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That caveat aside, Proulx selects stories from almost all major venues, which makes series editor Kenison's ramblings about on-line mags, none represented, a bit silly. Combative and feisty, Proulx clearly prefers more conventional narrative forms, though the subjects here are free-ranging. Standouts include Jonathan Franzen's "Chez Lambert," a deft piece about an elderly couple and their daily lives in retirement. Equally textured and subtle is Jeffrey Eugenides's "Air Mail," a chronicle of its narrator's post-collegiate Wanderjahr, which takes him to the East and an apparent experience of spiritual ecstasy. Heavily determined by place are Pam Durban's southern family tale "Soon," about the legacies of tough-minded women; Donald Hall's anti-nostalgic "From Willow Temple," spanning the century in Michigan and revealing the secret passions of some unforgiving people; and Alison Hagy's "Search Bay," set on Michigan's Upper Peninsula and neatly reflecting the harsh life of its central figure, a retired seaman who lives alone. Richard Bausch defines the humor here with his hilarious "Nobody in Hollywood," about two wayward brothers and the difficult women they encounter. Karen E. Bender's "Eternal Love" provides a touching counterpoint with its tale of two retarded adults getting married. Michelle Cliff and T.C. Boyle, both writers with heavy hands, consider the ironies of race and colonialism (Cliff) and the pro-life movement (Boyle).
All in all, a strong sampling of what the major magazines (the New Yorker, Paris Review, GQ, etc.) are publishing these days.
Annie Proulx: It's a pleasure to be here. I'm anxious to hear what people have been reading and thinking about.
Annie Proulx: I worked as an editor at Houghton Mifflin for a number of years and I was the in-house editor of the companion volume, THE BEST AMERICAN ESSAYS. Just about the time that I was leaving Houghton Mifflin to have my first child, Shannon Ravenel, who had had this job for 13 years, was ready to step down. So there was this opening, and I applied for the job with a letter to the editor in chief at Houghton Mifflin at that time. The advantage was that I was familiar with the inner workings of the publishing company and with the way an anthology gets put together, and, of course, everyone at Houghton Mifflin knew me and had a sense of my taste in fiction. It was a perfect job for me at that point -- I work from home, and my house is not full of literary journals, but my office is. I have subscriptions to over 300 different magazines and periodicals. And it adds up to about 3000 short stories a year. But apart from my family life, this is my full-time work, so I read each workday. Because of this big project I've been working on, THE BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES OF THE CENTURY, my reading load has been doubled from what it normally is. The challenge for me is not to find the time, but to really stay present and focused on what's in front of me.
Annie Proulx: All of the stories have to have appeared previously in an American or Canadian magazine with some sort of national distribution. They must also be written originally in English by an American or by someone who is making their home in America. The only other rule is that we try not to consider novel excerpts, although they do sneak in.
Annie Proulx: I can tell you who will be editor. Garrison Keillor. And he is just reading the first batch of stories right now.
Annie Proulx: This is something that we request from the authors, and many writers admit to me that writing that short piece is harder than writing the story itself. We began to include these brief essays because we knew that so many aspiring writers read this collection every year and are hungry to know the stories behind the stories. There have been a couple of instances in which I too almost wished I hadn't read the author's discussion of how the story came to be. One in particular was when the author said the story grew out of a writing assignment for class. But for the most part, I think these pieces show the wonderful way imagination can work -- that from a single image or thought can spring an entire tale.
Annie Proulx: I think that the journals are healthy in terms of the quality, but struggling financially and for attention in this mass-market culture. These journals are still a showcase for fledgling writers and offer a chance for both writers and editors to work together in a way that really isn't possible anymore in the slick magazines or in the publishing industry at large.
Annie Proulx: That's a question we find ourselves grappling with almost every year. In the instance of "Xuela," John Edgar Wideman and I both read that story initially without knowing that it would be part of her novel. And Wideman taught that story for an entire semester to a short story writing class. When we did learn that is was an excerpt from her novel, we discussed dropping it, and in fact I urged him to do so, simply because our criteria are clear about novel excerpts. However he felt strongly that the piece had been presented to him as a story, he had taught it as a story, and for him it worked as a story. He also very much wanted another black writer in the collection. And so ultimately the decision was his. As I've gone back and read all of the editions of BEST through this century, I found many, many stories that grew into novels. And I think that it often happens that writers begin to write without knowing where their characters or plots will take them -- that they may finish a story only to find that they are not really finished at all.
Annie Proulx: I think that the current volume, edited by Annie Proulx, is definitely the strongest collection of the '90s. There are a number of new writers, a tremendous range of styles, and a quality of quirkiness and surprise that makes it stand out. The fact that Junot Díaz, a young writer just starting out, appears next to Donald Hall, whose most recent story in BEST AMERICAN was in 1961, suggests the range of the work. And these two stories happen to be my own personal favorites, although they are as different in tone and style as any two stories can be.
Annie Proulx: Well, The New Yorker has to be at the top of the list, much maligned though it has been in some circles. As for literary magazines, there are a number of wonderful magazines that I can't wait to read. Among them are Ploughshares, Epoch, The Paris Review, which not only has wonderful fiction but wonderful author interviews, Calyx, a woman's journal, The Sun, which is a quirky magazine published in Chapel Hill in which many of the readers are also the writers, Doubletake, and Prairie Schooner, to name just a few that are consistently strong.
Annie Proulx: It was not at all intentional. Usually the stories are published alphabetically by author, but Annie Proulx decided to organize them into literary categories, such as "Manners and Right Behavior," "Identifying the Stranger," "Perceived Social Values," and "Rights of Passage." This is an example of the kind of creativity and personal interpretation that a guest editor can bring to bear on the shape of the collection.
Annie Proulx: I wish I knew. It's a surprise to me, but it does seem that every time the publishing industry decides to agree that short stories don't sell, then along comes a collection that surprises everyone -- usually its author more than anyone else -- by becoming a bestseller. It happened ten years ago with Ethan Canin's EMPEROR OF THE AIR, and it happened again last year with DROWN by Junot Díaz. And then for a while everyone tries to figure out what the secret was and how they can make a collection sell as well, only to conclude once again that short stories never sell. THE BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES sells about 100,000 copies a year with very little promotion, which does lead me to think that there is a healthy market for short stories that are well-written and well-published.
Annie Proulx: The editors at Houghton Mifflin and I suggest names of writers we would like to see a guest editor and we try to vary the sensibility from year to year. We asked Annie Proulx and were delighted when she accepted. I don't think Ms. Proulx would have any complaints about her own exposure, given the fact that she writes literary fiction that has been received extraordinarily well, both critically and commercially. I wholeheartedly agree about her talent and feel that the short story that she published in The New Yorker three weeks ago, "Brokeback Mountain," will be the best story I read all year. Of course publishers are more interested in profits than in literary quality, or anything else for that matter. And this creates a gap between what the publishers and the media are trying to shove down our throats and what intelligent readers really wish to read, if only they knew where to find it.
Annie Proulx: He is best known for his poetry, but he is also an extraordinary memoirist, essayist, and Renaissance man. I'm a great fan of all of his work and so was thrilled to find that he has turned his pen again to stories. The story that is in the '97 volume was written at his wife's bedside as she was dying of cancer. It makes it all the more poignant to know that he was able to read this extraordinary work aloud to her before she died. Even in his grief he has continued to produce a beautiful and passionate body of work -- a collection of poems about his late wife, and the finest stories of his long career. I would recommend his book STRING TOO SHORT TO BE SAVED, published in the early '60s, a delightful memoir, and his children's book, OX-CART MAN, which has become a classic.
Annie Proulx: Of the writers who are still up-and-coming or recently arrived, I would include Tobias Wolff, Thom Jones, Andre Dubus, Alice Munro, Baharati Mukherjee, and John Updike, who may well be the master of them all. There are, of course, others whose names were not even known until the last few years but who are already staking out their territory, among them Ha Jin, Lan Samantha Chang, Amy Bloom, Junot Díaz, and others.
Annie Proulx: I do think that is beginning to happen in part because some of our very fine writers are fascinated with the medium and are experimenting with online publication. At the moment, I think that there is more quantity and quality, but this will change as more and more print publications succumb to financial pressures and realize that if they are to have a life at all, it will have to be an electronic one. Personally I will always prefer the printed page to the computer screen, but I have sympathy for the economic situation which may move more and more publications online. Anyone who is interested in online fiction but who does not have the time or inclination to hunt around on the web for it should check out eSCENE, which is an annual anthology of Internet fiction edited by Jeff Carlson, a longtime reader of BEST, who was inspired to do an online version. The location is www.escene.org.
Annie Proulx: It does seem to be true that American writers and readers have embraced this form while writers in other countries have ignored or shied away from it. When I was in Paris two years ago at the Salon de Livre, I was surprised to find that the French really have no short story tradition whatsoever. They feel that to be taken seriously one must write novels. But we have such a grand tradition in the short story, thanks to such masters as John Cheever, Flannery O'Connor, Bernard Malamud, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Eudora Welty, to name just a few, that our writers have grown up with a great respect for the form. They don't make the mistake of thinking of short stories as a kind of literary warm-up exercise. In fact, they aspire to do it justice. I would say that the Irish and the English have as healthy a tradition as we do, and one of the great regrets I have in this job is not being able to consider short stories by William Trevor and other Irish and English writers.
Annie Proulx: Ever since I was a child I found myself drawn to coming-of-age stories, and I have to beware of that predilection as I read. But the kind of story that intrigues me the most is probably the story that tries to deal with serious themes through humor. I think it is a great challenge that many of our writers are afraid to tackle. Perhaps they feel that to be taken seriously, they must be serious, when in fact, if you combine intelligence and humor, you will not only get the readers attention but their undying gratitude as well.
Annie Proulx: Reading all of these volumes was in itself an education in the evolution of the short story in the course of this century. When the series began, in 1915, the world was in every respect a different place and the stories reflected that. I think the thing that strikes me most strongly is the ways the role of the short story has changed since those early years. When Edward O'Brien began the series, people had very few sources of information, not to mention entertainment. Stories were a way of bringing the world into the hands of readers who would never see it themselves, and they were stuffed with visual details, eccentric characters, and wild plots -- all by way of saying, "There are some amazing things going on out there, folks." Well, now we have simply to flick on the TV, the radio, or our computers if we want to be shocked or amazed. The world is in front of us in living lurid color. Consequently, fiction over the course of this century has moved inward. It has become a means of examining the inner life, the tossing and turning of the soul as opposed to the great ebb and flow of humanity. This, of course, is a huge generalization. We've gone from horses and candles to space stations and computers. For example, I was reading a minor Steinbeck story and came across a reference to a train "racing along at 40 mph." Even our idea of speed has changed dramatically, not to mention all those little details of daily life. The old stories are like photographs from the past. We can study them to find out not only how people thought and struggled with the big issues, but also how they passed the time of day. The other thing that I should mention is the fact that these old volumes, and they are still around in some libraries, are a treasure trove of forgotten gems. And I came away from this project with a long list of writers whose work I want to read when I have the time to read for pleasure again...someday.
Annie Proulx: I would be glad to return, and before we sign off, I must correct one misstatement, because I should never have called John Updike a writer who has recently arrived, and I'm afraid I put him in that list. He published his first short story in BEST AMERICAN in 1959 and will coedit THE BEST OF THE CENTURY with me.