February 1, 2014
Review of The Best American Short Stories 2013
by Lisa M. Kent
Strout, Elizabeth, ed. The Best American Short Stories 2013, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2013. Print.
Imagine you are expecting a gift. You are certain that in the box is a beautiful Celtic brooch. Instead, you pull out a pair of gauged earrings. There is nothing wrong with the earrings, but when you expect a brooch, disappointment is certain. That’s how I felt after starting and finishing The Best American Short Stories 2013. These stories are not upbeat. Their characters and situations are disturbing, painful, unhappy, hopeless, and/or broken. That’s not to say they aren’t well-written. Each is so well written that it catches my attention immediately and holds it until the story ends and I am dismissed, even though I’m not ready to leave. Are the stories memorable? Yes. Do they add literary value? Yes. Do I like them? No. Perhaps the stories chosen are a reflection of the times—our poor economy, the partisanship of our government, our huge environmental challenges. But if this so, why are the short stories I remember from my youth also bleak? What explains the themes of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, Jack London’s To Build a Fire, and Flannery O’Connor’s Good Country People? What is it about short stories?
I checked several definitions of a short story. The consensus is that they are fictional, good read alouds, seek a particular mood, and have a small number of characters. Nothing in the definitions says they need to be depressing. But that’s how this compilation plays out. Here’s an example: Referential by Lorrie Moore, starts out, “For THE THIRD TIME in three years, they talked about what would be a suitable birthday present for her deranged son” (p. 138).
Or in Jim Shepard’s The World to Come, a young woman writes in her journal: “Sunday 1 January—Fair AND VERY cold. This morning, ice in our bedroom for the first time all winter, and in the kitchen, the water froze on the potatoes as soon as they were washed. Landscapes of frost on the windowpanes. With little pride and less hope and only occasional and uncertain intervals of happiness, we begin the new year” (p. 246).
And there’s The Wilderness, by Elizabeth Tallent: “Her STUDENTS ARE the devotees and tenders of machines. Some of the machines are tiny and some of the machines are big. Nobody wrote down the law that students must have a machine with them at all times, yet this law is rarely broken, and when it is, the breaker suffers from deprivation and anxiety” (p. 275).
You get the idea. After broaching my hypothesis about short stories to our library director, Joe Farara, he assured me that there are many humorous short stories to be read; I just hadn’t encountered one. He suggested First Confession by Frank O’Connor, and indeed I laughed out loud while reading it. Joe also suggested a few other writers, including Woody Allen and Mark Twain.
Perhaps humor is more difficult to capture in a short story format than sadness, and that’s why there are no funny stories in this year’s Best American series. And perhaps there is a literature professor out there who can tell me I’m full of baloney. (If so, please write a letter to the editor!) All I know is that I prefer laughing to bleakness, a smile over angst. I’m in the O’Connor camp. And if by chance we get The Best American Short Stories 2014? I think I’ll pass.