IN THE 1942 VOLUME of The Best American Short Stories, the anthology’s new annual editor, Martha Foley, attempted to define the form. “A good short story,” she wrote, “is a story which is not too long and which gives the reader the feeling he has undergone a memorable experience.” Over the past eleven years, during my own tenure as annual editor of this eighty-six-year-old series, I’ve run across numerous other writers’ attempts to come up with some sort of standard by which to measure the short story. Few have managed to add much to Ms. Foley’s democratic and rather obvious criteria.
At symposiums and writers’ conferences, I’ve learned to duck and weave around the inevitable question “What do you look for in a short story?” I wish I knew! Heart? Soul? Truth? Voice? Integrity of intention and skill in execution? The answer is all of the above, and none of the above. For I don’t really “look” for anything; when a story works, I know it in my gut, not in my head, and only then — after laughing, after brushing away a tear, after taking a moment to catch my breath and return to the here and now — do I set about analyzing the successes and failures of a writer’s effort. It would certainly be nice to have a checklist, a foolproof grading system, a tally sheet of pluses and minuses. But reading is a subjective activity, even for those of us who are fortunate enough to read for a living. We editors may read more pages than the average American, and we may read faster, but when it comes right down to it, I believe we all read for the same reason: in order to test our own knowledge of life and to enlarge on it.
Out of the three thousand or so short stories I read in any given year, I may file two hundred away. And I always marvel at how precious this stash of chosen fiction seems to me; these are the stories that, for one reason or another, exerted some kind of hold on the priorities of my heart. Even now, I have boxes of old stories, going back a decade and more, stacked up in the basement; I’ve saved every file card I’ve filled out since 1990 as well — a treasure trove of stories, a king’s ransom of human wisdom caught and held on those hundreds of moldering pages. When it comes to cleaning closets, I’m ruthless. But those stories . . . well, how could I throw them away? Who knows when a particular bit of fiction will prove useful? Someday, I think, someone will need that story about the emotional roller coaster of new motherhood; or this one, which reminds us what sixteen years old really feels like; or that one, which could help a friend prepare for death . . .
Toward year’s end, I sift through the current piles and begin to ship batches of tales off to the guest editor, always wondering whether he or she will share my tastes and predilections and curious to know whether the narrative voice that whispered so urgently in my ear will speak with as much power to another. Truth be told, it is an anxious time. Just as, when I was a teenager, I wanted my parents to agree that my boyfriend was indeed Prince Charming, I can’t help but hope that the guest editor will share my passion for the year’s collection of short story suitors.
I have no clue about Barbara Kingsolver’s taste in men, but I discovered right away that she and I could fall in love with the same short stories. And when her introduction to this volume came spooling through my fax machine, I stood there reading it page by page, nodding in agreement with her discoveries and full of gratitude for the pickiness (her word) and devotion she brought to this task of reading, judging, and finally choosing. And then, as the next-to-last page emerged into my waiting hands, I saw it: a new definition for the short story, at last. To Martha Foley’s sixty-year-old criteria we can now add Barbara Kingsolver’s useful dictum: “A good short story cannot simply be Lit Lite, but the successful execution of large truths delivered in tight spaces.” Writers take heed!
In choosing this year’s collection of The Best American Short Stories, Kingsolver has done writers and readers a great service, for her own love for the form and her exacting standards have resulted in a volume that is as varied in subject matter, style, voice, and intent as even the most eclectic reader could wish for. Collectively, these stories hum with the energy of twenty disparate voices raised under one roof. They are a testament to our contemporary writers’ vigorous engagement with the world and to the robust good health of American short fiction.
Some years ago, John Updike revealed, “Writing fiction, as those of us who do it know, is, beneath the anxious travail of it, a bliss, a healing, an elicitationn of order from disorder, a praise of what is, a salvaging of otherwise overlookable truths from the ruthless sweep of generalization, a beating offfff daily dross into something shimmering and absolute.” Mr. Updike, who made his first appearance in The Best American Short Stories in 1959, returns this year for the twelfth time as a contributor. (He also served as guest editor in 1984 and coedited The Best American Short Stories of the Century, published in 1999.) He is the only writer in the history of the series to appear in these pages for six consecutive decades — an achievement that we feel is worth noting. May he continue to beat the daily dross into such shimmering and absolute works as “Personal Archeology,” which begins on page 326.
The stories chosen for this anthology were originally published between January 2000 and January 2001. 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 HAVE ALWAYS WONDERED why short stories aren’t more popular in this country. We Americans are such busy people you’d think we’d jump at the chance to have our literary wisdom served in doses that fit handily between taking the trash to the curb and waiting for the carpool. We should favor the short story and adore the poem. But we don’t. Short story collections rarely sell half as well as novels; they are never blockbusters. They are hardly ever even block-denters. From what I gather, most Americans would sooner read a five-hundred- page book about southern France or a boy attending wizard school or how to make home decor from roadside trash or anything than pick up a book offering them a dozen tales of the world complete in twenty pages apiece. And I won’t even discuss what they will do to avoid reading poetry.
Why on earth should this be? I enjoy the form so much myself that when I was invited to be the guest editor for this collection, forewarned that it would involve reading thousands of pages of short fiction in a tight three-month period, I decided to do it. This trial by fire, I thought, would disclose to me the heart of the form and all its mysteries. Also, it would nicely fill the space that lay ahead of me at the end of the year 2000, just after my planned completion of a nov...