They liked the 'Best' stories. As for the rest ...
The most provocative writing in this year's collection "The Best American Short Stories" is the introductions, both of which complain about the quality of American short stories.
The editor of the series, which began in 1978, lamented from the opening paragraph of her foreword that most stories written by Americans sounded the same.
Heidi Pitlor called them "domestic realist fiction" usually featuring a "disaffected child protagonist" with a "quirky but not overly oddball voice." The locales are familiar domestic places like living rooms peopled by characters with a bit of difficulty in their lives such as a food allergy.
"The ending would suggest resolution, but hint at its opposite," she writes. "I just mean to demonstrate some of the most common elements that I come across in the many short stories I read every year."
What does she want?
"In fact I would love to read more stories about war ... and the wide world outside the United States and our impact on the environment," Ms. Pitlor admits. "But I fear that a new normal has evolved ... one conspicuously void of momentum and uninterested in maintaining the reader's attention."
The person responsible for selecting the 20 stories in this collection is Geraldine Brooks, journalist turned novelist, author of this year's "Caleb's Crossing" and the Pulitzer Prize-winning "March."
Her introduction [read it here] echoes the foreword. In a list of complaints, Ms. Brooks reminds writers:
"Foreign countries exist.
"There's a war on. The war in Afghanistan, in the year it became America's longest, appeared as a brief aside in only two of 120 stories."
She then repeats Ms. Pitlor's gripe about ordinary settings. "There's nothing wrong with writing stories set in bedrooms, classrooms, kitchens. ... But the air becomes stale there. And after a dozen -- a hundred -- such stories, I became claustrophobic."
What's going on here? I don't think I've read such rejection of a generation of writers before and by two editors responsible for selecting "the best" of those writers' work.
In her defense, editor Brooks sets high standards for fiction. "A great piece of writing is the one you feel on your skin," she believes. "It has to do something. Make the heart beat faster or the hairs stand up. Provoke laughter or tears."
Referring to the current crop of young adult readers who she says are "nourished by a decade-long boom in children's fiction," she believes that "affectless Carveresque minimalism, no matter how liminal or luminous, is not going to cut it with them."
Ms. Brooks issues a stirring call to arms for today's emerging writers to get out of their suburban recreation rooms and see the world "as far as you can, for as long as you can afford it."
As a Wall Street Journal editor told her as she did her research in her office on the Internet, "The story's not on Nexis [substitute Wikipedia or Google]. It's on the street. Get out there!"
What Ms. Brooks and Ms. Pitlor fail to discuss in their criticism is the shrinking print market for fiction. This year's collection bears that dearth out:
Seven of the stories appeared in The New Yorker and two each in Tin House, Granta and McSweeney's. Four publications contributed 13 of the 20 pieces.
Few markets lead to more conformity and less daring. The answer, it would seem, is to expand the opportunities for publication in mainstream media, including the Internet.
Finally, after Ms. Brooks regrets having to reject so many promising writers, she includes an ordinary piece, "ID," by hardy perennial Joyce Carol Oates that appeared in The New Yorker. Not really a daring choice.
My advice to the editor of "The Best American Short Stories" is "practice what you preach" and give a worthy unknown writer a break. Ms. Oates could use a rest.
First Published October 9, 2011 12:00 am