ONE WAY TO STAY CURRENT on the best in new short fiction and noteworthy authors is to read the yearly anthology Best American Short Stories. This series also includes The Best American Essays and The Best American Travel Writing to name just a few. I’ve read them for years.
The series editor pours through tons of previously published stories from nationally circulated periodicals and then gives a guest editor approximately 100 stories to choose the best twenty or so of the year. The guest editor also writes an introduction that generally ponders the state of the genre. It’s important to note the stories selected in a given year will reflect the tastes of the guest editor. I used to read the anthology from cover to cover, but now tend to pick and choose what pieces to focus my efforts on based on my reaction to the first couple of paragraphs.
I’ve been gradually catching up on the series since moving cross-country and changing my career path made some of my usual reading fall by the wayside. I’m also making an effort to subscribe to a new literary journal every year. This year I focused on The Missouri Review. Next year, I plan to yet another such as Glimmer Train or McSweeney’s.
I first encountered the series in 1999 in undergraduate fiction and nonfiction workshop classes. Every time I finish one, I go back to the table of contents and put a check mark by the stories that left a lingering impression on me as a writer. That way I can later return to them for notes on craft. My experience as a submissions editor for The Idaho Review also helped me immerse myself in this market as well.
There is no better way to learn the craft of writing than to READ and to WRITE a great VARIETY of writing. It’s much easier to look through the back pages of The Best American Short Stories in print as opposed to the electronic version as a way to find submission info for the literary journals who send their published pieces in for consideration in the anthology.
I’ve gradually been getting rid of many of my print books, this series included. Here’s a list of 10 fantastic stories from the 2005-2009 Best American Short Stories anthologies along with the first sentence from each:
“Admiral” by T. C. Boyle (2008)
She knew in her heart it was a mistake, but she’d been laid off and needed the cash, and her memories of the Strikers were mostly on the favorable side, so when Mrs. Striker called – Gretchen, this is Gretchen? Mrs. Striker? – she’d said yes, she love to come over and hear that they had to say.
“Natasha” by David Bezmozgis (2005)
When I was sixteen I was high most of the time.
“Rubiaux Rising” by Steve De Jarnatt (2009)
“Never take you back, son, hard as it break my heart,” Aunt Cleoma had told Rubiaux.
“Secret” by Maxine Swann (2006)
It was through our friend Shirley that we meet the Lalowski boys.
“St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell” (2007)
At first, our pack was all hair and snarl and floor-thumping joy.
“Tattooizm” by Kevin Moffett (2006)
“Them Old Cowboy Songs” by Annie Proulx (2009)
Archie and Rose Mclaverty staked out a homestead where the Little Weed comes rattling down the Sierra Madre, water named not for miniature obnoxious flora but for P. H. Weed, a gold-seeker who had starved hear its source.
“Until Gwen” by Dennis Lehane (2005)
Your father picks you up from prison in a stolen Dodge Neon with an 8-ball of coke in the glove compartment and a hooker named Mandy in the back seat.
“Vampires in the Lemon Grove” by Karen Russell (2008)
In October, the men and women of Sorrento harvest the primofiore, or “first fruit,” the most succulent lemons; in March, the yellow bianchetti ripen, followed in June by the green verdelli.
“Where Will You Go When Your Skin Cannot Contain You?” By William Gay (2007)
The jeepster couldn’t keep still.
But even in anthologies that aim to publish the best of the best, not every story will connect with every reader. Half of the time, I think it’s the search for an extraordinary story that keeps me reading. What I do know for sure is availing myself to these anthologies keeps me on my best reading and writing toes. A writer who does not read much is a dangerous thing.
What magazine, literary journals, or online sites do you rely on to read fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry?
Permission must be granted by JeriWB to use the stack of books image in this post.
Wow… I have never heard of this. I also never thought about what I read as being the kind of author I want to be. Maybe that’s true. Time will tell. 🙂
I’ve definitely been shaped by the books I’ve been most drawn to. However, I’m not so sure I can walk in Steinbeck’s shoes. It’s a pretty tall order.
Oooh, I love the best American Travel Writing. Thanks for reminding me of this series.
I’m officially two years behind now on the short story and essay anthologies. Maybe I can get caught up over Christmas break!
I love this post Jeri – I’m not familiar with the anthology, but it’s good to be reminded that short stories really are great. I love Annie Proulx for example, and David Sedaris, though not sure his are actually stories per se. I sometimes read the ones in the NewYorker too. Until Gwen instantly grabbed my eye. But there were lots of good ones. For some reason I am not drawn to them even though I enjoy them when I read them. As a novelist do you find that too?
I’ve always had a soft spot for short stories, but at times I neglect staying current with what’s popular. I keep hoping that in this day and age of the short attention span, short stories will eventually receive their place in the spotlight.
Wow Jeri…I’d nearly forgotten about short stories. But I fell in love with them when I was kid reading Reader’s Digest! Remember that? I loved that little magazine! And I was published in Glimmer train about 5 years ago, but have lost touch with so many of these remarkable anthologies. So you’ve shaken me up a bit…. because while I don’t think of them, when I read them I am thoroughly entertained.
Jacquie, short stories tend to fall of most people’s radar. They are kind of the ugly step-children of the book world 😉 That’s awesome that you were published in Glimmer Train. I’ve tried twice now with no luck…
I tend to get all of my reading materials from Amazon on my Kindle. I rarely read anything in actual paper form anymore.
Cheryl, I’m with you on that front though I wish I had waited for a new Kindle as the new Voyage model appears to have better technology that allows the reader to turn the page from the side of the device rather than by needed to tap the screen.
I LOVED “A&P” by John Updike.
He is def. one of my favorites.
xx Happy MONDAY, Jeri.
Kim, I used to use an audio recording of Updike’s story in my creative writing class. The way some authors read their work definitely can make it come alive for readers.
This is the perfect book to take on the morning bus or train a person takes to get to work. Also, I’m thinking both my mom and my MiL would like this. Possible Christmas gift.
Glynis, the short pieces in anthologies are definitely a plus when it comes to reading during commutes. I buy myself the short story and essay versions every year around the holidays, even though it might take me months to get to a given on. Sometimes I will read one a night before I go to bed. That seems to be the best way to get them read in a timely manner.
But why get rid of books? Get a bigger house! 😉
Alice, haha that brings a smile to my face because I’ve been in the process of downsizing over the past few months. After my last big move, I vowed never gain with all those boxes of books! When I get the urge to re-read a favorite I can always download it again.
These sound great, Jeri, and The Best American Travel Writing would absolutely interest me. Along with Stephen King and especially St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. Have a great week! 🙂
Mike, every anthology always brings a new story surprise my way and I love the introductions the various guest editors have written too.
I haven’t read much of American Literature, only a few years back my daughter introduced me to it by handing over the first book, saying you must start with this – To Kill a Mockingbird – and now through you I am getting more acquainted with short stories too. Thanks Jeri, your posts always offer something new!
Balroop, there’s certainly a wealth of American short stories for you to discover. I love Joyce Carol Oates and Tobias Wolff the most.
I’m a big fan of short story analogies as well. You can get a real taste for different voices and styles. I also like the short short fiction analogies. I’m not a big fan of GlimmerTrain – they rejected one of my stories thusly “Great read but not right for our magazine,” which left me scratching my head!
Jan, at least Glimmer Train dropped you a note 😉
I used to read far more than I do now, but not as much lately. Not that I don’t want to, it’s just lack of time. I do realize how important it is for writers to read works by other authors. The Best American Short Stories sounds like a great book for me – short stories I can fit into my schedule. 🙂
Susan, reading is something I have to make time for or else I too will let it fall by the wayside. I trick myself into it by looking at the time I will otherwise spend dinking around on my phone. Plus, audiobooks have been a great way to squeeze one more book in every month since I can listen to them in the car or while walking my dog.
I never heard of these books but they sound great. Reading the excerpts I did understand what you meant about the different authors and different ways of writing. There was quite a difference between the little clips. Thanks,Jeri.
Lenie, it always amazes me how writers end up having such different styles. Too often I read stories and/or blogs and notice how the writer is trying to hard to sound like someone else.
I don’t read that many short stories but I often try to pick up an anthology of local writers when I visit someplace. Its kind of like a literary souvenir. I also recently read an interesting collection of short stories called “New Jersey Noir.” Was edited by Joyce Carol Oates who contributed a story. It is apparently a series of collections that are available for many areas. There’s a Brooklyn Noir, Baltimore Noir, etc. Your post makes me feel a little neglectful of this genre.
Ken, thanks for the tip about the Noir series. I’m going to head over to Amazon now and add it to my reading list 😉
I had never heard of The Best American Short Stories but I think it is something I would be interested in…I love books and refuse to get a kindle. I recently sent a box of books home to Ireland from China and it cost me a fortune, but I couldn’t get rid of them!!
Noelle, I hope you’ll check out the series. It shows how much you love your books that you shipped them that far!
I am at a loss. I feel that I don’t really go anywhere for good fiction or creative writing. I do read your blog and many others so that keeps me a bit on my toes. This post made me do 2 things. First, I bought the latest short stories series and secondly, it made me realize how lacking my reading has been lately. I’ve just been in a funk I guess. Gotta get back into it and I have to give thanks to you, Jeri. You keep me on my toes when it comes to reading and writing.
Duke, I get in reading funks too. Yet, I know I have to make that effort to see what’s out there so I can improve as a writer and editor with each new piece I read.
Hello Jeri. I love this post . I do not know about anthology. But you are right that short stories are great. It is necessary to read a lot for writing and we can learn a lot by reading.
Andleeb, I would be curious what fiction collections might be popular in Saudi Arabia? Are there certain short stories that are read by many students when in school?
I used to stay away from short stories, years ago, because by the time you figure out the character, the plot, the theme, etc., the story is over. But now I really like short stories, especially a well-crafted one that stays with you. I’ll have to take a look at some of these anthologies.
Leora, I think you would enjoy some of these anthologies quite a bit. Have you ever read Tolstoy’s “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” I love that one 🙂
Hi Jeri walker,
Awesome post which contain very useful information about the best American short stories. Very interesting and informative article. I liked it. Because these stories are so interesting.
Thanks for share the stories. Have a great week ahead.
Sonu, thanks so much for stopping by. I hope you’ll make it a point to come back again.
I love this quote: “I think it’s the search for an extraordinary story that keeps me reading.” Honestly, your blog is my source for good reads! Now you’re even my source for other sources! 🙂
Meredith, that search for good stories is something I’ve had to consciously cultivate. Many readers stick with what they like, but I’m always reading to see what I might be missing or to get ideas from other genres that I might incorporate into my own. Plus, as an editor I need to be able to give feedback on various genres, which can often involve a need for me to not judge based on my preferences, but on that a story of a certain genre should achieve. Literary stories have always been my favorites.
I am a voracious reader but I will admit I virtually never read short stories. I don’t know why, but you’ve definitely peaked my interest Jeri so I think I’ll take a closer look next time I’m shopping for a new read – which is pretty much ever week. 🙂
Marquita, if you read any short story think about giving Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where are you going? Where have you been?” a try. It’s haunting, plus if you search for it, the full text is available online for free.
I used to read the short story books, but stopped a while back. Will look into the new ones. Very curious since reading your post. LOL… you are influencing me!
Candy, short stories have become ingrained into every fiber of my being thanks to all the workshops I participated in during college and then I had to teach a ton of them when I was in the classroom.
Great post… I love the idea of these anthologies…
The first sentences from the brief stories are intriguing.
My favorite one?… I would say the beginning of “Natasha” by David Bezmozgis.
I like the kind of raw teenager character and I cherish the anti hero, junky types…
I am not sure if this is the case, but I’d definitely read it!.
Ah, last but not least… Have you read a book by Ryu Murakami (not Haruki) called “Blue, almost transparent”?… Well that was one book I have recently read and liked it… The topics are mainly the ones I mentioned above…
All the best to you… Aquileana 😀
Aqui, I’m with you in liking my characters to be a bit on the shady side just trying to get through this thing called life. I’ve not read Marakami’s book, but just looked it up on Amazon. It sounds like one I would give a read to, but it’s only available in used print versions. No e-book!
I’m embarrassed that I never heard of this anthology. I don’t read a lot of short stories, but this is definitely something I should consider. Amazon.de carries it so I think I’ll have to buy one for my Christmas vacation. I’ve been slacking on my reading, which is probably why I haven’t written much. I just started an old book I read to get me back into the swing of things and help improve my own writing. Thanks for the suggestion.
Denise, one reason I’ve been so drawn to short stories over the years is that it’s a great way to be able to expose one’s self with a large sampling of styles and approaches to subject matter.
Sounds like a great resource. I can’t handle many reality based stories though.
Loni, we’re a bit on opposite sides in that regard 😉 Though I do enjoy a good sci-fi or fantasy story from time to time, my brain just always longs for realism.
My husband loves this series and I’ve read many a fine story in it. Also, several that left me scratching my head. Not my cup of tea. Which is exactly what I expect of an anthology.
That’s a good idea to check the ones that spoke to you–I should start doing that and then periodically re-read the ones I really liked.
Jagoda, I’ve found my reactions can vary so much from year to year based on the overall type of story the guest editor has more of a preference for. Even then, I take what I can even from the years that fall flat from me. Even though I know what type of story I’m drawn to as a reader, it’s also good to try to be objective and wonder what qualities other readers might see in one that fails to catch my attention.
Short stories can be a difficult writing form to master. They are certainly different than writing a book. I recently wrote a review of a connected collection of short stories and that book prompted me to get back into reading short stories. A writer can learn so much from reading a variety of short stories. Alice Munro remains a favourite of mine, although she has recently retired from writing.
Donna, I wonder how many stories Alice Munro has written? Also, what must it feel like to be capable of such prodigious output? I’m such a plodder I may never know 😉
Great tips for catching up on short stories and I was not aware of this. I loved your line “There is no better way to learn the craft of writing than to READ and to WRITE a great VARIETY of writing”. Very true.
Welli, no matter the genre, there is always something to be learned from the multitude of ways authors can choose to tell a story.
Neat, I never heard of the American Short Stories Series, will have to check it out. And I love your checkmark idea. That’s a nice way to take a break or to enjoy my lunch hour – thanks for sharing.
Joanne, I do hope you check out the Best American series. My checkmark system has been adjusted somewhat since my switch to e-books, but I still keep track that way of the stories I might re-read someday or use for teaching purposes.
i have never heard of this series. It seems pretty interesting.
Jason, it’s a good series if you’re interested in staying abreast of what journals are publishing. I don’t think hardly anyone reads them from cover to cover though 😉
Sounds like a great read if you are into short stories. Have to admit that apart from W. Somerset Maugham’s short stories that I loved when I was in my teens, I much prefer long stories with an interesting plot. That’s not to say that writing short stories is a bad idea. Just a matter of taste which you can’t discuss. Who’s right and who’s wrong.
Catarina, I go back and forth to what I prefer more. In the end, novels would probably win out for me as well.
I like your post very much, and it made me think. I am a writer, and have been part of only one anthology. I think I might start writing more short stories.
William, I’ve only been anthologized once as well. It’s only in the past year that I’ve started submitting to journal again. Competition is FIERCE!
My reading books in general has declined as I have been so focused on my business. I used to read a lot when I would go on vacation but that feel to the way also this year. It is too bad because I love to read. Never really thought about short stories. Maybe that would get me back into reading again
Arleen, short stories have always worked wonders for me if I take a break from reading and I need to work my way back into the habit. You should give it a try.
Great suggestion, Jeri! I’ve been looking for something new to read. The mention of check marks reminds me of Great Short Stories of the World, which I’ve had since I was 11. I used them to track stories I read. Dashes were for my favorites.
Deidre, the systems readers come up with to keep track of favorites never ceases to amaze me. It’s funny what I will underline or circle or put a box around. I would need to think a long time how to articulate my system to someone so that it made sense 😉
Jeri — the ten short stories you chose all have something in common: a first sentence that is a “grabber.” You don’t have time in a short story to let it roll out leisurely. You’ve got to grab the reader by the throat right away. I was unaware that Ethan Coen (the filmmaker) also writes short stories. Have you read any of them?
Jeannette, I didn’t know Coen also wrote short stories, but I’m going to add one of his titles to my Amazon wishlist. Thanks for the heads up.
While I’ve known about these for a while, I’d never read any until recently. But then again, the short story format didn’t call to me until recently. I agree that it’s a great way to learn the craft — the stories are gems, and each has something to teach.
Laura, it’s good to see you diving into the short story genre now that your memoir is done 🙂
I have forgotten about the short stories and Jacquie reminded me of of the Readers Digest which I use to read as a kid too.
Niekka, I have memories of the boxes and boxes of Readers Digest my grandma used to read. The mere mention brings back fond memories of time spent with her.
I picked up this years Writers of the Future recently. This is a great one for checking out stories from new writers. The series has entered into its 30th year now.
Jon, just looked up the series on Amazon. Total science fiction. I tend to like sci-fi short stories more than novels, so it would be good for me to take a look at those.
Wow excellent post! useful information about the american short stories.
Thanks Jeri x
When I think about what I read, it occurs to me that it spans a lot of genres! Short stories, poetry and full-length fiction, as well as non-fiction articles and blogs. It certainly keeps life interesting 🙂
Christy, I know what you mean when it comes to the dazzling array of writing. How can any reader or writer just stick with a few?