far less circumscribed in its elements and possibilities than the nurse romance--would have paled somewhat by 2002. Over the last year in that oddly diminished world, somebody, somewhere, would be laying down Michael Chabon's Dr. Kavalier and Nurse Clay with a weary sigh and crying out, "Surely, oh, surely there must be more to the novel than this!'

Instead of the "the novel" and "the nurse romance," try this little Gedankenexperiment with "jazz" and "the bossa nova," or with "cinema" and "fish-out-of-water comedies." Now, go ahead and try it with "short fiction" and "the contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story."

Suddenly you find yourself sitting right back in your very own universe.
Chabon's prescription for the short story's ailment was to bring genre back into play, hence his assignment for the authors he commissioned stories from. But even ignoring the at-best marginal success of his experiment--the first volume is not so great; the second, pretty strong, but, tellingly, almost all of the really good stories in both collections come from genre authors, whereas the mainstream authors mostly seem to have sprinkled a bit of genre trappings on their story and otherwise produced just the kind of plotless, competent-yet-familiar stories Chabon was militating against--this seems like a reductive approach. Unlike King, VanderMeer, and almost all of the people who responded to them, however, Chabon is willing to say the word that almost no one will utter when it comes to literary fiction of any length--plot. Though he makes the mistake of equating plot with genre, which both mainstream and genre readers will tell you is entirely untrue, Chabon correctly diagnoses the core problem of most modern short stories, the reason that they don't appeal to wide audiences, and that those audiences have been taught to disdain them as something intended only for a rarefied, joyless in-group--they have no plot.

In seventh grade, we were taught that the short story unfolded in a straightforward sequence: exposition, crisis, complication, resolution. The stories we read--stuff like O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi", Maupassant's "The Necklace", or Isaac Asimov's MultiVac stories--did indeed follow this simple progression. Looking back, I can see how restrictive this structure is, how many excellent stories it leaves by the wayside, but it also strikes me that most of my favorite short stories do feature these four elements. They may not appear in the precise order laid out above, and the ratio of one to the other may be very different than the one my teacher would have considered appropriate (or at least appropriate for twelve-year-olds), but the steps are all there.

Dorothy Parker's "The Standard of Living," for example, which I first read in tenth grade and which continues to resonate with me more than a decade later, is almost all exposition. Most of the story is taken up with a description of a game the two vain, air-headed office girls, Annabel and Midge, have invented--they each have to decide how they would spend a million dollars on no one but themselves--and the deep importance that it has come to hold for them. It's only in the last page that Parker introduces a crisis--the pearl necklace the girls spy in a store window would set them back a cool quarter million--a complication--the girls, knocked out of their fantasy, are suddenly forced to acknowledge the dreariness of their life and the hopelessness of their prospects--and a resolution--Midge changes the game so that now the girls' fantasy bank account contains ten million dollars--but introduce them she does. In many of the more modern short stories I've read, however, not only have these steps been absent, not only has there been no plot, but there has been no event. Nothing happens, and these stories amount to nothing more than a description of a state. Sometimes this can work--many SF shorts are essentially a plotless introduction to a neat alien or future culture the author has invented--but most of the time it doesn't, and the story is meaningless.

All of this has been an incredibly long-winded way of getting around to talking about the actual stories King selected for Best American Short Stories, which very few people seem to be interested in doing (thus far I've seen only one review of the collection). I like short fiction very much--aside from Best American, I came back from the States with six other short story collections--but as a rule I tend to prefer single-author collections over magazines, themed anthologies, or best-of-year collections. When I read a single-author collection, it's usually because I've read and enjoyed the author's novels, or have come across an example of their short fiction and enjoyed it, or because people whose taste I trust have spoken highly about either the author of the collection. In other words, it's not unreasonable for me to believe that I will enjoy a significant portion of the collection.

With edited collections, however, I'm placing myself entirely in the editor's hands, relying on the existence of some overlap, however small, between my taste and theirs (and with best-of-year collections, the odds of satisfaction are even lower since, as Dan Hartland so perfectly put it, the year's best is the decade's mostly-forgettable). In King's introduction, he writes that "There isn’t a single [story] in this book that didn’t delight me, that didn’t make me want to crow, “Oh, man, you gotta read this!”" Given the above-mentioned, inevitable gap between King's taste and mine, and his by-now famous penchant for hyperbole (he is, after all, one of the most prolific and least reliable blurbers out there), I steeled myself for some degree of disappointment. Sadly, this was not sufficient.

There are good pieces in Best American Short Stories. Some of them, like Alice Munro's "Dimension" or Richard Russo's "Horseman", are well-written. Others, like Stellar Kim's "Findings & Impressions" and T.C. Boyle's "Balto", are well-plotted. Others still, like William Gay's "Where Will You Go When Your Skin Cannot Contain You" or John Barth's "Toga Party", are innovative (for a very restricted value of that word, really more along the lines of 'not as familiar as expected'). Very few of them--only one, in fact--are all three. Which, perhaps, is asking too much. I've often said that it's unfair to expect a novel to do too many things--to ask Tolkien to write psychologically realistic characters or George Eliot to write exciting battle scenes--and the same holds for short stories. The Munro story, for example, is yet another abuse survival story, but it is remarkable for the delicacy with which Munro describes her heroine and the deftness with which she makes us care for her. When Doree, defeated and joyless, begins drifting back into the orbit of her abusive husband, the horror we feel is visceral. We want to shake some sense into her, a miracle to stop her from throwing her life away a second time--and are then gratified and relieved when Munro delivers exactly this. "Dimension" is a perfect example of a story that does nothing new, but some things exceptionally well.

The same can be said of several other stories in the collection. "Toga Party" is an example of that rare bird, successful political fiction (unlike Kate Walbert's "Do Something", which closes the collection). Its protagonists are a couple in their seventies (it's interesting to note how many stories in the collection feature or revolve around aging baby-boomers and their struggle to grow old gracefully) whose constant obsession with their looming decrepitude is interrupted by an invitation to the titular party. Once there, Barth draws painfully sharp comparisons between the looming senescence of the characters and the one faced by the modern-day equivalent of the empire the party is in homage to. The story takes place as hurricane Katrina pounds New Orleans (hence the obligatory "why didn't they get the hell out instead of hanging around and looting stores?" from one of the party guests), and soon the party goers are not so much eating, drinking, and being merry in case they die tomorrow as fiddling while their empire burns, or floods. This is a mean story, with genuine bite. On the other hand, Barth's prose is only passable, and the delicacy of his political satire is belied by the over-the-top, entirely implausible suicide attempt of a minor character which rushes in the story's ending.

Like Barth's and Munro's pieces, most of the stories in the collection do something well and everything else passably. Quite a few, however, are entirely forgettable or actively bad. Louis Auchincloss's "Pa's Darling" and Ann Beattie's "Solid Wood" are precisely the kind of plotless mood piece Chabon rants about in his McSweeney's introduction, with very little to recommend themselves otherwise in terms of prose, emotional tone, well-drawn characters, or intriguing setting. There are not one but two pieces of the 'stereotypically broad New York Jews talking funny and having issues' variety (admittedly, in one case the Jew in question is from Chicago, but the cliché is boldly maintained), a genre which I had hoped had been buried in a crossroads with a stake through its heart. Roy Kesey's "Wait" is a piece of surrealist fiction--a commercial flight is delayed for days by a mysterious fog, during which time the stranded passengers form impromptu communities, forge relationships, embark on romances, and start wars--which might have worked at half the page count (or, alternatively, if Kelly Link were writing it). On average, the stories in Best American Short Stories are not much more than passable, and when good, only by one yardstick out of several.

All of this has been an incredibly long-winded way of getting around to talking about the sole exception, Karen Russell's "St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves." I'd heard about Russell's story before the brouhaha about King's introduction had even started, and this in itself was remarkable--how often does a short story, singular, gain sufficient momentum to be mentioned on its own?--but what I'd heard was nothing less than ebullient. My expectations, in other words, had been thoroughly built up, and then bolstered by my lukewarm reaction to the stories preceding it, so that by the time I started reading Russell's story I was nice and neurotic about it, terrified that it could never live up to its reputation.

Well, it does. How good is "St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves"? Good enough to justify the ten bucks I dropped on Best American Short Stories all by itself, and the similar amount I spent on Russell's collection of the same title. Good enough to make every other story in the collection seem paltry and uncouth. Good enough that I'm now too nervous to read Russell's collection for fear that the other stories in it won't stack up. Good enough that the idea I've been toying with, of supplementing my year's best and worst novels posts with one about the year's best short stories, is now going to become a reality because there can't be too many opportunities to praise this story. Remember how batshit insane I went over Margo Lanagan's "Singing My Sister Down" last year? That's how crazy I'm going to be over "St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves."

Coming as it does from a literary fiction author and a literary venue (it was originally published in Granta), I expected the story's title to be a symbol or a metaphor of some sort. Imagine my surprise when Russell started delivering exactly what she'd put on the tin:
At first, our pack was all hair and snarl and floor-thumping joy. We forgot the barked cautions of our mothers and fathers, all the promises we'd made to be civilized and ladylike, couth and kempt. We tore through the austere rooms, overturning dressers drawers, pawing through the neat piles of the stage 3 girls' starched underwear, smashing light bulbs with our bare fists. Things felt less foreign in the dark. The dim bedroom was windowless and odorless. We remedied this by spraying exuberant yellow streams all over the bunks. We jumped from bunk to bunk, spraying. We nosed each other midair, our bodies buckling in kinetic laughter. The nuns watched us from the corner of the bedroom, their tiny faces pinched with displeasure.
The girls are the children of werewolves (the condition skips a generation) and their parents have sent them to the nuns in order to give them a chance at a better life. The story tracks the early stages of their socialization, in the days when they're still more likely to growl than speak, and have to be taught to sleep in beds rather than under them. One of the things I was curious about when I picked up Best American Short Stories was whether King's presence as guest editor would make it easier for genre fiction, SF/F and horror in particular, to make it onto the table of contents (though to be fair, having never read a previous entry in the series, I have no baseline for comparison). The twenty stories King picked out include "The Boy in Zaquitos" by Bruce McAllister (whose short story "Kin" was on this year's Hugo ballot), originally published in Fantasy & Science Fiction, and a horror short by Randy DeVita called "Riding the Doghouse". Both are good but unexceptional--the kind of genre fiction that usually makes it under the wire in mainstream collections (though the list of one hundred also-rans includes several other stories published in F&SF--for some reason, Asimov's was not included in the list of magazines from which King and series editor Heidi Pitlor drew candidates, which is a shame as 2006 was a strong year for that magazine--as well as stories from other venues by Kelly Link and Matthew Cheney).

When I realized that Russell's story was a fantasy, I expected her to deliver the same kind of mainstream-friendly product that outsider authors generally deliver when they dabble in genre--in this case, an allegory. What I got instead was a fully realized alternate reality. Russell's worldbuilding is exquisite but never flashy. She utilizes known qualities of wolf and human behavior--"The main commandment of wolf life is Know Your Place, and that translated perfectly. Being around other humans had awakened a slavish-dog affection in us. An abasing, belly-to-the-ground desire to please."--and ties them together in ways unique to her world, such as when she tells us that the phrase 'goody two-shoes' originates in wolf-child rehabilitation facilities because the only the good girls aren't constantly having to fight off the urge to chew on their shoes.

"I know it's a fantastical premise, but something about [the girls'] plight felt very true and very serious to me," Russell writes in the contributors' notes to Best American Short Stories. Genre readers have come to dread this kind of naivety on the part of mainstream writers writing genre stories--it usually heralds an obvious, broad allegory whose author is constantly nudging aside the curtain, fearful that their readers won't Get the Point. It's possible to read "St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves" as an allegory--the girls are immigrants being immersed in their new culture, which will inevitably cause them to lose the old one and become disconnected from their families; the girls' socialization focuses on gender roles (late in the story they meet their brothers for a dance, in which they are graded on their ability to make small talk about the weather), so the allegory could refer to the role that education can take in enforcing those roles; the pack's behavior mirrors the group dynamics in a school, with a queen bee and a perennial screw-up whom no one wants to be friends with (Russell's imaginative take on this dynamic stands in stark contrast to another story in the collection, Aryn Kyle's "Allegiance", which describes a girl's experiences in a new school perfectly without ever trying to do anything that hundreds of other authors haven't already done with the same premise)--but none of these readings sum the story up. In the end, this is simply a story about feral wolf-girls trying to be human, and though it mirrors our reality in certain respects, Russell never loses her faith in the story's reality, and neither do we.

I think "St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves" is the kind of story Michael Chabon was hoping for when he first envisioned the McSweeney's anthologies. It's also probably the kind of story Jeff VanderMeer would characterize as triumphing over mediocrity (I think it would have had pride of place in Best American Fantasy, and in fact I'm now wondering whether it shouldn't be considered for genre awards). It's certainly the kind of story I was hoping for when I bought Best American Short Stories. Is it disappointing that stories like this aren't more common? Certainly, but it's not necessarily an indication that the short story is ailing. Ultimately, the bell curve asserts itself, and I simply can't imagine any reasonable person expecting to come across more than one or two stories of this caliber in a single year. More disappointing is the thought that so few people will read Russell's story, but the most I can do about that is to tell them otherwise. "St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves" really is the kind of story that makes you want to grab complete strangers and say “Oh, man, you gotta read this!”, which is precisely what I've just done.

15 comments:

Nix said...

Well, you certainly made me want to read the Russell. Not the rest so much though: they don't sound all that brilliant and my bookshelves are falling through the floor (even though it's built on a concrete base).

Your introductory segment about plotless conventional novels is all so terribly true. A lot of us in the genre world have been saying much the same for a long time, generally while avoiding most mainstream works published after about 1940.

Of course SF tried the plotless self-referential thing in the 1960s New Wave: I consider many of those works unreadable too. I'm sure they were being very clever, or thought they were, but if I want to read Clever For The Sake Of It I'll read Eliot or Joyce or watch _Restless_ again or something. Those really *do* have lots to say other than Hey, Aren't We Clever, or failing that are deflatingly silly along with it (e.g. _Illuminatus!_).

As an aside, my aunt, a so-far-unpublished author of terribly conventional plotless novels, was sitting across the room while I read this, and disagrees rather vehemently: in fact she thinks you're 'full of it'.

I choose to interpret 'it', in this context, as 'truth', oh, and probably jealousy because you've been published (at least online) and she hasn't.

After all, truth hurts! :) :)

Niall said...

I'm now wondering whether it shouldn't be considered for genre awards

Well, it was already on the Tiptree honour list. It's probably not eligible for anything else any more, except possibly the Nebula, depending on when in 2006 the collection was published. (Where did you hear about the story, if not on the Tiptree list?)

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I was thinking to myself as I wrote that line that the Tiptree honor role would be a perfect fit for this story. The collection was published in September 2006, so that deadline's passed too.

The collection, and especially the title story, were heavily praised on Readerville, but, though I can't remember where, I remember hearing the story talked about elsewhere.

chance said...

Where did you hear about the story, if not on the Tiptree list?

I first heard about it in a review of her collection - I think in the washington post.

chance said...

(I find myself kind of annoyed by your "if not the tiptree list" comment when it was a quite celebrated collection.)

Niall said...

Oh, I heard about the collection all over the place. But the Tiptree list was the only place I'd seen that story singled out in the way Abigail described.

chance said...

Seriously?

I mean seriously?

Because not I need to change my serius critic vote.

Niall said...

What? Yes, seriously. Most of the mentions I heard were to do with Russell's Granta listing; the reviews I know I saw were in The Independent and The Guardian (and more recently, I guess, Andrew Wheeler's review). I probably read some other reviews as well, but none that identified the title story as in some way transcendently better than its companions. Sorry. :p

chance said...

I think the measure should be that it is an examplary story, not one that is trancendent of the others she has written. (Not like BASS contains another story by her you know.)

Rob said...

The visitors to my online short story sites are more numerous on office work days than at the weekends and my stats indicate that a very large number of my visitors are from work networks.

Perhaps a lot of people find short stories ideal to drop into for a coffee or lunch break.

Apparently broadcast radio was given a big helping hand by the advent of in car radio, before which it was languishing because of the advent of television.

Perhaps each type of media has to find the niche where it's strengths lie.

RichM said...

Abigail, once you've finished all your other short story collections, perhaps you would like Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology, assuming you haven't already read all the pieces in it.

I hope you find those two URLs you misplaced, as I'd like to read those bits of reaction myself.

Kaolin said...

Beautiful recap and discussion! Would you have any interest in a complimentary PDF of GUD Issue 0? (we're putting out Issue 2 shortly) I'm trying to follow through on the suggestion to contact bloggers of note and try to get some fiction in their hands. For review, if you like, or mention, or simply dismissal, I hope a PDF is worth a shot. If you have interest, email me at editor@gudmagazine.com?

I'll see about linking this post next recap of the "short fiction situation" GUD does. :)

Right now we're running a small poll, somewhat related:

Your influence on the world of written fiction? =) Any feedback would be appreciated in any case. Thanks!

Ted said...

I was unable to track down the two responses to King's introduction which I found the most interesting and illuminating

Is it possible that you were thinking of this entry at Grumpy Old Bookman? It links to two other posts about the history of the short story.

Anonymous said...

The Manifesto Says It All

Anonymous said...

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