Although I read short stories all year long, trying to keep abreast of the journals and literary magazines that course across my desk, I don’t usually hunker down and get serious until right around Labor Day. As the days shorten and the weather turns, the annual reading deadline looms on the horizon, and I set aside all other tasks and get down to the business of reading. This year, of course, the end of summer was swiftly followed by the end of our national innocence. All of us who returned to work in the days and weeks that followed September 11 had to grapple with the changes the events of that day had wrought in our lives and endeavors. Projects that had seemed urgent just weeks before took a back seat to new priorities; work that had been fully engaging suddenly seemed less than compelling; it was hard to concentrate, harder still to figure out just what we should be doing. Instead of reading stories, I found myself drawn to the phone, to e-mail exchanges with distant friends, to snuggles with my husband and my kids, to long, heartfelt chats with my neighbor in the driveway. The human urge for connection seemed at odds with the stacks of magazines piled up in my office. For a while I couldn’t even sit still, let alone give the short stories before me the careful attention they deserved. Friends reported, “I can read the newspaper, but I can’t seem to read anything else.” I knew exactly what they meant. Preoccupied with the unfathomable changes in our world at large, it was almost impossible to focus on the details of a smaller picture.
And then one fall day I came upon Michael Chabon’s story “Along the Frontage Road.” As I reached the end of this brief, bittersweet account of a father and son’s expedition to choose a pumpkin from a roadside stand, I suddenly realized that I was holding my breath; not only that, I was praying for these characters, hoping with all my heart that each of them would receive grace, survive their losses, find love and understanding. The door back into stories had swung open. With that, I came to see that the kind of connection I’d been seeking was actually right in front of me, in stories that remind us that whatever happens, we aren’t alone in the world, that our own fears and concerns are universal, that the details of our ordinary everyday lives do matter.
Throughout the weeks and months that followed, as old routines reasserted themselves and the numbness and shock many of us felt gave way to a new kind of heightened awareness, I was struck by the sheer depth and breadth of human experience portrayed in the stories I read each day. All of them had been written well before September 11, and yet often I found it hard to believe that this could be the case; the truths they spoke seemed so timely, so necessary now. Other times I was astonished by a story’s timelessness, by a realization that an author’s insights into the human condition were no less urgent in 2001 than they would be in any other decade, any other situation. Reading on, choosing stories that still seemed important, that still seemed necessary, or that were simply great fun to read, I came to see in some of these works nothing less than an antidote to terror. As James McKinley, the editor of New Letters, wrote to his readers, “We deceive ourselves if we believe that what’s euphemistically called ‘the tragic events of September 11’ limn this nation any more than the coincident attack on the Pentagon or the anthrax onslaught define us. Ultimately, we are defined by what we create, not by what others destroy.” Here, then, are the stories of 2001, offered in the faith that we will continue to connect at the deepest levels through art, and that literature will remain as beneficial to the human community as any ideology, machine, or technological advance.
This year Sue Miller put aside her own fiction writing in order to read well over a hundred stories and compile this volume. She tackled the job with an open heart and an open mind, with the authors’ names blacked out and no preconceptions about what kinds of stories she intended to choose. As she reveals in her introduction, she wondered if the stamp of her personality would be evident in her choices for this collection. “In fact,” she writes, “I even looked forward to that possibility, with pleasure at the notion of discovering something about myself by those choices.” With no agenda beyond finding the choicest works of fiction of 2001, Sue Miller did indeed bring a generous spirit and an astute judgment to her task: she has given us a richly varied, vigorous, highly readable collection, twenty stories that reaffirm the health of this quintessentially American form. We are grateful for her effforts, and for a volume that is much more than the sum of its parts.
The stories chosen for this anthology were originally publisheddddd between January 2001 and January 2002. The qualifications for selection are (1) original publication in nationally distributed American or Canadian periodicals; (2) publication in English by writers who are American or Canadian, or who have made the United States or Canada their home; (3) original publication as short stories (excerpts of novels are not knowingly considered). A list of magazines consulted for this volume appears at the back of the book. Editors who wish their short fiction to be considered for next year’s edition should send their publications to Katrina Kenison, c/o The Best American Short Stories, Houghton Mifflin Company, 222 Berkeley Street, Boston, MA 02116.
I was forced to write short stories by the exigencies of my life at a certain moment. Of course, that’s not true; it’s just how I felt. For one thing, I didn’t have to write a word if I didn’t want to. No one was either asking to read what I wrote or offering to pay me for it, and the choice to write — which I was barely aware of making — was my own. I wound up writing short stories because I didn’t feel I had the time or the imaginative energy left to me — after being a mother, having a job, and running a house — to undertake the longer kind of work, the work of the novel, to which I felt more suited. Almost arbitrarily felt more suited, I would have to say. In any case, I wrote short stories for a number of years of my life, and when I was almost finished doing that — though I’m not sure even now that I’m shut of the form — I was lucky enough to have a collection of them published.
I had occasion recently to reread that book (I was trying to decide on a story to read aloud in front of an audience), and what struck me about the stories after all these years was what an odd collection, in fact, they make. How different they are, one from another — in tone, in subject matter, in structure, even in length. Motley.
This may not be how the collection would be received by others now, of course; and actually, it wasn’t received that way when it was published, by and large. The reviewer in the Sunday Times Book Review, I recall, saw the stories as unitary. They were, she wrote, too much about sex and too little about love. (Ouch. This was only my second book, and it was hard to feel so keenly that the reviewer didn’t care for my work. But I consoled myself that if ever a negative remark might help sell a book, “too much about sex” might be just that remark.) Still, I do think that writers often come around, willy-nilly, to doing, recognizably, what they do, even when they’re struggling hardest to do something new and fresh. This has happened to me so...