Rookie of the Year
The new cheat sheets are here! The new cheat sheets are here!
Want to know who the hottest fiction writers are? Yeah, yeah, commercially it's whatever middlebrow author Oprah tabbed this month. While there have been exceptions, many Oprah authors are no more writer's writers than Kenny G is a saxophonist's saxophonist.
The best way to find the hottest, most influential writers writing would be (1) to read every issue of every magazine that publishes new fiction, and (2) to read every good book that comes out. Which would work fine if you were Burgess Meredith in that episode of "The Twilight Zone" where everyone in the world disappears except this bookish guy who's left alone -- o, lovely briar patch -- inside a library. (Six words of advice: Take good care of your glasses.) Absent that, what do you do?
I've said it before (in this very space), and I'll say it again: The best possible way to keep tabs on what's up with North American fiction is to buy, year in and year out, each year's volume of The Best American Short Stories and Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards.
Both collections have been around for more than 80 years, have had their ups (mostly artistic) and downs (mostly commercial), but are both currently enjoying commercial heydays. During the 1970s, BASS's sales sank to a series-threatening 7,000 copies a year, before it hit on some bright ideas that saved it. Beginning in 1978, instead of one editor choosing everything himself (Edward O'Brien, from 1915 to 1940) or herself (Martha Foley, from 1941 to 1977), a series editor winnowed the 3,000 or so published stories each year down to a stack of 120 (a task, says current series editor Katrina Kenison that has become much harder the past couple years than it was when she began in 1991, when she had to scrape to find 120 she thought were terrific). Then a guest editor picks 20 stories to include (this year's, Amy Tan, seems to have done an especially able job and wrote a smart and delightful introduction). Beginning in 1983 (with an Anne Tyler-edited edition that was one of the series's strongest), BASS began to be published simultaneously in both hardback and paperback editions. And in 1987, it began to feature short comments by the writers, talking about their stories. BASS (better selling than O. Henry in recent years) began consistently to sell over 100,000 copies a year.
O. HENRY's nadir came more recently. Coinciding with BASS's resurgence, O. Henry, in the 1980s, became the American short story's poor, quirky stepchild. (Not in a good way.) But it received a major overhaul in 1997. A single editor (now Larry Dark) still, as has typically been the case, picks the 20 stories to include. But now, O. Henry also includes a list of 50 short-listed stories (with brief synopses) and comments by the authors of each year's anointed 20. Furthermore, three guest jurors (this year, Sherman Alexie, Stephen King, and Lorrie Moore), pick from those 20 a first, second, and third prize. Sales have zoomed.
You could read this year's editions of these two indispensable annuals and -- without breaking a sweat (with no effort more strenuous than feeling the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, though I did, as did Tan, read most of these stories on a StairMaster) -- glean this exemplary shorthand of whom you should be reading, circa 1998-1999.
Most Valuable Player: Alice Munro.
Why (aside from the fact that she's the greatest living writer in English): Her story, "Save the Reaper," certainly the best short story I read last year, is one of only two included in both the 1999 BASS and O. Henry. In awarding it third prize in O. HENRY, Moore (whose "People Like That Are the Only People Here" was the only story included in both the 1998 BASS and O. Henry) discerns the story's parallels not only with Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" but also with the myths of Eros, Demeter, and Hermes. Moore writes that, in contrast to the O'Connor masterpiece, "[a]s always in the fictional world of Munro, a character's fate pivots not on the penitential moment but on the erotic one."
Neither annual allows any writer to be represented by more than one story (a custom that became a rule when both Munro and Richard Bausch landed two gems apiece in BASS 1990), but Munro's "Cortes Island" is short-listed for both and "Before the Change" is short-listed in O. Henry. All three stories are collected in her National Book Critics Circle Award-winning book The Love of a Good Woman.
MVP Runners-Up: Annie Proulx, Pam Houston, Lorrie Moore.
Why: All three are included in both volumes. Proulx's story "The Bunchgrass Edge of the World" is included in BASS and short-listed in O. Henry, "The Mud Below" in O. Henry and short-listed in BASS. Both are included in Proulx's collection Close Range, which includes two other stories honored in previous years ("Brokeback Mountain" and "The Half-Skinned Steer") and, even in an amazing year for short story collections, is one of the year's most talked-about books.
Houston is the year's most-cited story writer, with four: "Cataract" is included in O. Henry; "The Best Girlfriend You Never Had" is included BASS; two other stories ("Then You Get Up and Have Breakfast" and "Three Lessons in Amazon Biology") are short-listed in BASS. All are included in her collection Waltzing the Cat.
In addition to serving as an O. Henry juror, Moore has a story, "Real Estate," included in BASS, and her story "Lucky Ducks" is short-listed there. Both are from the exquisite Birds of America.
Rookie of the Year: Jhumpa Lahiri.
Why: Her funny, gentle, heartbreaking story "Interpreter of Maladies" -- about a nonjudgmental part-time translator/part-time cabdriver in India, who takes an American family sightseeing, gets a decorous crush on the woman, and leads the children into endangerment at the hands of hanuman monkeys -- is the only other story in both volumes. Although Lahiri's work has appeared in The New Yorker, this story originally ran in The Agni Review -- a good journal, but one you may not regularly read. Both annuals had picked it for inclusion before the publication of Lahiri's first book, also called Interpreter of Maladies. The book is, justly, one of the sleeper successes of the year.
"Our record of discovery is pretty good," says BASS's Kenison. "Chances are, year in and year out, you'll pick up a volume and read a story by someone you've never heard of. The next year, that writer's everywhere you look."
This year, that's Lahiri.
Also receiving votes are these 18 writers, an intriguing mix of veterans and new voices, also either short-listed or included in both volumes (and if you want to be the savviest reader on your block, you'll read more of these people's work): Poe Ballantine, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Michael Byers, Kiana Davenport, Chitra Divakaruni, Nathan Englander, Mary Gaitskill, Tim Gautreaux (whose "The Piano Tuner," included in BASS and collected in his new book, Welding with Children, is my favorite non-Munro story in either book), Heidi Julavitz, Sheila Kohler, David Long, Steven Millhauser, Kent Nelson, Cynthia Ozick, Melissa Pritchard, John Updike (he's very good), David Foster Wallace (he's very smart), Joy Williams.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Despite increasing competition, this annual collection remains the place to find the most compelling short fiction published in the U.S. and Canada. Guest editor Tan comments that many of her 21 choices carry "an exotic flavor.... Either the narrators were ethnic or the settings outside America." Especially noteworthy are several stories with South Asian locations or characters. In Jhumpa Lahiri's "Interpreter of Maladies" an Indian tour guide finds himself at first puzzled by an Indian-American family, and later drawn to its frustrated mother and wife. James Spencer's "The Robbers of Karnataka" follows Americans who visit South India seeking an enlightened swami, and encounter armed bandits instead. Other strong entries come from such stellar names as Alice Munro ("Save the Reaper"), Rick Bass ("The Hermit's Story") and Lorrie Moore ("Real Estate"). But much exciting work here emanates from young writers. The evocative "The Sun, the Moon, the Stars," by Junot D az, follows a troubled New York City Latino couple to Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic, where "the entire history of late-20th-century automobiles swarm[s] across every flat stretch of ground, a cosmology of battered cars, battered motorcycles, battered trucks, and battered buses... " Nathan Englander combines Yiddish folktale and Nazi-era horror in "The Tumblers," as a group of Hasids performs a grotesque acrobatic act in the heart of Berlin. Hester Kaplan's "Live Life King-Sized" also merges comedy with mortality: the owner of a Caribbean resort must accommodate a guest who asks that he be allowed to die on the island. The selection draws on 17 journals, from the New Yorker to the Clackamas Literary Review; and many of the stories have published in such collections of the authors' work as For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, Birds of America and Welding with Children. Such a high caliber of literary excellence speaks well for the state of short fiction. (Oct.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
In her choices for this edition of an enduring series, Tan discloses a bias for certain kinds of storytelling: a strong narrative voice, a thought or perception that signals a change for the protagonist, and elements of fairy tales and the grotesque. The fantistical is certainly in evidence. In Nathan Englander's "The Tumblers," the residents of a mythical Jewish village cannot escape the effects of the Holocaust. Readers enter the Twilight Zone in George Harrar's "The 5:22," as a man's daily routine skews into the surreal. And Annie Proulx's "The Bunchgrass End of the World" features a talking tractor. Also evident is the increasing diversity of our culture, as a significant proportion of the stories feature non-Anglo characters and/or authors. Recommended for academic and public libraries.--Christine DeZelar-Tiedman, Univ. of Idaho Lib., Moscow Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
The latest in this 85-year-old series continues the tradition of putting the timely and new into a kind of yearbook of the American literary scene, this time with Tan (The Hundred Secret Senses, 1995, etc.) picking the sides and calling the shots. "The best stories do change us," writes Tan. "They help us live interesting lives." That's a pretty tall order, especially nowadays, when literary fiction in general and the short story in particular become increasingly self-referential and esoteric. But there's still some life to be found on these pages. Rick Bass, in "The Hermit's Story," takes us into Jack London territory with an old-fashioned campfire yarn about a dog trainer and her frozen passage through the snows of Canada with her sledding team. At the other extreme (in "The Sun, the Moon, the Stars"), Junot Díaz heads from New Jersey to Santo Domingo, where Dominican narrator Yunior takes his Nuyorican girlfriend Magdalena on a doomed holiday in the hope of patching up their shaky relationship. The best stories here, in fact, all tend to be regional: Ha Jin portrays the metaphoric claustrophobia of a Communist boarding school ("In the Kindergarten"), while A. Hemon's family portrait ("Islands") offers a microcosmic study of the survivors of Stalin's gulags. Domestic life American-style doesn't seem to have the same resonance: Heidi Julavits's deconstruction of a wedding album ("Marry the One Who Gets There First") is too clever by half, whereas Lorrie Moore's "Real Estate" does nothing very original with the tired theme of the malcontent woman looking for her dream house. Similarly, Stephen Dobyns's interior fantasy "Kansas" (the hero reimagines the story's end overand over) becomes quickly tedious, while Tim Gatreaux's more straightforward account of loneliness redeemed through art ("The Piano Tuner") succeeds with less commotion. Perhaps less is more, after all: the more ambitious pieces here disappoint almost without exception, whereas the authors who are old-fashioned enough to want to tell a story usually manage to do just thatand quite nicely, too.
From the Publisher
"An annual treat . . heartening and facinating." Christian Science Monitor
Read an Excerpt
Forty years ago, just before I turned seven, my father started
reading to me from a volume of 365 stories with an equal number of
The stories were supposed to be read in sequence, a tale a
day, beginning with a sledding caper on a snowy January first. They
concerned the ongoing activities of children who lived in lovely two-
story homes on a block lined with trees whose changing leaves
reflected the seasons. They each had a father and a mother as well as
two sets of grandparents, and these older folk conveyed simple truths
while taking cookies from a hot oven or fish from a cold stream. Each
day the children had small adventures with baby animals, balloons, or
bicycles. They enjoyed nice surprises, got into small troubles, and
had fun problems that they could solve. They made thingamajigs out of
mud and stone and paint, which wound up being the prettiest ashtray
Mommy and Daddy had ever received. Within each of those five-hundred-
word stories, the children learned a valuable lifelong lesson, which
they promised never to forget.
By the middle of the book, I had learned to read well enough
to finish a book in one day. And being impatient to learn what
happened to the children in the rest of the year, I polished off the
remaining stories in one sitting. On the last day of the year, the
children went sledding again, completing the happy circle. Thus, I
discovered that those children, between January first and December
thirty-first, had not changed much.
I was glad, for that was the same year I accumulated many
worries, which I numbered on my fingers. One was forthe new home we
had moved to, the fifth of more than a dozen I would occupy during my
childhood. Two was for the dead rat crushed in a trap, which my
father showed me, believing that this would assure me that the rat
was no longer lurking in my bedroom. Three was my playmate, whom I
saw lying in a coffin while my mother whispered, "This what happen
when you don't listen to Mother." Four was for the operation I had,
which made me think I had not listened to my mother. Five was for the
ghost of my playmate who wanted me to come live with her. Six was for
my mother telling me that when she was my age her mother had died,
and the same sad fate might happen to me if I didn't appreciate her
more. Eventually, I ran out of fingers.
That year, I believed that if I could make sense of my
worries, I could make them stop. And when I couldn't, I would walk to
the library. I went there often. I would choose my own books. And I
would read and read, a story a day.
That girl from forty years ago has served as your guest
editor for The Best American Short Stories 1999. I felt I should tell
you about my earliest literary influences, because I'm aware that if
you scan the table of contents, you might suspect that I have been
reactionary in my choices. You may wonder if they are a vote against
homogeneity, a vote for diversity in preordered proportions.
This collection holds no such political agenda. The stories I
have chosen are simply those I loved above all others given to me for
consideration. This is not to say that my literary judgment is
without personal bias. I am a particular sort of reader, shaped by
all kinds of influences - one of them being those bedtime stories of
long ago, for I still do most of my reading in bed.
I also now realize that I dearly loved those stories. In
fact, I regret that I finished them so quickly that my father no
longer had to read them aloud to me each night, for what I loved most
was listening to his voice. And what I love most in these twenty-one
stories is the same thing. It is the voice of the storyteller.
At the beginning of 1998, the year these stories first appeared in
magazines, I found myself in an airport lounge in Seoul, waiting for
a connecting flight to Beijing. For reading material, I had brought
with me The Best American Short Stories 1992, the volume whose guest
editor was Robert Stone. I remember settling in with a cup of ginseng
tea, then glancing up and seeing, with a shock of recognition, a
woman who seemed like a younger version of me. She was Asian, I would
guess even Chinese American, and she was with a husband who looked
quite similar to mine in height and build and coloring. But more
striking than these superficial similarities was what she held in her
hands: the same teal-blue volume of The Best American Short Stories.
Did she notice me as well? She gave no indication that she
did. Meanwhile, I had an urge to run up to her and ask all kinds of
questions. Was she a writer? What story was she reading? Why had she
picked this book to bring on a long flight to Asia?
But I remembered those times my mother used to embarrass me
as a child, going up to strangers in public places just because they
happened to look Chinese. So I stayed put, reading from my book, then
wondering how she could not notice me, our similarity. After all, it
wasn't as though we were reading the same blockbuster novel of the
year. It wasn't a travel book on Asia. It wasn't even the most recent
volume of The Best American Short Stories. So what was it about our
lives, our tastes, our choices that had brought us to this literary
meeting point in Seoul?
Shortly after I returned home, I was asked to serve as guest
editor of The Best American Short Stories 1999. And from October 1998
until February 1999, I read stories, manna from heaven, or wherever
it is that Katrina Kenison makes her home. And after I had made my
selections and sat down to write this introduction, I thought about
that woman at the airport. I wondered if she would one day read the
stories in this volume and find compatibility with my choices. Or
would she pose the hard-nosed literary question "Huh?"
That is the response I sometimes have after seeing certain
movies or plays that others have raved about. In fact, my husband and
I have friends we have long associated with a particular film,
Babette's Feast. We recalled their saying it was subtle and
unpretentious, artless in the way pure art should be. So we went to
see it. Huh? We found it tedious, interminable. And so we avoided any
future recommendations for movies by these same friends.
Babette's Feast had me thinking the other day that the same
avoidance principles might apply to people who take on the role of
literary arbiter for others - reviewers, critics, panels for prizes,
and yes, even guest editors. Such people may have an eye for literary
conventions and contrivances, allusions and innovations on the art.
But what are their tastes based on? What are their biases? Is part of
it the common prejudice in the arts that anything that is popular is
by default devoid of value? Do they tend to choose work that most
resembles their own? Perhaps those critics who publicly declare "this
is good and that is not" ought to present a list of more than just
the titles of their most recently published works.
I, for one, would like a résumé of habits, a précis of
personality. What movies would they watch twice? Do they make clever
and snide remarks, but mostly about people who are doing better than
they? When recounting conversations, do they imitate other people's
voices? When sharing a meal with friends, do they offer to pick up
the tab, split the bill evenly, or portion it out according to what
they ordered and how little wine they drank? When a friend of theirs
has suffered a terrible loss, do they immediately call or wait until
things have settled down a bit? What are their most frequent
complaints in life? What do they tend to exaggerate? What do they
downplay? Do they think little dogs are adorable or appetizers for
big dogs? And, of course, I would want to know the names of books
they love and loathe and why.
In other words, if you ran into this person at a party, would
you even like him or her? I am being only half facetious. I do think
the answers would say something about a person's sensibility
regarding life and human nature, and hence his or her sensibility
regarding stories, beyond the surface of craft. I think the stories
we love to read may very well have to do with our emotional
obsessions, the circuitry between our brain and our heart, the
questions we thought about as children that we still think about,
whether they are about the endurance of love, the fears that unite
us, the acceptance of irreversible decay, or the ties that bind that
turn out to be illusory. In that context, I also think that if
Babette's Feast was your all-time favorite film, then you might not
like the stories I picked.
Anyway, for the woman at the airport, for our friends whose
taste in movies serves as a reverse indicator, and for anyone now
taking a flyer on my judgment, I want to reveal what kind of tastes I
developed between the stories I read forty years ago and the stories
I read this year.
As a worrisome child, I developed an osmotic imagination, and I loved
fairy tales for their richness in the grotesque. I read them all:
Hans Christian Andersen, the Brothers Grimm, Aesop's Fables, Little
Red Riding Hood - whatever was on the library shelf, a book a day,
many of them devoured at bedtime, which my mother said is why I
ruined my eyes and had to wear glasses at such a young age.
Because my father was a part-time Baptist minister, I also
read Bible stories, which I thought were quite similar to fairy
tales, for they too contained gory images, gut-clenching danger,
magical places, and a sense that things are never as they first
appear. By the end of these stories, much had always changed.
Kingdoms and seas rose and fell. Humble creatures turned into
handsome princes or prophets. Straw became gold, a crumb a thousand
loaves. And a lot of bearded giants lost their heads.
I loved these stories because, along with the horrific, they
contained limitless and amazing ways in which people, places, and
circumstances changed. It gave me a sense of instability, distrust,
and wonder that mirrored my own life. I remember a particular
Halloween, being lost on a dark street, then finally seeing my
mother, her red swing coat. I flew toward her, hugging the back of
her coat, crying for joy because I was no longer lost, only to see a
stranger's startled face looking down at me. As a child, I thought it
was a kind of terrifying magic that my mother transformed into a
woman with blond hair. She changed quickly in other ways as well.
Sometimes she was happy with me, the next moment disappointed, wild
with anger. And in her eyes, I too had changed, and she was ashamed
beyond belief that I had strange, bad ingredients inside me that
neither she or I had suspected were there until my awful behavior had
leaked out like a stench. And I would wonder, who am I really? A
fairy? An evil sprite? A good princess in the temporary form of a
rotten Chinese girl?
With fairy tales, you could immerse your imagination like
your big toe in a tub of hot water and retract it if it didn't agree
with you. Part of the thrill was seeing what you could take, guessing
what might happen, delighting if you were surprised, decrying if you
were unfairly fooled. Kind creatures turned into genies. People who
died, fell down holes, or became lost later might be transformed into
happier beings. They could wind up in lands that nobody else knew
existed. In stories, you could hide or escape.
Since my father was a minister and my mother a believer in
bad fate, I used to wonder: What are the reasons that catastrophe
happens? Is calamity a lesson, a curse, or a test? Is it a punishment
for evil? Does it occur because of blind luck or blind revenge? Or
does it simply happen for reasons we can never know or would not want
to know? I was a child who rode a whirligig of questions and flew out
in all directions.
Whatever the case, I was addicted to stories about the
morbid: the beheadings, the stonings, the man who was three days dead
and already stank when he came back to life. These were people with
fates worse than mine. So far, at least. But just in case, I wanted
to prepare for other dangers that might still await me.
Around this same time, I discovered a book at home that was
also useful to me in this regard. It was a medical textbook my mother
was studying so she could become a licensed vocational nurse. The
textbook concerned medical anomalies. Inside were descriptions and
photographs of people with acromegaly, elephantiasis, hirsutism,
leprosy, and superfluous or missing appendages - all kinds of
deformities that vied with Ripley's Believe It or Not for open-jawed
I tried to imagine the lives of these people, how they felt,
their thoughts as they stared back at me from the photographs. I
imagined them before they had their disease. I imagined them cured. I
imagined taking them to school and all the kids screaming in terror,
while I alone remained calm, a true friend. I imagined them changing
into genies, princes, and immortals. I imagined I might become just
like them, now plagued and miserable, soon to be transformed into
someone else. These people were my imaginary playmates. Their
consciousness, I believed, was mine. And those notions, I think, were
among the first stories I made up for myself.
Like many children, I read to be scared witless, to be less
lonely, to believe in other possibilities. But we all become
different readers in how we respond to books, why we need them, what
we take from them. We become different in the questions that arise as
we read, in the answers that we find, in the degree of satisfaction
or unease we feel with those answers. We differ in what we begin to
consider about the real world and the imaginary one. We differ in
what we think we can know - or would want to know - and in how we
continue to pursue that knowledge.
One story can be a different story in the hands of a
I believe that now, although in college I allowed myself to
believe otherwise. Back then, I believed good taste was an opinion
held by others - namely, the designated experts. I was an English
major, and I remember that in my sophomore year I wrote a theme paper
(as they were then called) on Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. I
thought the story was well written, but I did not like it much: the
cynicism, the fact that by the end of the story the characters had
not changed, which was the point, but one that I did not find
interesting. I said so in my theme paper, and the following week my
professor chose to read it aloud. He said it was remarkably different
from the rest of the papers he had read in all his years of teaching.
I blushed, thinking this was high praise. And then he started to read
my sentences in a tone that became increasingly less benign. Soon his
face was livid as he gasped after each of my paragraphs: "Who is this
writer to criticize Hemingway, the greatest American writer of our
century? This writer is an idiot! This novel deserves a better
reader!" If this writer had had the means, she would have killed
herself on the spot.
The following year, I was in another English class at another
college, and the same novel was assigned. This time I wrote a theme
paper that noted the brilliant characterization - how, despite the
panorama of events and the opportunities afforded these characters,
nothing much had changed in their lives, and how this so convincingly
captured the realism of ennui. It represented the pervasive American
sense of a lost generation whose lives, singly or together, held no
hope or direction. My paper received high praise.
By the time I graduated, I was sick of reading literary
fiction. My osmotic imagination had changed into one with filters,
lint traps. I thought that literary tastes were an established norm
that depended on knowing what others more expert than I thought was
For the next twelve years, I read an occasional novel. But I
did not return to my habit of reading a story a day until 1985. By
then I had become a successful but unhappy person, with work that was
lucrative but meaningless. This was one of those moments that cause
people to either join a religious cult, spend a lot of money on
psychotherapy, or take up the less drastic and more economical
practice of writing fiction.
Since I was a beginning writer, I believed that the short
form was the easier one to tackle. It was the IRS approach to
writing: use the short form if you have less to account for and the
standard amount to withhold. Perusing a remainders table at my local
bookstore, I picked up The Best American Short Stories 1983, the
volume edited by Anne Tyler. Well, I was raised by a Chinese mother
who taught me to aim high. This was the book for me, the best. With
suggestions from my more literary-minded friends, I also began
reading short story collections, and the ones I targeted first were
by women - Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty, Lorrie Moore, Amy Hempel,
Alice Adams, Jamaica Kincaid, Louise Erdrich, Jane Smiley, Mary
Robison, Molly Giles, Alice Munro, Mary Hood, Ann Beattie. Of course,
I also read fiction by men - John Updike, Gabriel García-Márquez,
Donald Barthelme, Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Ethan Canin, Lee
Abbot, Tobias Wolff, Chekhov, Flaubert, and even Hemingway, whom I
reread with new appreciation but mostly for his clean prose style.
But I was particularly interested in fiction by women, because almost
all the literary works I had read as an English major had been
written by men, the one exception being those by Virginia Woolf. I
discovered that stories by women included more stories about women,
and I was startled to read, for the first time perhaps since Jane
Eyre, voices that felt so intimate, that brought up questions,
ambiguities, and contradictions common among us, yet I had not seen
them expressed elsewhere.
Being a new writer, I was also intrigued by the craft of it,
the art of the short story. I joined a writers' group. I think that
is where I ceased being a typical reader. I started looking at the
parts and not just the whole story, which is a terrible habit, in a
way. It's like being Dr. Frankenstein, seeing how life can be created
from previously inanimate parts. The Dr. Frankenstein in me would
sometimes act as cosmetic surgeon, determining where the excess fat
of the story was, how a little lift here, a tuck there could improve
the whole. But what did I really know about the essence and bliss of
the story? After all, hadn't another writer in the group criticized
my work for its garrulity, its needless blather?
As a beginning writer and reader, I was still trying to
figure out what qualified as a proper short story versus a prose
poem, an anecdote, a character piece, a novella. I actually thought
there were agreed-upon answers to questions like these: What is
voice? What is story? Does voice determine story or vice versa? How
should characters develop? What are the elements of a good ending?
What are the virtues of short stories in general?
Along with these big abstract questions, I had pragmatic
worries over craft. Why do so many writers these days use the present
tense? Is it supposed to sound like dispassionate stage directions?
What are the pros and cons of using first person, third person, or,
for that matter, second person? Should the narrative follow a
chronological sequence? Or is it more admired (that is, more
intelligent-looking) to jump around, fracture it up a bit, so it
resembles more realistically the way our poor memories actually work?
Then there was this: What is the existential meaning of the
big white space between paragraphs? What is being said by not being
I truly thought that expert answers to these questions would
help me become a better writer. I remember thinking that if someone
could help me deconstruct the stories, figure out what works, I could
then use those principles, tried and true and judged the best, to
methodically write my own stories.
So I read piles and piles of short stories in those early
years of learning to write. And I confess that with some stories I
would arrive at the end with that same sense of epistemological
wonder I have with depressing Swedish films: "Huh?" In other words,
sometimes I just didn't get it. And this led me to believe that my
former professor was right: I was missing some finer aesthetic sense.
Perhaps I was too much of a realist and did not understand
abstractions and fragments. Or perhaps the problem was that I was a
romanticist, and certainly not a postmodernist, or whatever it was or
was not that also made me unable to appreciate, say, a dollop of
paint on a white canvas in a museum of modern art. Maybe I didn't get
the stories because I was trying too hard to understand them. I was
trying to analyze them instead of just reading them, experiencing
them for all the many ways that art can appeal.
Of course, I did get some stories right away, too soon, too
handily, with a herald of French horns and a boink on the head. They
were weighted with epiphany, beginnings and endings that resonated
too neatly or were boldfaced with the import of hindsight.
And with other stories, I noticed a trend of sorts - the
ending that, like those bedtime stories of my childhood, showed that
nothing much changed between the first page and the last. The stories
concerned ordinary people doing ordinary things with just a bit of
inner unease, and an omniscient narrator who provided the precise
details that proved their lives were moving at glacial speed. They
were a Chekhovian type of tale, except that they took place in more
ordinary places and were about more mundane moments. Or perhaps they
weren't Chekhovian after all, since Chekhov always included some
casually observed detail at the end that made the whole story
transcendent, whereas these stories sort of petered out, as if they
had run out of energy. But wasn't that like life itself, or The Sun
Also Rises - this realism of ennui? Maybe that was the effect the
writers were going for. Either that or I just didn't get them.
Whatever the case, ennui was the arty way I ended one of the
first short stories I wrote. I sent it off as an application to my
first writers' workshop at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers.
When my manuscript came up for critique, Elizabeth Tallent, my
assigned leader, asked me in front of eleven other writers why my
story ended with a bank of fog rolling over the coastal mountains as
the narrator is headed for the airport. Naturally, I could not say to
a New Yorker writer that the deadline for submission was May 15 and I
had run out of time and ideas as well as interest. So I said the fog
was a metaphor for confusion, which it was: mine.
I experienced more fog in my reading and writing. But by
continuing to read and write, I gradually changed. It was not through
deconstruction. It was through an awareness that each writer has a
different consciousness, an attentiveness, inventiveness, and
relationship to the world, both real and fictional. I discovered that
the short story is a distillation of the personality of a whole
world. The way a particular writer chooses to experience, edit, and
express that is a matter of taste. And what I liked to read was not
necessarily what I wanted to write. In fact, my reasons for writing
had to do with what wasn't yet there.
I became a much better reader and, I think as a consequence,
a better short story writer, or so I thought. In 1988, I completed my
first work of fiction, The Joy Luck Club, which I wrote as a
collection of short stories. When the book went out into the world,
however, the reviewers called it a novel.
Last October, I was having an awful time writing my fourth novel when
the first batch of forty stories, photocopies of tearsheets, arrived
in the mail for my consideration. Naturally, I worried that my bad
writing might affect my reading. Conversely, I worried that reading
excellent stories would depress me and further undermine my writing.
I worried that my fluctuating estrogen levels would impair the
consistency of my judgment. I worried that I would overlook a
masterpiece and that everyone, including my former professor, would
gasp with rage: "Who is this writer to ignore our country's greatest
writer?" I am still the same worrier I was as a child. I still try to
sort out my worries, categorize them, organize them, find possible
solutions to contain them or make them go away. And they still sit in
my brain like a blood clot waiting to dissipate or explode.
I decided to set up a process that woud enable me to be as
fair as possible. With a hundred and twenty stories to read over four
months, that worked out to a story a day, quite doable and also the
correct way to go about this, I thought. If I read too many stories
at once, I might be comparing them one to the other for the wrong
reasons. So I decided I would read one story each evening, while
sitting in bed. To ensure that I was not susceptible to distractions,
such as a ringing phone or my dogs barking at ghosts, I would wear
headphones and listen to an environmental tape of rainfall. Per the
series editor's recommendation, I would read the stories blind - that
is, with the names of the writers and magazines blacked out. Using
this method, I would keep an open ear. I would not be swayed by
whether the writer was male or female, new or well established, or of
a racial background that one could check on a marketing survey. Not
that I would have such specious biases, but why worry that they might
creep up unconsciously?
After a week, I worried about other biases. That by listening
to rain, I was apt to choose only stories set in stormy weather,
overlooking those with more sun-baked settings. That on days when my
mind was cluttered with crisis, the stories I read were either better
or worse than they really were.
At times, I also found myself trying to scratch beneath the
surface and guess who the writer might be. I was a kid before
Christmas, shaking the gifts to see if I could tell what was inside.
I believed that certain writers' voices were as distinctive as
fingerprints, and I had detected six of them (I was wrong in half the
cases). And if I couldn't guess their names, I thought I could at
least figure out their gender. But then I looked back at a pile of
stories I had already read, and when I tried to discern what traits
might be marked more male or female, I found that in most cases, my
hunches were based only on whether the narrator was a man or a woman
(and later this proved half the time to be a flawed way to guess).
So I broke nearly all the rules, or tried to. My proposed
schedule to read a story a day? That lasted one day. Some rainy
weekends I could not stop myself from reading five or six at a
sitting. It was like eating a box of truffles. The next week I might
go days without reading a single one, caught up in my own work.
But one rule I did abide by, and it was one I did not set for
myself initially. I wound up reading each story from start to finish
without interruption, so that I could sense its rhythm. For me, the
rhythm is in the beats of the first sentence, in the way the story's
pulse quickens or evens, lulls or leaps. And by the end, the story
breathes and exhales with a certain tempo and force, as do I,
depending on how I feel about the story. The act of reading has
qualities similar to those of meditation, aerobic exercise,
lovemaking. Disruptions can cause me to lose the story's focus or its
essence, and at the very least its momentum. For that reason, I feel
the short story is more akin to a poem than a novel in how it should
be read. Its overall effect on me depends on my breathing along from
beginning to end.
I kept this principle while reading in bed, on the plane, in
doctors' waiting rooms, on long car rides in all those places where
most people take time to read a short story in a magazine. But if I
fell asleep before finishing a story, when I awoke I started that
story from the beginning. If the nurse said the doctor was ready to
see me before I was ready, I started the story again after my
appointment. And in January, like fifty million other people
suffering from holiday bloat, I joined a gym and took these stories
along. There I discovered that this is where much of the magazine
reading of America goes on in compressed blocks of time. If I did not
finish a story within the twenty-five minutes I was programmed to be
on the undulating machine, I kept pumping and sweating until I read
the last word. Thus, between reading the first and the last story, I
discovered that good fiction can change you in beneficial ways. I
lost five pounds.
I also found that reading short stories helped my writing. It
sprang me out of the doldrums, and I had the same fervor and
compulsion toward writing that I had had when I started reading
massive amounts of fiction back in 1985. By reading so many stories,
so many voices, I unleashed what propelled me to write fiction in the
first place: finding my own voice and telling my own story. As in
conversation, one story begets another.
But what a curious experience, to read so many stories in a
concentrated period of time, grabbing them in no particular order,
for randomness in fiction can generate its own cosmic connections. A
story about a dying parent would be followed by another story about a
dying parent, a difficult mother by another difficult mother. Pizza
Huts and Domino's Pizzas popped up in clusters like mushrooms after
rain, as did references to the color cranberry and barking dogs,
tourists in India and people falling under ice, reunions after sexual
indiscretions and alcohol-addled sons. There were also many, many
thoughts before dying. Bound together, they might be a codex on the
collective unconscious. Or is that just a result of the kind of
person I am? I tend to connect the dots and find patterns. The
patterns, of course, could be meaningless. In any case, in reading
the stories together, I was conscious that certain ones had similar
images and circumstances, and some appealed to me much more than
In many of the hundred and twenty stories, I also found
elements of fairy tales, the grotesque. Here is where an actual bias
does come in. I was delighted to find these qualities, stunned that
so many stories had them - not so much in the structure, but in the
imagery: the underground worlds, a woman stumbling upon a much darker
version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, a secret place that no
one else knows exists, ghosts in the attic, a tractor that talks. I
saw a similar fairy tale quality in how characters transformed: the
narrator discovers that others are not who they appear to be. The
change occurs not through the wave of a wand, however, but through
death or danger or despair.
There was one other worry I had as a reader. I looked at the
stories I had placed in my pile of favorites. Many had an exotic
flavor to them. Either the narrators were ethnic or the settings were
outside America. I could imagine readers smugly nodding and
saying, "Well, of course she would pick those, mm-hmm." I then looked
at the larger pile of stories I had already decided to eliminate.
Many of those had exotic settings and ethnic narrators as well. And
then I noticed there were a fair number of stories in both piles
about hunters and cowboys and gritty-teethed people living in remote
parts of North America. So what was it about me that would account
for that? I guess I am the kind of reader who has less of a fondness
for the ordinary. Maybe I'm still that kid who wants to see things
I've never seen before. I like being startled by images I never could
have conjured up myself.
By their nature, these were stories with distinctive voices,
voices with interesting things to say. I imagine that was why certain
magazine editors chose them in the first place. Having read a hundred
and twenty stories, I know how quickly stories can blur into sameness
and fall away from memory. The splendid ones are left standing. But
in the end, only the vivid remain. Different does not always equal
vivid, but the converse is certainly true.
For those hoping I might make some observations on the
demographics of this collection and its significance to literary
trends or diversity in American culture or the year 1998, I am sorry
to disappoint. I don't think most literary fiction writers
deliberately set out to write stories that are topical or
representative. Great stories resist generalizations and categories.
For me even to try to guess at how the subconsciouses of twenty-one
writers followed certain patterns would be presumptuous, and I would
likely be wrong. And think how embarrassing it would be if I ran into
these writers at a literary seminar.
So I will leave it to the writers themselves to tell you what
their intentions might have been, if they choose to reveal them.
So why do I think these stories are the best? What do they say about
my tastes? Will they find harmony with yours, the woman in Seoul, my
friends with the movie recommendations?
I love stories that have strong storytelling qualities. By
this, I mean the kind of stories that have a narrative thread pulled
taut by tensions, and this leads to some thought or emotion or clear-
eyed perception. In each of these stories, when I reached the last
page, I felt a change. I did not say, "Huh?" But the stories did not
present their endings with the clang of gongs either. There is
nothing preening or preachy about these stories. Rather, by the end,
each story quietly but perceptibly lifted itself and me out of our
skins. I'm not saying that every story was uplifting like a birthday
balloon let go. The weightlessness was sometimes more akin to a bed
of static, a sudden loss of gravity, a tiny aphid tumbled upward by
wind. Sometimes this began to occur in the last few paragraphs. In
certain instances, it was the last sentence. But always by the end I
found myself suspended just a moment longer by a sense of wonder over
the story's ability to make me feel what I felt. Every single story
in this collection did that for me.
I am also an ardent admirer of prose style. That does not
mean that I always want it to be as fancy as Humbert Humbert's,
though Lolita does count as a favorite of mine for language. Whether
seemingly simple or fancy, the prose I like is one in which
everything is there for a reason - every word, every image, every bit
of dialogue, is needed, adds, builds - and its dexterity is also, in
a way, transparent. Yet it has a generosity to it. There's no
skimpiness. That's the craft part of it for me. While the prose may
seem offhand and effortless, it is imbued with a particular
intelligence and purpose. That higher sense permeates the story, and
only when you leave the story at the end do you realize how palpably
it is still felt. All the stories here gave me that sensation.
What I look for most in a story, what I crave, what I found
in these twenty-one, is a distinctive voice that tells a story only
that voice can tell. The voice is not simply the language, the prose
style, the imagery. It is that ineffable combination of life and lore
that creates a triangulated relationship among the narrator, the
reader, and the fictional world. It may have an intimacy or a
distance, a certain degree of trustworthiness or edginess. The voice
is this hour's guide to eternity and will immerse me in a particular
consciousness, which observes some nuances of human nature and
overlooks others. It is the keeper of forgiveness and condemnation.
It will order perception and juxtapose events and rearrange time,
then deliver me back to my consciousness slightly off-balance.
By the end of the story, what I've witnessed and experienced
as a reader is so interesting, so intense, so transcendent that if
someone were to ask me what the story is about, I would not be able
to distill it into an easy answer. It would be a sacrilege for me to
say it is about survival or hope or the endlessness of love. The
whole story is what the story is about, and there is no shorthanding
it. I can only say, Please read it yourself.
If this collection holds a common thread with regard to my
tastes, it is what I think the best of fiction is by its nature and
its virtues. It can enlarge us by helping us notice small details in
life. It can remind us to distrust absolute truths, to dismiss
clichés, to both desire and fear stillness, to see the world freshly
from closer up or farther away, with a sense of mystery or
acceptance, discontent or hope, all the while remembering that there
are so many possibilities, and this is only one.
The best stories do change us. They help us live interesting
Copyright (c) 1999 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
Introduction copyright (c) 1999 by Amy Tan. Reprinted by permission
of Houghton Mifflin Company.