Why read a collection of short stories written by various authors? For me it is an adventure and a great deal of fun reading these best stories of the year. Also reading a collection like this is a painless way to get introduced to the work of a number of authors. If an unfamiliar writer has a great story here, I might seek out more of their work since writers who create a good short story are more likely to write good novels than those who don’t.
Every year there are two collections of the best short stories published in the United States and Canada. One collection is called the Pen/O Henry Prize Stories, and the other collection is called the Best American Short Stories which has a different guest editor each year. The guest editor makes the final decisions about which 20 stories to include after the series editor has narrowed the list of thousands of stories down to 120 finalists. There are also 20 stories in the Pen/O Henry collection.
I’ve had good luck with both collections and tend to alternate back and forth between the two. I checked this year, and none of the stories is in both collections although two authors, Steven Millhauser and Alice Munro, have stories in both books.
First here is a brief summary of the stories in Best American Short Stories which I’ve just completed. Five of the stories were first published in the New Yorker, two each in Tin House, Ploughshares, and Hobart, and one story each from New Ohio Review, American Short Fiction, Granta, Orion, Fifth Wednesday Journal, McSweeney’s and Paris Review. Nine of the stories are written by men, and eleven stories are written by women. Some of the writers are famous and were quite familiar to me. I’ve read nearly everything Alice Munro has written, and I’m quite familiar with the work of Steven Millhauser, Mary Gaitskill, George Saunders, Nathan Englander, Jess Walter, and Carol Anshaw. The other 13 writers were new and unfamiliar to me.
It would be difficult to draw conclusions concerning the styles of these stories. None of the stories here is in the minimalist mode that Raymond Carver popularized and which has been so prevalent since then. Alice Munro’s story “Axis” is straightforward, direct, and dramatic. George Saunders’ story “Tenth of December:” is about as twisted and crooked and flat-out demented as a story can be. It’s great. Tom Perrotta seems to like busy realistic hunorous stories like his own fiction. Nathan Englander’s story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” is exceptionally good. But so is “Miracle Polish” by Stephen Millhauser which is in the classic Edgar Alan Poe/ Oscar Wilde style.
After a couple of stories I got in the spirit of this collection, and it was entertaining moving from one story, one view of reality, to another story that was a totally different view of reality.
Of the stories by those writers who were unfamiliar to me the following stories made a strong impression, and I will be on the lookout to read more of these authors’ works.
“Occupational Hazard” by Angela Pneuman
“Volcano” by Lawrence Osborne
“Pilgrim Life” by Taylor Antrim
“North Country” by Roxanne Gay
Best American Short Stories is a strong collection, but next time I may go back to O Henry.
P. S.: Based on his fine story in this collection as well as some positive reviews, I am now reading the novel, “The Forgiven” by Lawrence Osborne.