In these pages are pleading attempts to be heard and seen … as well as desperate incantations against being erased, extraordinary moments of reimagination, inventive tales of escape. One look at the titles alone – with words like miracle, escape, paradise, and last days – reveals a steady gaze upward and outward.
Heidi Pitlor, Foreword
When I started this Read back in October with the introductory material that referenced the pandemic, political polarization, and increasing sounds of anarchy, I wondered, “What were the Introductions and Forewords about before the world went sideways?” Let me note now that I recognize the world has always been sideways, it just takes longer for some of us to notice the tilt. But I thought it might be interesting to look back at some of the older volumes I have on my shelf.
- 2008: Salman Rushdie, in his Introduction, wrote at some length about the stories he chose. Heidi Pitlor, in her second year as series editor, went into a great discussion of what each word in the title “Best American Short Stories” means.
- In 2009, Alice Sebold discussed her ambivalence about awards, while Heidi (may I call her Heidi? She feels like a friend by now) noticed how many stories took risks.
- In 2010, the first year I blogged, Richard Russo told the Isaac Bashevis Singer story: What is the purpose of literature? To entertain, and to instruct. It was a charming narrative that didn’t mention the stories, or the reading process, at all. Heidi mentioned changes in the publishing world.
- In 2011, Geraldine Brooks discussed her process of choosing, and the differences between stories, while Heidi wrote of common elements she saw in stories.
- In 2012, Tom Perotta advocated plain language; Heidi noted the diversity of themes.
- In 2013, Elizabeth Strout framed stories as telephone calls, and included a fairly extensive discussion of each one she chose. Heidi wrote about the tragedy of Sandy Hook, and on the difference between writing in the moment, and writing with the perspective of time: “…[W]hile we are grieving, we are now writing. We may be sacrificing perspective or depth, but this does not necessarily amount to lesser writing. if anything, there is a new sort of immediacy, a newfound intimacy and urgency in our fiction…”
- In 2014, Jennifer Egan wondered where the stories were about the war we’d been fighting for ten years, the recession that derailed so much, before continuing with her process of choosing the twenty stories. Heidi wrote about uncertainty, and the need for diverse voices.
- In 2015, TC Boyle wrote about commercialization of fiction and the economic insufficiency of short story writing. Heidi focused on the landmark 100th volume.
- In 2016, Junot Diaz discussed the short story form, and gave an extensive explanation of each story. Heidi acknowledged that so many issues had become political,, that stories have to compete with reality for attention.
That 2016 edition seems to me to be a turning point. It seemed far more diverse than earlier editions, and domestic realism – the dying marriage, the troubled parent, the lonely soul – didn’t disappear, of course, but took a back seat to sociopolitical issues, to examining how one’s economic situation influences one’s choices, how one person may have fewer choices than another simply by being born in one place or time or of certain parents.
From there on, both Heidi’s Foreword and the guest editor’s Introduction began to root themselves in the present, to view the stories as the product of a moment. Often, the moment shifted so quickly, a story written in one year, published the next, and anthologized still later seemed a bit dated. I mentioned the “Men Behaving Badly” volume of last year that refreshed the Me,Too movement begun two years before.
The stories this year did not specifically mention the pandemic or the political upheaval in which we find ourselves (with one exception), but they do deal with loss, grief, fear, struggle, and change. Those have been perennial topics in recent years, which have, in my opinion, made these volumes far more interesting than those that presented six ways a marriage could go wrong.
When I was a child, my grandmother Dorothy was the first person who taught me something of the power of narrative. She was a natural-born storyteller…. It was only when I was older and had spent years thinking about storytelling and stories, trying and failing and trying again to write good stories, that I understood this strange ending. I realized that with the telling of our family stories, my grandmother Dorothy had taught me so much about fiction, about what I valued in novels and short stories. How I wanted a story to be bracing, disorienting, and immersive. How I wanted it to grip me like the sea, pulling and pushing brine and bubbles up my nose, down my throat, leaving the taste of salt on my tongue. How I wanted it to scour me clean so that I forgot myself in the embrace of the wave, of the story. My grandmother Dorothy taught me that the narrative could be a different kind of sea – not the sea of loss, of grieving, but instead a life-giving, life-affirming ocean. Her stories made me value this: language that evokes and renders sharply and beautifully even as it confounds. Tales that surprise and subvert the reader’s expectations. Fiction so well told that it subsumes a reader’s awareness to the world of the story.
Jesamyn Ward, Introduction
I very much liked the way Ward sorted the stories into categories of time, character, place, youth, surprise, and immersion. The categories of course intersect, and I’ve noted this in my indiviual comments. I found myself struggling during the “problematic character” group, which says more about me as a reader than about the stories. That was, I think, the down side of reading in the groups as Ward listed them, rather than front to back as I normally do.
I’ve noticed something over the past couple of years: I might not be thrilled with the anthology while I’m reading it, but over the next year or two, as I look back, I view it far more fondly. This was particularly noticeable for the 2019 edition; I was a bit negative, but I think now that might have been more a matter of a wider division between the stories that worked for me, and those that didn’t. Again, this is all in the context of me as a reader, not as a critic; these stories were chosen three times by those with far more sophisticated palates than mine. As I look back over the Tables of Contents in pulling together my comments, I smile more than I might have at the time. Maybe I grow into the stories; maybe they grow into me.
This year, I had three stories on my A+ list, that is, stories I wanted to shove into strangers’ hands and exclaim, “You’ve got to read this!”:
- Jane Pek, “Portrait of Two Young Ladies in White and Green Robes (Unidentified Artist, circa Sixteenth Century)”;
- Shanteka Sigers, “A Way with Bea”;
- Jamil Jan Kochai, “Playing Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain”.
Many of the other stories also lingered with me, or, in a few cases, I felt more of an intellectual admiration for their design and execution than an emotional bond. One of the most puzzling – or maybe terrifying – for me is the Saunders story, the last one I read. I’m still in its sphere of influence; I need to let some time pass before I can really see it and not see my reaction to it first.
I want to review these stories next year, maybe when I start the 2022 volume, or maybe when I wrap it up, and see how my view has changed.
I hope this collection offers you the opportunity for immersion, for surprise, for travel, for awe. I hope that as you sink into world after world, become character after character in these stellar stories, you can forget yourself, and then, upon surfacing, know yourself and others anew. I hope that return offers you some sense of ease and, as the best fiction does, a sense of repair.
Jesamyn Ward, Introduction
What might I yet do, rather than What should I have done? A place where action is possible. If a story takes me – takes us – there, keeps us there, it’s value is incalculable.