Storyville: Researching The Best American Short Stories Anthology
NOTE: Everything I say about this anthology can probably be applied to other anthologies, annual and irregular, such as The Best American Mystery Stories, The Best American Non-required Reading, and others.
If you want to stay current on what is happening in the world of literary short fiction, one of the books you absolutely must read each and every year is The Best American Short Stories anthology. This series was started back in 1978 and features an annual guest editor. Previous editors include Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike, Raymond Carver, Margaret Atwood, Tobias Wolff, Michael Chabon, and Stephen King. It is not an exhaustive list of every fantastic short story written each year, but it is certainly a great place to start. The major flaw in the collection is that it tends to lean on the mainstream giants, places like Harper’s, Granta, The New Yorker and Tin House, but it also has a knack for bringing attention to much smaller publications such as One Story and Hobart.
Now, I could just yell at you about how important it is to read this anthology every year, but I’m not going to do that. It’s important, and you should realize that. But beyond that, how can it help YOU to advance your career? This anthology is a great resource for many reasons. And in an age where people are turning up their noses at spending $50 for an annual membership at Duotrope.com, you can very easily check this anthology out from your local library for free and take all the notes you need.
The first thing you want to do is read the collection, obviously. Those 20 stories have been whittled down from thousands that series editor Heidi Pitlor has selected over the course of a year. She then gives the top 120 to the guest editor and lets them pick “the best” 20.
So read the stories to get a sense of what is current, what kinds of trends are happening in the world of the literary short story. Surprising to me in the 2012 collection was an abundance of stories that had a science fiction, fantastic, or magical realism angle. That’s new. Or, I should say, that’s a bit of a shift.
Take a look at the names of the authors, to see who you recognize. Mary Gaitskill was a big name in the 2012 edition, and I love her work, as well as George Saunders. Alice Munro as well. But for me, it was the “lesser known” voices that I enjoyed the most this year, people like Roxane Gay and Mike Meginnis. I’ve also come to enjoy Steven Millhauser, and two authors I’d never heard of before, Carol Anshaw and Eric Punchner, really blew me away.
So what, who cares about the names that Richard knows or doesn’t know, right? What if you don’t know anybody in this collection? Well, this is a good way to find voices that are succeeding on many levels. You can’t ignore the fact that a story was not only in The New Yorker but also selected by BASS. This it the kind of work that editors are salivating over, so read it, learn from it, and see how it may be similar to your own work, and how it may differ. Soak it up. Evolve. Study these stories to see how they make you care, how they make you cry, how they make an impression on you.
If an author really blows you away, seek out more of their work. If you loved the Mary Gaitskill story, maybe go pick up her collection Bad Behavior. Read more of her work and study at the feet of the master. This is how I first heard of George Saunders, and his story "Puppy" is one of my favorite stories, ever. This is your free MFA program. If you like what an author is doing, find them on Twitter and/or Facebook, and keep up with their careers. Birds of a feather flock together, yeah? Surround yourself with voices that impact your life and let their work seep into what you do.
AS AN EDITOR
If you ever plan on being an editor, of a journal or magazine, or maybe at a press, working on anthologies, you can definitely use the BASS as a long list of names to keep in mind. Not everyone in the final twenty (or the 100 “Other Distinguished Stores of 2011” list that’s in the back of the book) is out of reach, untouchable, too big to talk to an eager young editor. You’d be surprised.
Let me tell you a little story. Several years ago when I was just starting my MFA program, and reading the BASS 2008, I ran across a few stories that really just floored me. One of those was by an author named Karen Brown. Now, I’d never heard of her before. But her story, “Galatea” was amazing. So I followed her on Twitter, added her in on Facebook, and thought nothing of it. A few months later I was editing an issue of Colored Chalk, and I started soliciting authors for stories. I always like to “stack” an issue of whatever I work on, taking stories primarily from the slush pile, but also reaching out to a few “name” authors to help get hype and attention on the issue or collection. I got Joe Meno and Joey Goebel to send in stories. I thought to myself, "Huh, authors actually get back to me, this could work!" So when I edited Colored Chalk #9, I reached out to Karen. She was very kind and generous and sent me in a story, and I loved it. Years later, I reviewed her collection of stories, Little Sinners, at The Nervous Breakdown. And right now, I’m editing a collection of stories for Black Lawrence Press. You guessed it, I have a story of hers in this collection, entitled “Stillborn,” and it is devastating.
You just never know how these things will turn out. You meet an editor at AWP, such as Roxane Gay, and love what she's doing, so you pick up an issue of PANK, love it, submit, and she eventually takes one of your stories. Years later you hunt her down to publish some of her work and it's all come full circle.
OTHER DISTINGUISHED STORIES
In the back of each issue of the BASS series there is a long list of 100 stories. These are the “runner-ups,” and a compelling list of reading for sure. I love to read through this list for many reasons. First, I like to see if any of my friends made this list. And every year there are always a few that do, and I like to reach out to them and congratulate them. In this year’s list I saw a few people I know personally, authors like Karl Taro Greenfeld (reviewed him at TNB), Benjamin Percy (also reviewed him at TNB, met him a few times at AWP conferences), and Laura van den Berg (also in the BLP anthology). It’s of course my dream to make this list, if not the actual final 20, and when I see my friends succeeding, it makes me happy.
This is also a larger list to peruse for authors you should get to know. And in addition to that, it is a much longer list of publications that are getting attention and emerging as places to publish. I may never get into The New Yorker, but there are other markets on here that I have been in, such as Gargoyle, Pear Noir, and others. So be sure to read this list of other distinguished stories and write down any journals, magazines or annuals that you’ve never heard of, and look into them. Hunger Mountain is a new one to me, on my radar now, as is Green Mountains Review, Commonweal and Nimrod.
MAGAZINES PUBLISHING SHORT FICTION
Just after the list of distinguished short stories is the name and mailing address of every magazine, journal and annual that BASS reads and sources for each issue. Above and beyond the authors you’ve now discovered and the magazines and journals that are making the cut, this is a much longer list of almost 300 publications that you can look at and study to see if they will be appropriate for your work. Now, there isn’t as much information on here as there is in Writer’s Market or at Duotrope, but it is definitely a great list of places to consider. It is not exhaustive though, as it pretty much leaves out any online publication, and some smaller rags, but it’s really one hell of a great long list.
So what does this all mean? If you don’t care about literary fiction, this article isn’t a waste for you. If you write horror, pick up The Best Horror of the Year (often edited by Ellen Datlow). If you write fantasy or science fiction, pick up The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy. Or pick up the The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses. The point I’m trying to make is that you need to take the time to build your network of peers and hopefully someday, fans, while you also keep an eye on the authors, publications, and presses that are doing the work that gets the recognition, wins the awards, and makes the final cut. Put as much time into it as you can, because this is your education, for free. Libraries are your friend. Or buy the books if you want to keep them handy. Hit up garage sales, etc. I snatch up these collections all of the time (I have the BASS going back to 1990). Make the effort, do the research, and I think you’ll see your work start to improve. And if nothing else, you’ll read some really amazing short stories.
I found a few of the stories from the 2012 BASS online. Most places make it very difficult to read these on the web, but TNY is always good about having their work up there and available, at least for a while. Here is Mary Gaitskill’s “The Other Place,” and Steven Millhauser’s “Miracle Polish.” They won’t be available forever, so go read them now.
TO SEND A QUESTION TO RICHARD: drop him a line at Richard@litreactor.com. Who knows, it could be his next column.
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