An anthology of an anthology, packed with some of the best short fiction ever committed to print.
Aficionados of the “Getting Things Done” system of time management will appreciate that Best American Short Stories founding editor Edward J. O’Brien was “almost pathologically organized,” useful for dealing with the flood of stories he received on conceiving the annual prize volume. That was back when short stories, as the editors note, “were the preferred entertainment in the United States,” not the currency of MFA workshops and suburban book clubs. Tastes change: there’s a world of difference between Ring Lardner and Jamaica Kincaid, and if the two might have enjoyed a conversation, the editors might have commented a touch more about how the short story genre has evolved in the century since O’Brien got to work. For the moment, it’s worth marveling at how Edna Ferber’s “The Gay Old Dog” reflects a world gone by in its very title, an age of “loop-hounds,” kerchiefs, and waistcoats; one wonders whether George Saunders’ postmodernly busy “The Semplica-Girl Diaries” will seem similarly fusty a century from now, whether Robert Stone’s evocations of the Vietnam War will have any meaning then. There are classic and even some canonical pieces in the book and plenty of big names from Hemingway and Cheever to Munro and Oates, and if there are no surprises here—after all, they’re known prizewinners, with all the baggage good and ill that prizes carry—an aspiring writer could do worse than have this as a handbook. Some standouts: Sherman Alexie’s sharply observed portrait of Skid Row (“Rose of Sharon, Junior, and I carried our $20 bill and our five dollars in loose change over to the 7-Eleven and bought three bottles of imagination”); Akhil Sharma’s portrait of Indian immigrant life, “If You Sing Like That for Me”; and Moore’s highly entertaining if refractive introduction.
Though certainly not the last word on American short fiction, a collection of uncommonly high value.